December 12, 1992
By Yolanda Reynolds
On Wednesday morning, December 8th, the Santa Clara Water District Board after a sometimes testy discussion between the Board members, unanimously voted to explore the possibility of allowing temporary housing for homeless people in the boarded-up housing along River St. The members of the Board are: Joe Pandit, Patrick Ferraro, Robert Gross, Joe Donahue, James Lenihan, Joe Judge, and Sig Sanchez.
According to Water District staff spokesperson Kay Whitlock, there are approximately 30 properties that will become vacant as the Water District goes forward with a ﬂood control project along the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose. The Student/Homeless Alliance, a local advocacy group for the homeless, is interested in using 12 of the buildings, which are considered in good enough condition with a few repairs, for temporary habitation.
On Thanksgiving day, the Student/Homeless Alliance took over several vacant houses on River St. In answer to charges that the takeover was “trespassing” and that the Water District should have been approached before the fact and not after – Michael Roberts, a graduate student at San Jose State University, explained that; had they known who owned the property, they would have done so.
In addition, Roberts said his group believed that the houses were owned by the City of San Jose. Their assumption led them to believe that after more than three years of talking to the City about the desperate need for housing homeless people, more meetings would be futile — so they moved into the abandoned houses on River St.
A number of homeless advocates, some themselves homeless people, were arrested and booked for trespassing for their takeover of the vacant homes.
Following the takeover, the Alliance asked the Water Board for an opportunity to testify and to present a proposal that would allow homeless people temporary use of the vacant houses.
Will Garbett, speaking on behalf of the homeless advocates, said that the houses could likely be used until 1994, when actual construction will begin on that part of the ﬂood control project along the Guadalupe river.
Garbett added that the actual value of the property was zero… since it was the land that had value, not the houses which are slated for demolition. In addition, he pointed out that the cost of security, now borne by the District, would be saved if the properties were occupied until actual demolition took place.
There was much discussion regarding safety, liability, replacement housing, and the costs associated with rehabilitation of the very old abandoned buildings.
Al di Ludovico, the Executive Director of Housing for lndependent Living (HIP), a non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation and construction of housing for low-income people including those with physical impairments, spoke before the Water Board on behalf of the Alliance proposal.
Al di Ludovico, pointed out that he has been following the Student/Homeless Alliance and is “impressed with the dedication “they have shown to the cause of the less fortunate. He added that he felt that imagination, courage, and a will to put people first would likely result in a positive outcome to the homeless advocates appealing in this instance.
Di Ludovico said that the concern for the cost was misplaced, since the homeless themselves very likely had all of the skills necessary to make the needed repairs, and that others would likely donate some help, as well.
He reminded the Water Board that it took only a few hours for the group to bring electricity into the abandoned homes. He explained that homeless people have far more skills than most people recognize. He also added that HIP has worked on projects for which hundreds of hours of Union Labor were donated, as well.
Di Ludovico was able to allay most of the concerns raised by the Water Board.
The Water Board unanimously voted to have the Water District allow HIP to investigate with the City of San Jose those City requirements necessary for the temporary use of the abandoned houses.
Several speakers, including downtown residents and members of the local Historic Preservation Council Karita Hummer and April Halberstad, reminded the Water Board that the homes were eligible for the National Historic Registry and, as such, were subject to the regulations of buildings that are, in fact, on that Registry.
Such buildings can be relocated and restored and placed in a nearby location, taken to another historic location such as the Historic Museum grounds, or simply photographed and then destroyed. The houses are historic because they date from an early expansion (1860s) of the City of San Jose.
Joshua DuBoss, himself homeless along with his wife and daughter, described the need for additional housing. DuBoss said that he now pays over $500 a month to shelter his family at homeless shelters. He explained that the shelter conditions are so bad that he must live separately from his wife and daughter.
DuBoss explained that they could be together, but that the shelter that did let them be together was terrible. He looked for a better place for his wife and daughter He is charged $85 a week for his bed.
