San Jose leader to spend night in homeless shelter.

San Jose leader to spend night in homeless shelter
San Jose Councilmember Omar Torres speaks with dozens of protesters ahead of a hearing
about proposed affordable housing cuts in May 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

San Jose officials are being challenged by a formerly homeless resident to stay in a shelter before voting to open more—and one is up for the offer.

Sketch Oppie, who sits on the San Jose’s Housing and Community Development Commission, recently asked the City Council to experience what a homeless shelter is like before diverting funds for affordable housing to short-term shelters. Oppie believes the dollars should remain for affordable housing because temporary shelters are only one part of the solution.

“Housing is health care, security, hope and a human right. A shelter is limited in time and it takes longer than that to help someone be a human being again,†she said at the May 16 council meeting. â€œ(So I) challenge the mayor and council to stay a night in the shelter. And if you won’t, or don’t want to, then don’t place another human being in one.â€

Councilmember Omar Torres is currently the only official to take her up on the offer, and said he is planning to spend a night at one of San Jose’s quick-build temporary shelters next week. He turned down the option to stay at a congregate shelter, where homeless people sleep on a mat in one big open room.

“It was easy to take Sketch up on her offer,†Torres told San José Spotlight. “It’s been something I wanted to do.â€

Torres, elected last November, said it’s important for city representatives to experience and understand the outcomes of policies they approve. He emphasized he wants unhoused residents to see him as someone who validates their existence.

“I expect to personally witness the impact and contributions of service providers and organizations that directly assist the unhoused community,†Torres said. “By observing these efforts firsthand, I aim able to gain valuable insights into their work and identify opportunities for collaboration and improvement.â€

Oppie said temporary housing, whether it’s a congregate shelter or a personal room, feels like jail for unhoused residents. She knows because she has stayed in them before.

“When you are homeless you barely feel like a human,†Oppie said. “It’s hard to come back to normal life. You need a lot more support, not just a tiny home.â€

She hopes other councilmembers will follow Torres’ lead. Most councilmembers told San José Spotlight they didn’t know it was a formal invitation.

Oppie’s challenge comes weeks before the council’s vote on a new spending plan for $137 million in Measure E dollars. Mayor Matt Mahan and some councilmembers say the majority of these dollars should be spent on immediate solutions. Yet homeless advocates and other officials believe affordable housing development is the better long-term solution. The vote on this divisive issue is set for June 13.

Mahan told San José Spotlight he plans to stay overnight after the budget process is complete, “to give residents an inside view of how effective these quick-build communities are at providing people with the stability, privacy and connection to services they need to turn their lives around.â€

Councilmembers Domingo Candelas, Peter Ortiz, David Cohen and Pam Foley said they’re open to an overnight shelter stay.

“You have to walk in somebody’s shoes, and this is an opportunity to do that, even for one night,†Candelas told San José Spotlight.

Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei said she would love to stay so it can inform her future votes, as long as she doesn’t take a room away from someone who needs one.

However, Councilmembers Dev Davis and Sergio Jimenez said they would decline a stay, with Davis saying she regularly visits the sites. Councilmember Bien Doan’s office said Doan was homeless before, so he understands the plight.

Jimenez said he’s previously stayed in overnight warming centers in his district.

“I have already slept on a mat among homeless people. Interim housing is a step up,†Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “But I understand the sentiment and appreciate how people would say ‘if you are voting on this, you should experience it yourself.’â€

Homeless advocate RJ Ramsey, who is formerly homeless, said an overnight stay is an excellent idea, but one night isn’t long enough to understand the desperation and hopelessness that comes with homelessness.

“(It) will allow them to understand the conditions unhoused individuals experience first hand,†Ramsey told San José Spotlight. “The big difference, however, is that they know at a set date and time they get to return home.â€

Original by Jana Kadah for San Jose Spotlight.