SAN JOSE — In the year since city officials cleared out the notorious “Jungle” homeless encampment that had symbolized grinding poverty amid Silicon Valley’s gleaming wealth, they’ve been working diligently to house and shelter the thousands of down-and-out living on the streets.
San Jose leaders have declared a shelter crisis, removed red tape to allow churches to temporarily house the homeless and started turning motels into transitional housing. But city leaders acknowledge that won’t be enough. And with a predicted stormy winter bearing down, city leaders are considering setting up a new encampment — this time run by a nonprofit with the city’s blessing.
City officials and advocates for the homeless admit a homeless tent city hardly is ideal — permanent housing is always the priority. But with thousands of homeless people sure to be camped illegally along creeks and under overpasses throughout the city anyway, they say a managed encampment is a better alternative.
“Everyone wants permanent solutions and a reduction of people on the streets, but at the same time it’s not happening fast enough,” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, a program of the Health Trust that works to end homelessness. “It’s understandable why people want to focus on viable short-term options.”
The idea’s been tried elsewhere with mixed results.
According to a city report, Fresno and Ventura are believed to be the only current California cities with sanctioned encampments. Ontario had a legal tent city for five years, but nearly all the 127 residents were placed in permanent housing. Portland and Seattle have also opened encampments.
Seattle city officials told this newspaper the two encampments, which opened in November, have been successful at getting people off the streets and away from dangerous living situations. The city paid $100,000 for supplies such as wash stations, storage and portable restrooms and another $150,000 for case management services.
Jason Johnson, deputy director of Seattle’s Human Services Department, said the model works because the city helps each individual find stable housing and uses members of the encampment to provide leadership and security.
“One of the keys to success at the encampment is there is absolutely no tolerance for drugs or alcohol use,” Johnson said.
Local advocates say the challenge is making sure the encampment doesn’t turn into another version of The Jungle, a large tent city that housed up to 300 people before it was broken up last year amid neighbors’ complaints of filth, stench, alcohol and drug abuse.
Locally, the most immediate hurdles are finding a suitable site and a credible organization willing to manage it.
San Jose housing officials are skeptical about finding a nonprofit to manage the tent city, saying two prior requests for proposals to create “new homeless housing programs” got no responses.
But Loving said many local nonprofits have the skills to run an encampment — as long as the city and county help find a location.
Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, which operates six shelters and transitional housing sites in the county, said providing 24-hour security and finding the right location are the top two concerns. But with enough funding, she said, a nonprofit could hire staff to provide support services and manage sanitation to protect the environment — both of which didn’t happen at The Jungle.
“I’m intrigued by the idea because it would be a localized place we can bring services to,” Urton said. “We don’t have to drive all over town looking for homeless people — we know exactly where it would be.”
San Jose housing officials identified 20 city-owned sites as possible encampments earlier this month. Most council members said they’d support an encampment in their district.
Santa Clara County Board President Dave Cortese said the city has a potentially suitable site on Evans Lane, in the Canoas Garden neighborhood near the Cathedral of Faith megachurch.
“It’s not a residential neighborhood per say, but it is close to drug and alcohol services,” Cortese said.
Cortese said the county is interested in a partnership and is prepared to commit “a couple of million dollars” toward managing a legal encampment.
“We would bring the full complement of county resources there to help stabilize people,” he said.
Roughly 6,000 people in Santa Clara County are homeless, with more than 4,000 living in San Jose. The county’s Housing Task Force recently recommended a host of programs to offer immediate and long-term shelter, pegging $68 million toward the effort.
The city is now piggybacking off a county effort to create “unconventional structures” — including legal encampments — to get people off the streets. The San Jose City Council sent a letter last month to the board of supervisors expressing interest in finding a nonprofit to help create and run a pilot encampment.
“We write to provide our enthusiastic support of your plan… especially as it pertains to the exploration of the feasibility of sanctioned encampments,” the letter said.
All but two council members signed the letter — Pierluigi Oliverio and Johnny Khamis. Both worried about public outcry from placing a tent city in their districts.
“If I were to have sent out an email saying that there’s going to be sanctioned encampments, believe me, we could fill this entire room four times over,” Khamis said during a December council meeting. “That would be the amount of passion in the audience.”
Contact Ramona Giwargis at 408-920-5705. Follow her at Twitter.com/ramonagiwargis. Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.