In the buildup to Super Bowl 50, much ado was made of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s comments that the city’s homeless were “going to have to leave” town for the week. Major media coverage of the issue was abundant, thorough, and richly deserved.
Yet, a scant 50 miles away in Santa Clara County—the actual site of last week's big game, and home to one of the nation’s largest homeless populations—it was “don't ask, don't tell” when it came to media coverage on the issue. And the silence was deafening.
Eric Victorino, who plays in local band The Limousines, has been doing his part to shed a light on the matter. Last week, he posted on his Facebook page video footage of a homeless encampment alongside Highway 280’s Seventh Street exit in downtown San Jose, not 10 miles from Levi's Stadium, where the game took place.
Camps like the one in Victorino’s video are common along the region’s major roadways. But for many of the 100,000 or so people visiting from out of town for the Big Game, homelessness is all but guaranteed to remain invisible for the duration of the festivities. Still, Victorino perseveres, posting videos of other encampments across the web.
“People need to see this before the city cleans it up temporarily, putting a Band-Aid on the problem instead of actually fixing it,” he lamented to viewers. “You have all of these billions of dollars here, but nobody seems willing to come up with any type of solution.”
While his assessment might not be entirely accurate, it’s certainly justifiable. In the last several months, there seems to have been a lot of talk among city and county officials about what to do for the region’s nearly 7,000 homeless—but not a lot of action.
Last September, several members of the San Jose City Council issued a memo to Mayor Sam Liccardo with a number of recommendations on how to handle setting up the city for Super Bowl week, including how to handle the homeless.
More reflective of tone than of action, the memo encouraged the mayor to “maintain the basic civil rights of our homeless population … with dignity and compassion,” and it stressed that any plans to deal with the issue first be brought before the attention of the council.
And so they were. Shortly after the memo was released, San Jose, in conjunction with the county, approved plans to expand shelter space and public services for the area’s homeless.
More than $13 million was allocated to purchasing and/or renovating hotels and motels for temporary shelters and long-term housing, and another $3.8 million went to expand ongoing programs.
Smaller amounts were also dedicated to more experimental programs, among which was the idea of legal campground for the homeless. Cities like Phoenix and Seattle have tested the idea with limited success. It’s hardly a perfect solution. But, as part of a coordinated effort involving things like housing, rehabilitation and job training programs, sanctioned homeless camps have great potential.
Meanwhile, inclement weather and the looming presence of Super Bowl week demanded more immediate action. In December, the city declared a “shelter crisis,” which suspended some restrictions on housing standards to turn public buildings and churches into temporary shelters.
Nearly half a million dollars was dedicated to San Jose nonprofit HomeFirst to manage the crisis program, enough to house 100 people a night for 30 days across a variety of locations. That in itself was a significant accomplishment, although not without condition: the city's program was sanctioned to activate only during National Weather Service alerts for extreme conditions, which in this region are intermittent at best. There's been no word since as to the success of the program, or whether it remains active.
During this time, the idea of sanctioned encampments was raised once again, with four out of the six members of the City Council signing on to the idea.
“There's a lot of good reasons not to do it,” Councilman Don Rocha told reporters at the time. “But what we're doing now, in my opinion, is not enough.”
Councilman Chappie Jones seconded the motion. “We have programs that will address the issues...[b]ut we have an immediate crisis,” he told the press. “The homeless population doesn't have the time.”
Mayor Liccardo, however, was resistant to the idea, citing failures in Sacramento and Seattle as arguments against sanctioned encampments. “My concern about this idea is it has not worked. … The question is, are we going to make people more safe or less safe?”
The mayor’s claims were dubious.
Sacramento claims to have never operated a sanctioned encampment; in 2009, an encampment sprung up unannounced on public land operated by a local utility company, and was summarily broken up by city officials. Furthermore, Seattle's first city-sanctioned encampments had only been open for a few weeks at the time of the mayor’s comments, with the program showing considerable and immediate promise.
“[Sanctioned encampments] offer them a safe and hygienic place to stay,” Anthony King, a volunteer with Silicon Valley De-bug, told reporters at the time. “They can focus on other things like finding a job or concentrating on their housing search.”
In addition, heightening the concentration—and thereby, the visibility—of the area’s homeless population, while a legitimate health and safety concern among city officials, could be critical in bringing more attention and resources to bear in dealing with the crisis.
Nonprofit organizations have until Feb. 16 to submit proposals for sanctioned encampments to the city or the county. How long it will take to implement the solutions that are chosen remains to be seen. In the meantime, the city’s homeless will continue to band together whenever they can, wherever they can.
“People don't evaporate,” Robert Aguirre, a former resident of ‘The Jungle’ homeless encampment, told the website Upvoted last month. “You can’t put them on a shelf and wait five years to figure out what you are going to do with them.”
This article has been updated.