A new state bill would give the Santa Clara Valley Water District expanded authority to help thousands of homeless people living along creeks, streams and other district lands find housing and services.
District officials say Assembly Bill 1469 would add language to the district's governing act specifying it can assist unsheltered people, allowing it to play a more active role in addressing the deepening homelessness crisis in Santa Clara County.
The bill, authored by local Assemblymember Ash Kalra and sponsored by Valley Water, passed in the Assembly unanimously on Monday, and will next head to the State Senate, though it's unclear when it might go for a vote.
Jim Beall, a Valley Water board member since December and a longtime South Bay leader, said under the current law, the district isn't allowed to do much more than clean up trash and debris along the creeks where homeless people live, costing about $2.4 million per year.
"We can't just ask (other government agencies) to do all the work on this, we have to participate and get involved in a more proactive way," Beall told San Jose Spotlight.
Despite efforts by city, county and state governments, the homelessness crisis in the county has grown, with roughly 10,000 people lacking permanent housing in 2022. About 77% of those people are unsheltered, meaning they live outdoors, on the street or in vehicles, according to Destination: Home.
Valley Water owns and manages 294 miles of streams and habitat. Officials said 2,300 people currently live on district property, often in encampments near waterways, which can be dangerous due to flash flooding, among other factors. Human waste and other debris from encampments can lead to degraded water quality and habitats for animals.
"We want to help the people in a more humane way to find housing, places to live and solutions rather than have them live in the creeks where they have a negative impact on the environment," Beall said.
The bill would allow the district to use some of its revenue from an existing 1% assessed property value tax to fund outreach, counseling, transitional housing or other services for unsheltered people.
Bart Broome, Valley Water's assistant officer for state government relations, said a little financial flexibility for the district could go a long way. He said the district would only be using a "small part" of the existing tax funds on these efforts, but said it's too early to pinpoint a number.
"If we are able to access just a small part of that, we can do the things that are urgently needed to improve the situation. Not just for the unhoused people living along the creek, but for the neighbors that live around," Broome told San Jose Spotlight.
The bill could also allow the district to use some of its surplus land for housing projects, Beall said, but a timeline for those potential projects isn't yet clear.
Homeless advocate Richard Scott said Valley Water, San Jose and other government agencies have been "ruthless" in their sweeps of various encampments in recent years, but said he trusts the intent of the bill if Beall is heading up the effort.
"Jim Beall has always been involved in community mental health," Scott told San Jose Spotlight.
Scott said in addition to creating more permanent affordable and supportive housing, the district should work with the county or cities to invest quickly in temporary solutions.
"What we need right now is to have sanctioned and regulated encampments where people are stable, where the advocates and providers can find them and where they feel safe," Scott said, similar to Hope Village, which was dismantled in 2019. "You can't treat a person when they're under the kind of pressure that you're under when you're homeless."
While pursuing this bill, the water district is also monitoring its nearly $5 million contract with San Jose to clear people living along roughly nine miles of Coyote Creek, and work to find them services or housing, so the district can begin a major flood prevention project.
Homeless advocate Scott Largent said people living near Coyote Creek and other water district lands were effectively forced into those areas after being pushed out of other parts of the city, such as the Spring Street encampment, sidewalks and underpasses.
"They've been harassed, swept, had their motorhomes towed, everything. People try to go deeper into the creek, and try to get creative and build bunkers or find camouflage," Largent told San Jose Spotlight.
Broome said Valley Water's intentions are good, and the bill wouldn't be used simply to order more mass sweeps of homeless camps.
"It's in everyone's backyard, these public lands are the people's property, it's everybody's issue," Broome said. "We want to do it in a way that's actually going to find people solutions, not just have them move from one piece of public land to another."
Article by Joseph Geha of San Jose Spotlight via Bay City News