San Jose could face scrutiny over homelessness benefits

By Tran Nguyen, San Jose Spotlight

November 10, 2022

A California lawmaker is questioning whether San Jose is wasting millions of dollars in state and federal money to address the homeless crisis.

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State Senator Dave Cortese made a formal request to the state auditor this week to conduct a review of the use of funds for San Jose’s emergency shelter programs and services, such as: B. The Homekey project to help the homeless off the streets. Project Homekey is the government’s multi-billion dollar grant program for homeless shelters. San Jose has received an unprecedented amount of funding — at least $135 million in state funding and about $12 million in federal money — to expand its temporary housing projects since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Cortese wants the audit to examine the success rate of these programs and whether the city is addressing public safety and health issues in homeless camps. The state’s Joint Committee on Legislative Audit must approve the application.

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“The Legislature and the Governor have spent several years pumping billions of dollars into the 13 largest cities and through counties into smaller cities, and still our constituents come to us to ask, ‘When is help coming to us?'” he said Cortese San Jose in the spotlight. “It’s not a pointer, but it says, ‘Let’s go back and figure out why billions of dollars aren’t working.’

The request came after Cortese saw the miserable living conditions at San Jose’s largest homeless camp near Columbus Park earlier this year. During the peak of the pandemic, the area was estimated to have had a few hundred people living in makeshift structures and vehicles infested with rats, among other things.

San Jose cleared the sprawling camp in September to meet a Federal Aviation Administration deadline after it helped more than 140 local people find shelter, temporary or permanent housing. The site is in the approach path of Mineta San Jose International Airport, and the city risked losing millions in federal funds if the camp was not cleared. As of this week, there are still dozens of people in the area stuck at the baseball field across from FAA land with nowhere to go.

Santa Clara County Superintendent Cindy Chavez, who urged Cortese to apply for the exam, said San Jose’s plans would not work.

“After touring the Columbus Park camp, it was clear that the City of San Jose was not efficiently or effectively spending the state and federal funds that were granted to us, including (Project) Roomkey and Project Homekey,” Chavez said in a statement. “Most disturbingly, the City of San Jose has had no accountability.”

If approved, Cortese said the review could take up to six months, adding San Jose has agreed to submit documents and records to the state for review. He hopes the results will better inform household decisions and find the best practices for tackling homelessness.

San Jose spokeswoman Carolina Camarena said the city welcomes questions from Cortese.

“San Jose’s homeless spending and outcomes are readily reported and discussed in public hearings of the council and council committees,” Camarena told San Jose Spotlight, adding that the city provided some information to Cortese’s office earlier this year . “We encourage him and his staff to review publicly available information and look forward to meeting him and discussing the reports.”

She also said the city used local funds to help the population at the camp near Columbus Park, rather than government funds.

“No government or homekey funds have been designated for the area, so an audit is not required,” she said.

San Jose has seen its homelessness crisis explode in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to upend the lives of thousands of families and residents. Despite unprecedented funding to bring more housing solutions online, efforts remain fruitless as residents are being left homeless faster than people are being housed. San Jose has seen its homeless population grow 11% during the pandemic, from 6,097 homeless in 2019 to 6,739 this year. Mayor Sam Liccardo called the crisis the city’s “greatest failure” in his annual address last year.

The call for a state audit comes just days after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is halting the $1 billion homelessness grant to cities, citing a lack of accountability. Newsom called for more aggressive policies, adding that local leaders’ current plans would reduce only 2% of the homeless population by 2024. San Jose has received approximately $35 million from the grant since 2020.

Liccardo responded in a statement to the governor that San Jose’s efforts are working, noting 700 homeless people who have been sheltered over the past two years.

“In San Jose, we built prefabricated, fast-build community homes in a fraction of the time it takes to construct traditional homes at a fraction of the cost,” Liccardo said. “More than 80% of our fast-built residents remain housed a year later.”

Robert Aguirre, a homeless advocate who has served the South Bay’s vulnerable population for years, welcomed Cortese’s request for an audit.

“There needs to be an audit,” Aguirre told the San Jose Spotlight. “We have to look at how the money is being spent and how effective that is because I think the city isn’t doing as much as it could be doing.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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