Councilman Peralez Undeterred by Critics of Permanent Housing Project by Saint James Park

San José Inside  March 4, 2016

When it comes to popular support for housing the homeless, there are two types of people: those who want it, and those who want it somewhere else. That was apparent at a community meeting I attended last week night at Trinity Cathedral, where plans were discussed to build a permanent supportive housing project on North Second Street and Julian Avenue in downtown San José.

“I just wonder if you had considered Hedding Street, between Spring and Coleman,” one woman suggested as an alternate location for the project. “Sure, it's near the airport landing area, but I'm sure it’s cheap. It would give room for your excellent program, make it even larger than it is.”

“The housing was demolished in that area because of the landing path,” replied downtown Councilman Raul Peralez, who is a firm supporter of the housing project. “That site wasn’t looked at because you can’t put housing there.”

The woman didn’t seem convinced. “Has there been any instance of changing the FAA rules?”

Peralez shook his head. “No.”

“Why not?” she asked.

The councilman couldn’t help a bewildered chuckle. “I couldn't give you that answer,” he said. “I don’t work with them.”

Other residents were more blunt in their criticisms of the project. An older gentleman complained: “I think you're not really helping them, not really instilling any pride, because there’s nothing for them to do.

“You say you don't want to encourage people to hang out in the park so they can get this good free housing,” he continued, “but doesn’t that give them an incentive to, you know, just be there?”

“There is no ‘free’ housing,” replied Megan Colvard, director of People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), the nonprofit group managing the project. “PATH teams are in the park five days a week addressing homelessness. The individuals that we have been able to link to county housing subsidies come from interactions and engagements in Saint James Park.”

The man responded, “If other people see what you’re doing, they’ll say, ‘well, I’ll just hang out at the park, too, so I can get this free housing.’”

Colvard responded with a hint of exasperation. “This project is geographically targeted to help us identify individuals early enough to begin working on housing them. We’re aware of every individual that’s in that park, and we’re working with them, I can assure you of that.”

Not everyone was resistant to the housing plan, however.

An older woman chimed in, “I’d just like to say that I think it’s a wonderful plan. Much better than all the halfway houses, where they get their drugs and turn around and sell them on the street.”

“History is prologue,” one man stated. “I used to help [homeless] people for 30 years. For a long time, we’ve tried to solve the problem of homelessness in Saint James Park. The project [PATH] built in San Diego reduced the number of homeless in the park significantly, and that’s why they built it close to the park. They have an incentive, and it’s much more effective.”

PATH has a storied history of building housing units like the current proposal. As their first entry into the Bay Area, hopes for the project are high—but so are expectations. Colvard seemed well aware of the gravity of the situation.

“We’re prioritizing those with highest acuity, that have been on the streets for many, many years,” she said. “They’re the individuals that we see and interact with probably every day. PATH is an agency that, in the last three years, has housed 6,000 people this way.”

She added, “We're working on ending homelessness, not just managing it.”

PATH has been operating in the park since October 2015, doing an incredible amount of reconnaissance to determine the precise extent to which permanent supportive housing can be achieved neat Saint James Park, while helping hundreds of needy people along the way.

In addition to containing 78 units of permanent and interim supportive housing, the proposed complex will provide spaces for a variety of outreach services for residents, including counseling and job training, as well as public spaces for residents to hold events. There are even plans for a rooftop vegetable garden. Many in the crowd Monday night approved of the supportive services integration, as well as the emphasis on communal living.

“I can't imagine anything better than going there and maybe volunteering and getting connected,” one woman said. “That’s how we understand people who are in different situations.”

PATH expects to have the complex completed by Spring 2018, and Councilman Peralez seems optimistic that everyone will get on board as time goes on.

“Certainly, it is a polarizing issue,” he told me after the meeting. “[But] it hasn’t been, ‘I just don't want it.’ The consensus has been more on location rather than anything else.”

He added, “I like the location it’s at, and I’m going to support and champion it. Everyone here that is living in downtown, whether you’re living in a house or you’re living on the street, you’re part of the community.”

Peralez has worked closely with PATH since they first arrived in San José, and he’s confident in their ability to reduce homelessness in the downtown core. “I'm not coming in blindly and saying, ‘hey, let’s just pick any old group,’” he said. “We're picking a group that has done this before. [PATH] has already had tremendous success in our downtown, so they’ve proven themselves before the project is even built.”

Despite his optimism, Peralez knows bringing this project to fruition will prove difficult. Several neighborhood stakeholders, like the Saint Claire Club and the Mazzetti Law Firm, have already expressed strong opposition to the project. “There was one major group meeting at Mazzetti Law Firm to discuss it,” he said. “There was a sentiment of, ‘you’re not looking out for the community.’ I told them that everyone here that is living in downtown, whether you’re living in a house or you’re living on the street, you’re part of the community.”

“After we get past the difference of opinion of ‘I want it, I don’t want it,’ it boiled down to concerns about certain aspects of it,” Peralez continued. “But that’s what these meetings are for. “How we make sure this project is safe, how we make sure that it provides for the residents that are there, how we make sure it’s a good neighbor.”

He doesn’t expect formal opposition to the project to relent.

“The wise path to take is to expect all opposition,” he said. “The individuals that I met with at Mazzetti Law Firm understood that we stand on different sides, and they stated that this is something they are going to fight that until the end.

“I don’t know if that’s going to mean a lawsuit or not, which is why we’re doing it as open as we legally can, and we’re engaging the community. We’re willing to have those battles should somebody want to speak out against it.”

Some conversations at the public meeting held Monday, Feb. 22, were condensed for brevity and clarity.—Editor