After five years of living on the streets of San Jose, Cecilia Martin couldn’t believe her luck in landing an apartment at the city’s first long-term homeless housing site. But it didn’t take long for the new facility, which opened in 2019, to fall into disrepair.
Flooding, fires and cockroaches have since inundated the property, but her biggest worry is the intruders who stalk the hallway to her studio, said Martin, 53, a San Jose native. “I gotta watch my back all the time because you never know,” she said.
A few miles away, Laura Laform, a resident at a former motel north of downtown now used for homeless housing, fears a mold infestation in the aging city-owned building is threatening her health. Laform, 63, is desperately searching for another place to stay.
“It seems like I’m being ungrateful, but I’m watching myself deteriorate so bad,” she said.
Laura Laform becomes emotional while talking about her living situation while outside of a Homekey site at a former motel where she lives in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
The security and habitability concerns raise questions not only about the city’s ability to oversee the two sites — which together house at least 175 people — but also about plans to rapidly double its total homeless housing stock.
The problems, documented in public records and interviews with a dozen residents, come to light as the state undertakes a high-profile audit of the city’s homelessness spending. For the two facilities alone, operators have received tens of millions of dollars in city funding and financing.
State Sen. Dave Cortese, a Democrat representing San Jose who requested the audit, said it’s clear cities don’t have the capacity to manage homeless housing and are “finding out the hard way as these examples are starting to crop up of blighted conditions and habitability issues.”
Until recently, county governments, equipped with larger budgets and public health agencies, had managed most local homelessness programs. But as California’s homeless population has spiked in recent years to an estimated 172,000 people, city officials throughout the state — under growing public pressure to get a handle on the crisis — have begun taking a larger role.
San Jose officials and operators at the two sites maintain they’re making progress in fixing the problems and are committed to ensuring homelessness funds are well spent. They say they’ve learned from the setbacks and are better prepared to scale up efforts to bring the city’s estimated 4,400 unsheltered residents indoors.
“We often don’t allow the government to experiment or admit failure and learn from it,” Mayor Matt Mahan said “But we are certainly heading in a better direction from what I’ve seen.”
Across the Bay Area, homeless housing in cities such as San Francisco, Mountain View, Milpitas, Vallejo and Santa Rosa has had similar issues despite unprecedented billions in state and local homelessness spending in recent years. Even so, experts agree such facilities, designed to offer on-site social services, can be effective in providing residents the stability to take advantage of mental health care, drug counseling or other assistance.
City of San Jose’s housing director Jacky Morales-Ferrand, center left, cuts the ribbon during an event celebrating the opening of Second Street Studios, a new supportive housing development, on Aug. 23, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
On the recommendation of researchers, San Jose, like most of the Bay Area, does not require homeless people to stop using drugs or enroll in programs before moving into housing. That means facilities must be well maintained and able to provide a wide range of services, said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of UC San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.
But staffing and funding shortfalls, combined with a severe shortage of very low-income housing, often leave cities and nonprofits with little choice but to move people into sites that may not be equipped to care for their highest-need residents, Kushel said.
“There’s such incredible scarcity, and there is a compelling need to not turn away people,” she said.
First a ribbon cutting, then setbacks
When Second Street Studios opened four years ago, city leaders celebrated San Jose’s first 100% long-term homeless housing complex as a crucial milestone in the city’s push to end homelessness. But by 2022, repairs for flood and fire damage were draining the facility’s nonprofit owner, San Jose-based First Community Housing, of resources as the site hemorrhaged about $30,000 a month, according to city reports.
Code enforcement records describe some of the damage, notably an explosion “triggered by the improper use” of a portable cooking appliance. City reports also document safety concerns posed by unauthorized visitors, whom residents say make threats to gain entry into the building. Since the start of this year, there have been at least 180 emergency calls in the immediate area near the Spartan Keyes neighborhood to report trespassing, criminal threats, and assault with a deadly weapon, among other incidents, according to police data.
Cecilia Martin shows receipts for police reports she’s filed at Second Street Studios in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Martin, a Second Street resident paying $318 a month in rent, said she’s been assaulted multiple times at the property, adding she often felt safer living in encampments. “There, I can get away. I can move locations,” she said. “Here, you’re stuck in this building.”
San Jose and Second Street officials said the issues partly stem from residents with substance use and mental health disorders. Some tenants also struggle to keep their units clean or safely use kitchen appliances, which can lead to pests, mold and other damage, officials said.
“When you’re in the middle of a building that has really high-needs folks, it’s not simple,” said Katie Fantin, a vice president of Abode Services, Second Street’s service provider, which has a 12-person team assigned to the site.
Despite resident complaints, officials say conditions have improved in recent months, citing building renovations to minimize flooding caused by damaged pipes or appliances, and safety measures such as security cameras. The upgrades were partially funded by a $13 million loan from the city — bringing San Jose’s total investment in the 135-unit property to around $37.5 million, according to city documents.
Roaches caught in an insect trap in a Second Street Studios apartment in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Overwhelmed by challenges
Like Second Street, the transformation of the former Best Western SureStay motel into homeless housing was hailed as a major step forward for San Jose’s response. In 2020, the city received $12 million from California’s $3.75 billion Homekey homeless housing program to help buy and renovate the property, one of the first such state awards.
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But last September, the City Council agreed to sell the aging motel to the Santa Clara County Housing Authority for $1, reasoning the city was “not equipped and staffed to address the magnitude of property management and maintenance needs,” according to city reports.
The housing authority expects to take over the site for redevelopment by the end of the year. But ahead of the hand-off, living conditions appear to have worsened. In July, code inspectors discovered mold, roaches and needed repairs in at least five units.
“It’s just cockroaches, ants and nasty stuff,” resident John Powell said.
Martin Boone holds a sign reading “UNSURESTAY” while protesting with fellow residents of a housing site for senior and disabled residents along First Street on Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
City officials again cited the challenges of housing high-needs residents — who, for now, do not pay rent — for some of the habitability issues, but said bringing the property quickly into compliance is a top priority.
Residents have also complained that on-site staff doesn’t treat them with dignity and respect, with some claiming retaliation after they rallied last month to protest the living conditions.
The current service provider at the site, LifeMoves, which runs facilities across the Peninsula and South Bay and has faced similar accusations in the past, said in an email that it respects “everyone’s right to voice their opinions” and was “not aware of any retaliation at the site.”
Despite problems, more sites in the works
Despite the recent stumbling blocks, San Jose aims to open at least four more Homekey–funded sites offering around 400 units for permanent and temporary-stay homeless housing. The city’s also embarked on a much-publicized plan by the mayor to quickly build around 1,000 tiny homes and prefabricated cabins for short-term stays.
With the state audit results expected toward the end of the year, Mahan remains optimistic the city can follow through on those goals but said he’s not opposed to handing over more of the sites to the county or state. Besides, the city only began creating homeless housing because of “the incredible gaps in the system today,” he said.
Homeless outreach team members work with Mayor Matt Mahan, center, and council member Omar Torres, right, during a count of homeless people in the city on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)