New San Jose law would ban homeless encampments and RVs near schools

Mayor Matt Mahan and Councilmember Peter Ortiz proposed new rules on Thursday, standing in front of a dozen tarp-covered RVs along Education Park Drive in East San Jose, to prohibit homeless encampments and vehicle dwellings within 150 feet of a school or daycare in the city.

The new ordinance, which would also include preschools, is the first time the mayor has officially proposed limits on where the city’s homeless can live — and it is consistent with suggestions he made earlier this year on stricter rules regarding encampments and RVs.

The latest proposal is similar to a set of guidelines passed by the city council in 2021, but this time the rules would be codified, almost certainly giving law enforcement more leeway in making abatements. Students at KIPP San Jose Collegiate, a high school in East San Jose, claimed this year that homeless residents who had settled in the area were breaking into the school’s buildings and leaving needles on lunch tables.

“We have to do better for our kids,” Mahan said Thursday, flanked by a group of KIPP students. “Our students should not have to deal with the consequences of our failure to address homelessness.” They are entitled to a high-quality education free of fear and disruption.”

Thursday’s announcement also marked a moment of bipartisanship on the city council, with the mayor and Ortiz, who are frequently on opposing sides of policy debates, agreeing on ground rules for an issue that is notorious for political infighting throughout the Bay Area.

“I still consider myself a progressive,” Ortiz said of his support for the proposed new law. “There are many instances where I disagree with the mayor.” This is one point on which we both agree. Children should be safe as they travel to and from home. This isn’t about whether it’s a progressive or conservative issue. This is an area on which we should all agree.”

The mayor and Ortiz stated that they collaborated with KIPP students to draft the new ordinance, which will be considered by the city’s rules committee next week. According to city officials, the proposal will be brought before the city council for a vote in three to four months.

“We’ve had a lot of break-ins,” KIPP senior Alfredo Hernandez Jr. said in an interview. “We’ve had athletic vans stolen as well as gas tanks stolen.” However, uniforms are also being stolen from athletic sheds.”

Fernanda Morales-Soto, a KIPP senior, said she was followed by one of the nearby RV residents after school last year.

“I stand here today fortunate to say that the individual left me alone after walking a couple of blocks,” Morales-Soto, an intern for the mayor, said at the press conference on Thursday. “However, the fact that I had to go through this is intolerable.”

The Silicon Valley Law Foundation, an advocacy group that has previously challenged local governments in court over rules governing where homeless residents can live, reacted angrily to the proposal.

“This is a misguided approach to homelessness that has failed in other communities to reduce the number of people living outside,” said Tristia Bauman, an attorney with the Silicon Valley Law Foundation, in an interview. “The proposal risks violating unhoused people’s legal rights by subjecting them to enforcement that may be unconstitutional.”

The mayor insists in announcing the proposed city law that his ongoing efforts to build out interim housing options — including tiny-home shelters and safe parking sites — serve as justification for the stricter stance on encampments and unsanctioned vehicle dwellings.

A political battle erupted in May over how much money should go toward the mayor’s interim strategy. After permanent affordable housing advocates protested, the council eventually shifted some money toward Mahan’s interim options, but not as much as he had originally proposed. The mayor hopes to create 1,000 new temporary housing units by the end of the year. Councilmembers approved a nearly $19 million lease in June for what will eventually become the city’s largest safe parking site, which will be located in the Berryessa neighborhood.

The mayor’s and Ortiz’s proposal also comes just weeks after the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a decision overturning Oregon’s no-camping laws.

The ruling blamed conservative justices in the minority for making it nearly impossible for local governments across the western United States to take action against people sleeping in public. The majority of the court disagreed with the criticism, stating that the law did allow for some leeway on abatements. In San Jose, the city has been sued over its efforts to clear out an encampment in Columbus Park near San Jose Mineta International Airport, with a judge ordering a halt to the sweep until the city can demonstrate that it has adequate shelter for the camp’s residents. Last year, a lawsuit in Mountain View forced the city to relax its rules on RV parking after plaintiffs claimed the restrictions were “unconstitutional” and “inhumane.”

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