San Jose braces for bill criminalizing homelessness

San Jose braces for bill criminalizing homelessness
City workers dismantle a large homeless camp near Columbus Park in San Jose on Sept. 1, 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

When Jade Sweeney surveys the area where she slept in south San Jose just last week, she not only feels sad—she feels violated.

She said her belongings were taken and discarded by city workers following a sweep of her camp. She’s lived in San Jose for more than 50 years and became homeless last year.

“I had everything, and it was reduced to nothing, in such a short time,†Sweeney told San José Spotlight, wiping tears off her face. “And each time I lose something, I feel like I lost it all.â€

It could get harder for Sweeney to find a place to sleep as a statewide effort mounts to criminalize camping in certain locations.

Senate Bill 31, proposed by state Sen. Brian Jones of San Diego, would ban people from sitting on the sidewalk within 1,000 feet of a “sensitive area,†defined as a school, daycare center, park or library. The law would give prosecutors the ability to charge people in violation of this rule with an infraction or a misdemeanor.

Jones first proposed the bill in December, and it had its first hearing on the state Senate’s public safety committee on Tuesday. Legislators have referred SB 31 back to the committee, but the next hearing hasn’t been scheduled.

San Jose prohibits people from setting up tents, structures and personal belongings within 150 feet of a school, and from blocking sidewalks, streets and trails.

Mayor Matt Mahan said the city must clear out homeless camps, but that he doesn’t support criminalizing homelessness. His recent budget proposal calls for more safe parking sitessanctioned encampments and “no encampment zones†in commercial areas like downtown.

“We have to create safe, managed places for people to live and get on the path to self-sufficiency, ranging from shelters and affordable housing to treatment centers,†Mahan told San José Spotlight. “When those placements are available, I support abating, but not criminalizing encampments near schools and other sensitive areas.â€

There are about 6,650 homeless residents in San Jose, according to a count conducted last year. Mahan has a goal to complete construction on 1,000 temporary homes by the end of this year, but city staff said that’s unlikely to happen. State legislators recently decided to audit how San Jose spends it funding on homelessness prevention services.

RJ Ramsey, a local homeless advocate, said SB 31 would effectively criminalize homelessness and doesn’t address its root cause: the lack of permanent supportive and affordable housing.

“Sweeping unhoused individuals with no place to go is cruel and exacerbates the problem by causing the loss of personal property, thereby creating additional financial problems for those who can least afford it,†Ramsey told San José Spotlight. “Sweeps also cause mental and physical trauma as unhoused individuals are simply shuffled around, breaking any sense of community or support they may have established.â€

Ramsey added that through the case of Martin v. Boise, courts have ruled that governments cannot criminalize homelessness without first providing housing or shelter to unhoused people. The case, which began in 2009 and was resolved in 2019, prohibits cities from criminalizing homelessness when they don’t have enough shelter space available.

Enforcing restrictions on encampments like those proposed by SB 31 takes vital resources away from helping people overcome homelessness, Ramsey said.

“Rather than continuing to use scarce public funds to continually sweep unhoused individuals,†Ramsey said, “such funds should be used to provide mental health and other critical services needed by those living on the streets to gain housing.â€

By Sonya Herrera for San Jose Spotlight