San Jose passes plan to build tiny homes for the homeless

January 25, 2018

Following soaring housing and rental costs, homelessness in Santa Clara County has been rising at an astonishing rate, resulting in more than 7394 people without a home. This 185 percent increase in homelessness since 2015 has led the San Jose City Council to approve a plan to build the first of three possible tiny home villages, each comprised of 40 sleeping cabins. While the plan was passed by the city council with a 9-2 vote in favor of building the village, it has been faced with controversy from homeowners across San Jose due to health and safety concerns as well the high cost.

Santa Clara County currently has the third highest percentage of unsheltered homelessness in the nation. This is in part due to the skyrocketing prices of homes as demonstrated by the $1.12 million median price for a single family home, the highest in the nation, as well as the staggering $3,514 average cost for rent. Only nine percent of single family homes are being sold for less than $500,000, leaving many families without affordable housing options.

“Increasing housing prices leave youth in particular unable to find a new residence they can afford on their own,” said Mario Rocha, director of training at Stand Up for Kids Silicon Valley, a homeless youth center in San Jose which provides services such as hot meals and one-on-one mentoring for youth. “It becomes another obstacle for them to overcome and keeps them on the streets longer.”

In order to combat homelessness, San Jose, where over 4000 people are homeless, is set on completing the construction of its first tiny home village by January 2019. Modeled after similar tiny home communities in Fresno and Oakland, San Jose’s tiny home village will consist of community restrooms and showers, a dining area, laundry facility, meeting space, dog park, garden area and 40 sleeping cabins. The sleeping cabins will have limited electricity but no plumbing fixtures. These homes, however, will cost taxpayers $2.3 million; this cost was a main reason why two council members voted against the plan. Habitat for Humanity has been chosen to build the homes and HomeFirst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing shelter and housing opportunities for the homeless, will manage the site.

The sites for tiny homes will be located at least 1320 feet away from schools and 530 feet away from residential homes. There are still complaints from homeowners, however, that the tiny homes will negatively impact neighborhoods by raising crime rates and threatening health, sanitation and safety. There is also the concern that property values will drop as a result of homeless communities being in close proximity to homes. The city council is still deciding on where to build the tiny homes, but will decide on three possible sites by the end of January.

“Many of the people are opposing the project out of fear,” said Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst. “But what they don’t realize is that the average homeless person is not on drugs or mentally ill. They are the working poor, the janitor at your school who is sleeping at the shelter, or a formerly homeless youth who is now the CEO of a local nonprofit (yes, me). These folks will not negatively impact any neighborhood, but add to it with their success.”

Of the 7394 homeless people in Santa Clara County, 2530 are youth and 885 of these youth are unaccompanied. Stand Up For Kids provides clothing, hygiene products, tents, sleeping bags and backpacks to homeless youth in addition to meals and mentoring. The homeless youth center also connects youth to resources for housing. While homeless youth shelters such as the Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara provide a temporary place for youth to sleep, space and funding are limited, meaning that it can take months to even get into a shelter. In addition, many youths are not aware of services like this and are sometimes too ashamed to ask for help.

“There are so many elements rooting the youth on to become mentally unstable,” said Rocha. “By living on the streets they are exposed to potential violence, whether it be sexual assault or bodily harm, and it takes a toll on them. Imagine having to endure this type of treatment day in and day out while trying to maintain a positive outlook on life.”

For students experiencing homelessness, FUHSD provides services such as free breakfast and lunch, free transportation, school supplies and connections to housing.

“Because of these services, homeless students at FUHSD won’t have to worry about food or transportation, and can focus more on their schoolwork and form relationships with other students,” said sophomore Lauryn Tuo. “They can go to school feeling that they belong with their peers and won’t have to feel ashamed for not fitting in.”

Homelessness rates are at an all time high in Santa Clara County. Despite the controversy surrounding the tiny homes, these tiny home villages are an opportunity to help the homeless get back on their feet.

Stand Up for Kids

View this gallery to see pictures of the Stand Up for Kids facility, a safe place for homeless youth from the ages of 12-24 that offers mentorship, hot meals and clothes.

Extended Interview with CEO of HomesFirst Andrea Urton

What impact do you think these tiny homes will have on the homeless?

The Bridge Housing Project are technically not tiny homes.  They are sleeping cabins with electricity and not plumbing.  There will be 40 of these on each site with a shared Kitchen, Laundry facility, bathroom/showers and meeting space.  The site will also include a dog park and garden area with outdoor gathering space.  Habitat for Humanity will build out the sites and HomeFirst will provide the operations and services.  There will be a max of 3 sites and a minimum of one.  The City of San Jose will have 3 sites identified by the end of January.  The project will have a max capacity of 120 cabins and with the over 4,000 homeless folks in San Jose each night the impact is not large overall.  But on the 120 plus folks who will be served the impact will be life changing.

What counterarguments do you have for people who oppose tiny homes?

I hear and understand their concerns.  However, homelessness has reached crisis levels in our great City and we need to start thinking differently about this issue if we are going to find solutions.  Many of the people are opposing the project out of fear.  What it will mean for them and their families in their neighborhoods.  But what they don’t realize is that the average homeless person is not on drugs or mentally ill.  They are the working poor, the receptionist where you work living in her car with her children.  The janitor at your school who is sleeping at the shelter.  Or a formerly homeless youth who is now the CEO of a local nonprofit (yes me).  These folks will not negatively impact any neighborhood but add to it with their success.

How do you think the tiny homes will affect the surrounding community (ie safety, crime)?

Again, this is a stigma that homeless people face.  Just because you are homeless does not mean that you are a criminal and until we change this misconception/injustice there can be no justice the people stigmatized by homelessness

How will you decide where the tiny homes will be built?

The City of San Jose with partners such as the Water District, CalTrans and the VTA have identified 123 sites and are currently using a matrix to screen them to see which 3 are appropriate for the project.

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Aileen Xue, Editors-in-Chief

Aileen is a senior and one of the Editors-in-Chief. She enjoys grocery shopping at Trader Joes and spritzing Caudalie grape water on her face. 

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