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San Jose’s rising homeless numbers prompt ‘tough love’ plan

SAN JOSE — In the wake of the clean up of a large tent city near the Guadalupe River last week, the San Jose City Council will discuss Tuesday the next steps that should be taken on the emotionally charged issue of homelessness.

A memo from Councilman Sam Liccardo — and cosigned by Mayor Chuck Reed, Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and Councilman Don Rocha — offers sweeping proposals and is asking city staff to formulate a multipronged plan that helps reduce the number of homeless in the city.

“It’s apparent to anyone who has walked through our parks, along creek trails or on the streets of our business districts that homelessness has exploded,” Liccardo said Monday. “We’re trying to find a strategy that balances the need for rapid rehousing while also applying a tough-love approach to the people living in our parks, creeks and streets.”

The wide-ranging memo advocates a variety of approaches that include more affordable housing, increased enforcement of the encampments as well as trying to better focus faith-based groups who, while well-meaning, could be enabling people to live outside rather than getting them indoors.

Any solutions will require more money as the city goes through the current budget process. No dollar figure is attached to the memo. But it asks for funding for a two-year financial commitment to the Down Streets Team as well as expanding involvement in the Housing 1000 program to get chronically homeless into permanent homes.

The memo also recommends that city staff explore increased efforts with Santa Clara County, Caltrans, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and other regional agencies to develop a collaborative, cost-sharing strategy to reduce the scope of homelessness.

Liccardo agrees with advocates who say allocating resources to get people off the streets is a wise investment because transients can cost the public more, long term, in public services like emergency-room visits and jail stays.

“There’s some great savings to be had by spending some money today in order to save tens of thousands of dollars that we don’t spend tomorrow,” Liccardo said. “The cost now will pale in comparison to the cost due to inaction.”

According to a 2011 Santa Clara County survey, 7,000 people are homeless on any given night. Of that figure, about 2,500 were categorized as being chronically homeless. A new census recently was conducted, but those results aren’t expected to be released until the spring.

It’s estimated there are 60 encampments in San Jose. The cleanup of the Spring Street tent city on Friday drew widespread attention because it numbered more than 100 people and was visible in open fields beneath the Mineta San Jose International Airport flight path. Several homeless interviewed before the sweep indicated they simply would just move on to other encampments.

The human tragedy of homelessness also was evident at a December ceremony held by EHC Lifebuilders at the Boccardo Reception Center where 39 people who died on the county’s streets last year were remembered.

But at the same time, city residents have become increasingly frustrated with the growing problem of encampments. Last year, cleanups were temporarily halted as the city figured out how to comply with laws dictating that possessions of value belonging to homeless be kept at least 90 days.

While the size of encampments might not have grown, the amount of trash did. There also is mounting concern about crime associated with these makeshift villages. Residents loudly have made their voices heard, and now officials are reacting.

Jennifer Loving, the executive director of Destination: Home, which oversees the Housing 1000 campaign, said last week that the efforts to get people in permanent housing depends on money.

“It all comes down to resources,” Loving said. “We’re housing as many people as we have resources for right now.”

Liccardo acknowledges that there is “something to make everyone unhappy” in the proposals. There is a call for tighter monitoring of encampments — a sensitive issue when the police force is shrinking.

The memo also suggests there should be prohibitions on feeding people without health and other permits. Faith-based groups often feed homeless on the weekends.

“We’d love to have their passion and assistance in helping people who have been placed in housing in getting food, furniture, cooking utensils,” Liccardo said. “Those are ways to help people stay off the streets.”

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.