SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — In San Jose, the fight to end homelessness continues as the city grapples with finding solutions to avoid displacing individuals through sweeps.

City leadership is now looking to convert some homeless camps into “humanitarian zones” or “sanctioned encampments” by providing support and hygiene services. 

“I think the preference was to sanction existing encampment locations because there’s already a sense of community in that group living outside, they take care of each other, many of them already have some form of self-governance,” says Regan Henninger, deputy director of the Housing Department. 

“It’s a pretty complex issue and so I think that’s what we’re trying to lay out to city council is the complexities to be addressed in whatever policy we develop.” 

As the economy starts to pick up in light of COVID cases dropping, the city plans to continue  with sweeps around sensitive areas — in and around schools, waterways and public right of ways. 

Councilmember Raul Peralez and fellow city officials proposed creating a temporary sanctioned encampment on publicly-owned sites to allow individuals to shelter-in-place. 

Over the last 6 years, Peralez has pushed for sanctioned encampments but has not been able to get the idea up and running. 

“This was another effort that I pushed back in March to ask that we explore this as we exit the pandemic and as we know we have a number of encampment sites that have been occupied for well over a year,” says Peralez. 

“Sites that we have been providing extra services like port-a-potties, hand washing stations, dumpsters, and regular trash pick up, outreach services, and what we’re essentially jumping back into are just abatements.”  

A BeautifySJ worker assisting an unhoused individual in San Jose, Ca.

On Tuesday, councilmembers voted unanimously to hold off on the sanctioned encampment program. 

City officials say the city doesn’t have the capacity to carry out a sanctioned encampment program. 

“What we did last night we enhanced that by saying that we would be looking at a notification of anywhere between 60 to 90 days before we may abate what we call these SOAR sites,” says Peralez. 

“That’s obviously much better than we give today which is a 72-hour notice and essentially would give a little bit more assurance to those individuals that are living there and it would justify our added support in the area because we’re putting some efforts into those areas to try and help those individuals.”

In response to the needs of the city’s homeless population, the Housing Department created the Services Outreach Assistance and Resources (SOAR) program, operating directly at encampments based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The SOAR program, in partnership with BeautifySJ, has been providing comprehensive street-based support services to homeless individuals throughout the city since the onset of the pandemic. 

“Right now it’s estimated that there’s 4 or 5,000 unhoused residents in the city of San Jose, there are many of our neighbors who are living out in the streets and we have to figure out a way to coexist,” says Neil Rufino, assistant director for the city of San Jose’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services. 

“Our approach in working in this world is really to look at everyone as individuals and approach it through empathy and work toward an area where we can as an entire community understand the challenges that we have to try and come up with some solutions that work for everyone.”

City officials are set to return to the city council with a report on the effectiveness of incorporating sanctioned encampments and if it would be a more viable option over the city’s ongoing support services like the SOAR program.