We remain absolutely dumbfounded and saddened by the latest action of the city in purportedly aiding the homeless population during this deadly pandemic.
The city’s decision to “demobilize” FEMA trailers at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo set up for the unhoused during the COVID-19 pandemic can only be summed up as a shameful debacle lacking any transparency.
The 90-trailer site was set up for some of the homeless who arguably are the special needs population most susceptible to the deadly virus.
Yet, from start to finish it is evident that the city had no clue on how to manage the trailers provided by the state, nor help the homeless residents who temporarily occupied them—perhaps this is why they maintained the trailers in secrecy, never letting in media or visitors, even when they were empty.
The state provided the approximately 120 trailers to the city in March to provide transitional housing for the most vulnerable homeless. Of this number, presumably only 90 trailers were deemed habitable due to maintenance problems.
The city, however, has failed to allow an independent investigation of all of the trailers, to ascertain whether the trailers were indeed uninhabitable or salvageable. Perhaps this is a place for City Auditor Joe Rois to step in.
With the onset of the pandemic and the shelter-in-place (SIP) order, the goal changed to housing homeless individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, were exposed to the virus or had three underlying conditions.
Despite establishing a telephone hotline (known as the “6420 number”) for gaining temporary residence in the trailer park or a hotel, it was an exercise in futility in reaching anyone who could provide a consistent or timely answer assuming anyone answered. Several of our members called the hotline. Most of their calls were not returned. Others ended in futility, denial of services, one death and a mental health emergency. Thus, it remained a complete mystery how to get an unhoused person into a trailer or hotel.
The 90 trailers presumably deemed habitable remained empty from March until May.
Following a protest by various homeless advocacy groups on April 30, approximately 37 homeless individuals were subsequently housed in 30 trailers with Abode Services, a nonprofit homeless services provider overseeing the project. The city contracted with Abode at a cost of $730,000.
Because the majority of trailers went unused, we met with representatives from Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office on June 15 to discuss the situation. Unbeknownst to those meeting with the mayor’s office, representatives failed to disclose that trailer residents had been evicted earlier in the day. Rather, the representatives stated that when it became necessary to remove the trailers, residents would be moved to so-called tiny homes or permanent supportive housing.
What is so, however, is that homeless deaths have doubled under Mayor Liccardo and we worry what will happen to our homeless brethren when the tsunami of pandemic homeless start to hit the streets in July if he doesn’t take stronger steps to prevent it.
Due to alleged ongoing maintenance issues and high general upkeep costs, residents were essentially swept (formally referred to as an eviction) from the trailers after just three weeks. While some were then temporarily housed in motels, others were seen returning to the streets. The cost for this social “experiment” (to quote San Jose Deputy Housing Director Ragan Henninger) at the expense of homeless individuals reportedly cost the city $1.2 million dollars. It cost the homeless people involved even more.
The city informed these homeless individuals that they would be housed at least until October, maybe as late as January 2021 with plans to transition them to permanent supportive housing. Relying on this promise, homeless residents uprooted themselves from encampments and brought all their personal belongings to the trailer park to reside in the trailers deemed habitable. They put their faith, trust, and lives in the hands of the city. Yet, without any warning and contradictory to earlier promises, these individuals were essentially swept after just three weeks and homeless again.
The city and Abode concluded that it was in everyone’s best interest to close the trailer park. Seriously? Yes, it was in the best interests of the City to remove itself from a so-called experiment it was ill equipped to handle. Yes, it was in the best interests of Abode who already had a $730,000 contract for its three weeks of service. Yes, it was in the best interests of Councilwoman Maya Esparza who made it clear she wanted the homeless out of there as quickly as possible.
In the best interests of the residents who are again homeless? Not so. In the best interests of the residents whose trust was broken again and future’s uncertain? Not so. In the best interests of the 2,500 highly vulnerable people who are still unsheltered, battling a useless hotline number? Not so. In the best interests of the other 7,500 homeless people that health experts advise should be sheltered? Not so.
There is a moratorium right now on taking homeless people to jail for non-violent arrests and warrants due to the pandemic. Why not keep that in place to prevent homeless people from being constantly harassed by the San Jose Police Department and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department?
Homelessness isn’t a crime, but local cops really goes out of their way to make it so.
According to the CDC’s “Interim Guidance on Unsheltered Homelessness and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for Homeless Service Providers and Local Officials “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The city has largely followed this guidance and we encourage them to do so until the end of the pandemic (not SIP), including aiding in the creation of sanctioned encampments.
The CDC guidelines goes on to state: “Work together with community coalition members to improve sanitation in encampments. Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day.”
This did not happen, as city restrooms were closed while temporary hygiene stations frequently lack water and soap and were not placed where needed. We hope the city steps up before the second spike because people’s lives are at stake.
At least 164 homeless people died on the streets of Santa Clara County last year and this year, like each year before it, there will likely be significantly more who die.
Perhaps the county can inspect the trailers and, if they’re habitable, take them over to prevent more needless deaths and prevent the city from storing what could be lifesaving homes for incredibly vulnerable people. These are the costs we should be focusing on.
Stand with us when we say Homeless Lives Matter.
Raymond Ramsey co-authored this piece with other members of Second Street Voices, Sunnyvale Client’s Collaborative and Survivors of the Street (SOS). Second Street Voices is an advocacy group made up of formerly unhoused people who now reside at Second Street Studios, the first permanent supportive housing in San Jose. Sunnyvale Client’s Collaborative represents the unhoused people who live at the Sunnyvale shelter. SOS represents current and formerly unhoused people.