He explained how very difficult it was for him and others with children to stay at shelters where the guests are required to be in by 6p.m.and out the next morning by 8 a.m. — rain, shine, or very cold, and even when they are ill.
DuBoss said that it is heart breaking to see homeless families, especially women, many with more than one child, with no place to stay — struggling with their few possessions and wandering the streets and alleys looking for a spot in which to ﬁnd refuge.
Mayor Susan Hammer, the mother of four children, now all grown, said while campaigning for mayor that, “housing, housing” was her primary concern. Recent the headlines in the local dailies indicate that the mayor’s ofﬁce has supported a ballpark, new digs for a Fortune 500 company, upscale housing, a serpent sculpture downtown, and a pair of ice rinks among many other projects of dubious value — most of which have resulted in an uproar of opposition in the community.
In a gesture that many housing advocates found signiﬁcant, the new mayor appointed Bob Brownstein, a reputed housing advocate, as one of her top aides. Brownstein had enjoyed the reputation of being a strong and vocal housing advocate when he worked as an aide to the former Santa Clara County Board Supervisor, Suzy Wilson.
In his new position, Brownstein’s attention has been taken by one budget crisis after another — while the Redevelopment Agency (City Council) spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a number of costly projects. Most projects, like the restoration of the Fallon House, have run millions of dollars over budget. The yet-to-be-completed Arena, for example, has already exceeded the promised $100 million by more than $55 million.
Scott Wagers of the Student Homeless Alliance opened the morning’s presentation with the observation that it has been estimated that 20,000 people need housing in San José, while at the same time there is an “aggregate number of only 1,400 beds available for homeless people.”
Wagers addressed the “trespassing” of the Water District’s with a quote from St. Augustine, who said, “Necessity knows no law.”
Wagers added that death, despair, and homelessness were the driving forces behind the “trespassing” of his group onto the abandoned, publicly-owned property.
Wagers, in a ﬁnal appeal, pointed out that nationally, women and children account for 28% of the homeless while in San Jose, where housing costs are the fourth highest in the nation, it is estimated that 30-40% of the homeless are women and children.
Some who are homeless are not visible to the casual observer because they try to deal with their situations by living in cars or with friends or relatives — usually in very crowded conditions.
Joe Donahue, a Water Board member told La Oferta Review that, last year, the Board offered other District properties which were affected by the flood control project for the housing of homeless people, but that non-proﬁt organization with whom they spoke at that time declined the offer.
The Water Board was clearly moved by the testimony. One issue on which they were clearly divided was a move to ask that the county District Attorney drop for trespassing charges against the homeless people and their advocates who were arrested on Thanksgiving. That proposal drew a split vote with Sanchez, Lenihan, and Donahue voting against and Gross abstaining. The proposal was requested by several Water Board members, not the Student/Homeless Alliance.
The Water Board asked that HIP spokesperson Al di Ludovico return within a week for a report on conditions imposed by the City of San Jose for the use of these homes for temporary housing. They also said that they preferred that the houses be made available to families, especially women with children.
One nearby neighbor of properties, Sandy Christianson, expressed opposition to the proposal. He says that the Julian St. Inn. a homeless shelter, is already causingserious problems for his neighborhood and that adding more such shelters would only add more problems. He said that the neighborhood already suffers drunken, lewd behavior and worse from patrons of several nearby shelters. He asked that these homes not be used for housing the homeless.
The bad behavior by some adds to the problems of other homeless people, many of whom work and are easy prey to those with evil intent. Some have had very bad luck or have never been able to make ends meet, simply because of the high cost of living here. They do not have enough money to try their luck somewhere else, where living costs are lower. Usually where housing is cheaper, few jobs are available.
Housing for those who suffer bad luck and the high cost of living in this area will continue to be lacking in San Jose—particularly since City officials simple-mindedly pursue their policy of “higher and best use” in assessing the value of existing structures and continue the aggressive demolition of lower-cost housing.
The Student/Homeless Alliance can be reached at 408-448-3137. © La Oferta Newspaper.