By Tara McHugh, Coordinator of SJPJC
During this crisis, there has been an overwhelming public sentiment of “we’re all in this together as we shelter-in-place” – but this concept of “we” is inherently exclusionary. Have “we” considered the people who don’t have the privilege of shelter? The people who do not know the full extent of this pandemic because they do not have access to the news or other resources that would educate them on the situation? The people who are too concerned about their daily survival to consider the impacts of a contagious novel coronavirus ravaging the rest of the world?
On March 19th, Governor Newsom issued an order for “all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence” to preserve the public health and safety of all Californians in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. This order was a directive to ALL Californians, and yet it dismissed upwards of 150,000 Californians experiencing homelessness including almost 10,000 of them living in Santa Clara County.
I was outraged but unsurprised to discover that unsheltered individuals are not included in the Center for Disease Control’s list of people who are at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Living without consistent access to sufficient shelter, food, and transportation would leave anybody at a high risk of contracting the illness. This is particularly true for people who may not have the appropriate resources or information regarding prevention of the spread of a contagious virus. Many individuals experiencing homelessness live in environments where social distancing is unrealistic, such as in overcrowded shelters or encampments. They may not be aware of the face-covering policy and they may not have the resources to frequently wash or sanitize their hands. The exclusion of the homeless population in emergency response only further emphasizes the alienation of this significant number of people who are most vulnerable.
The City of San José and Santa Clara County have been unclear and inadequate on the implementation of protection for people who are unhoused during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their plans for providing shelter to those who need it most make impressive headlines, but in reality, they have failed to put these plans into action.
Almost 700 hotel and motel rooms have been acquired for sheltering vulnerable unhoused people across the county, yet only a fraction of them have been occupied after 2 months since the stay at home order went into effect. In March, the City received over 100 trailers from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services which were placed in the east parking lot of Happy Hollow Park & Zoo. Finally, during a City Council meeting on Tuesday May 12th, city officials approved a measure to open the trailers for use starting on May 14th.
I tuned in to the City Council meeting on May 12th to hear the discussion regarding Measure 8.4: Actions Related to Temporary Sheltering Operations and Services for COVID-19 Emergency Response. What I heard was disconcerting to say the least. Of the 104 FEMA trailers that were provided by the state, only 90 of them are fit for use as determined by the city’s investigation. Representatives from the city’s Housing Department claimed that the reason the trailers were not provided for use until two months after they were received is because they had to undergo repairs, such as broken countertops or broken electrical hookups. It was astounding to me that people who are at high-risk for contracting COVID-19 have been living under blankets and tarps for two months when they could have been living in trailers, unexposed to the conditions of the outdoors at an extraordinarily lower risk. Even if there were only 90 of 104 trailers up to the standards as determined by the city, why haven’t they provided shelter in those 90 trailers up until this week?
Use of the trailers are up to the discretion of state mandated requirements. Individuals must have tested positive for COVID-19, must be exhibiting symptoms and waiting on results from a test, or they must be at high-risk as determined by the CDC. People living in the trailers must comply with the shelter-in-place order, are not permitted to have any guests or visitors, and must undergo daily temperature checks and health screenings. Occupancy of the trailers will be progressing in phases, starting with only 30 trailers being occupied, and then 30 more when the city officials determine it is appropriate, then 30 more after that. The area surrounding the trailers will be fenced off with 24/7 private security and a controlled entrance, which to me sounds more like incarceration than housing.
It was discouraging to hear city councilmembers prioritizing plans for the reopening of Happy Hollow Park & Zoo before any people are even occupying the trailers. Above all, what was most disturbing was the response of the San José residents that called in. I heard a woman speak about how she was outraged that nobody considered the likelihood that an unhoused person sheltered in one of these trailers would break into the zoo and infect the animals in the exhibits with COVID-19. Why didn’t anybody think of the animals!? Other callers were concerned with the safety and security risks this temporary shelter could have on families with children who want to visit the zoo after being forced to stay in their homes. Privileged people who have been able to shelter throughout this crisis are more concerned with their personal recreation than the survival of their unhoused neighbors. Another caller cited the fact that he pays taxes as an example of why his opinion has more weight than someone advocating for the wellbeing of unhoused people who need vital care and shelter during this ongoing crisis.
On Wednesday, May 13th, I took part in a protest – a “die-in” – to symbolize the lives that were lost during the local government’s inaction over the past two months and the lives that will be lost if their attention is not provided to the most vulnerable in the county. We dressed in black and carried tombstones bearing the names of unhoused individuals that died in 2019. When we arrived at the gates of Happy Hollow Park & Zoo, we laid down the tombstones and “died” around them. As we were wrapping up our protest outside of Happy Hollow Park & Zoo, a representative of the contractor being paid to operate the shelter trailers was leaving the gated area and stopped to inquire why we were protesting. We explained to her why we were there, and I pointblank asked her “Are 30 people moving into these trailers tomorrow?” She could not provide an answer.
I learned a lot from advocates of people who are unhoused during the planning of the die-in. Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 Housing Crisis phone line, which is promoted to help individuals get into shelters, has been ineffective in providing a resolution to people’s outreach and concerns, often leading to a dead end. People are being told that there are no shelter beds available while the City and County highlight their expansion of the temporary housing and shelter capacity during this time. It is unclear who to hold responsible for the inadequate emergency response because officials seem to think they have done enough. City and County officials are making strides to re-open businesses and get people back to work without consideration for the safety of those who continue to be at high-risk.
It is reprehensible for the City of San José and Santa Clara County to make all accommodations for providing shelter to these vulnerable people, and then fail to implement their publicized plans. Our unhoused neighbors are dying in the streets, creeks, cars, and shelters, and “we” are concerned about when our next haircut will be.
URG (Unhoused Response Group) has distributed over 1,000 COVID Kits containing coronavirus safety information, hand sanitizer, masks and more to unhoused individuals across the county, and they are tirelessly working to assemble and donate more.
YOU CAN HELP by donating to their efforts at: PayPal.me/GraceSolutionsSJ with a memo line that states “COVID Kits”
or by sending checks or cash to: COVID Kits
C/O Grace Solutions
484 E. San Fernando Street
San Jose, CA 95112.