Nearly 400 people turned out for the Feb. 13 virtual community meeting about plans to construct temporary homeless housing in Santa Clara. Santa Clara County wants to build the housing on a vacant lot at the corner of Benton Street and Lawrence Expressway. But many residents say, the lot is used frequently for church parking and during the holidays, it becomes a pumpkin patch and Christmas tree lot.
“This is not a vacant land…Church uses it every weekend for the overflow parking and three months out of the year, this is our beloved pumpkin patch and the Christmas tree lot. So, it’s not an unwanted vacant land,” said Vishal.
He was one of many residents who could not understand why the County and the City of Santa Clara would choose a location so close to local schools like Laurelwood Elementary and Santa Clara High School, as well as another homeless housing location at the Bella Vista Inn on El Camino Real.
“We have not seen an impact on the community of that Bella Vista Inn shelter,” continued Vishal. “So why [is] one area being chosen to build two shelters, on the two opposite ends? If I go left, I feel unsafe. I go right, I feel unsafe.”
Other community members questioned the forethought agencies put into choosing the location.
“Have you counted how many children walking through the street to their schools every morning?” asked one community member. “They go past this site every day? How would you protect the young children going into the elementary school or going to the high school?”
Others say it’s the type of housing that’s frustrating.
“Your intentions are very honorable and you’re trying to do the right thing. No question about that. But I think that there are some nuances to this,” said Sanjeep. “We’re fully supportive of low-income housing on a more permanent basis because once residents live in a place for a longer period of time, they’re also incentivized to be more cooperative and engage more with the community and work for the collective good. But when you have a transient population, and especially the one that’s described as more than half being drug addicts, for example, that is concerning.”
While seemingly in the minority, some community members spoke in support of the plan.
“My experience is that poor people, really are, on average, nicer than rich people,” said Diane Harrison. “So, I am happy to have them in my neighborhood. I want them in our neighborhood and I want to help them get housing.”
Temporary Homeless Housing Proposal
County staff selected the site on direction from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. The Board directed staff to identify county-owned parcels for interim housing specifically in Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Campbell, Gilroy and San Jose.
“This is the property that county staff have identified in the City of Santa Clara. It is an underutilized parcel that could be made available for interim housing,” said Consuelo Hernandez, Director of the Office of Supportive Housing. “From our perspective, there is an alignment with what the City is wanting to do, and the direction that the board has given staff to partner with cities and identify properties for interim housing.”
County staff says from 2019 – 2022, Santa Clara County saw a 3% growth in the unhoused population. Over that same period, the City of Santa Clara saw a 35% growth. According to recent numbers, there are 769 unhoused individuals affiliated with the City.
The goal of the temporary housing is to try to get people to “permanently exit” homelessness. However, it comes with challenges. Staff admits that 57% of the unhoused population in Santa Clara has a serious physical or mental health condition and 50% are chronically homeless.
Despite this, City staff says temporary housing like this is essential.
“If you think of housing as a sort of a ladder with rungs on it, similar to the supportive housing system, you do need that rung between being on the street and waiting for a permanent placement,” said Adam Marcus, Housing Manager at the City of Santa Clara.
Marcus says one of the big challenges for the unhoused population is traveling across the county. Placing a shelter where people are makes a big difference.
The County says priority will be given to Santa Clarans first.
“In the case of interim housing, we have the opportunity to partner with the host city to target and outreach specific areas in the city where we see more unsheltered individuals and kind of focus on that first,” said Hernandez. “As the site continues to operate, then we do want to take people that are calling from the county’s centralized hotline. But always keeping in mind, if there’s an opportunity to take people from the specific host city that that’s our goal.”
None of this is a done deal. The issue will reach the Santa Clara City Council in April. It must also be approved by the Board of Supervisors before it can move forward.
Only if it is approved will the City and County begin outlining the rules for the site such as whether it will be open to people with criminal backgrounds, whether there will be a curfew, parking, etc.
This was the first of three community meetings designed to outline the plans for the site. The County will hold in person meetings on March 1 at 6 p.m. and March 9 at 6 p.m. Both meetings will be at Mission City Church at 1290 Pomeroy Ave.