The impact of homelessness stretches beyond the people who spend each night without shelter. For the Santa Clara Valley Water District, it affects the health of our streams as well as their ability to handle possible floods.

Determining what to do to prevent ill effects on our waterways while remaining understanding of the challenges the homeless face every day was a primary driver in the water district’s formation of the Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee in January of this year.

Each year, the water district partners with cities, police departments and social service providers to remove encampments erected by the homeless from creeks throughout the county. These encampments, which are not equipped with any kind of sanitation, end up leaving behind trash and human waste that fouls the waters. This in turn degrades habitat and water quality, and costs quite a bit to clean up. In 2015, the water district removed more than 1,200 tons of trash from local waterways.

The water district has spent more than $2.7 million over the last three fiscal years on homeless encampment cleanups, and we currently spend $175,000 a year to support a park ranger program with the City of San José that helps prevent homeless encampments along waterways.

The water district’s board of directors formed the Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee to discuss homelessness and encampment issues, and to bring discussion and recommendations back to the board. Director Richard Santos serves as the committee’s chairperson; Director Tony Estremera is the vice-chairperson; and Director John Varela is the third member of the committee.

Beginning in March, the committee has met every other month, and at each meeting, members have heard from organizations that work extensively with the homeless, from city representatives and from creek advocates as well.

Committee members have indicated they want the opportunity to hear from jurisdictions, organizations and individuals who have an interest in finding a solution to provide temporary and permanent housing to homeless individuals and families.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to get engaged with the rest of the agencies,” Santos said. “It’s everybody’s problem.”

At the suggestion of the committee, the board of directors has supported a $950 million affordable housing bond, proposed by the County of Santa Clara, to appear on the November ballot. If passed by two-thirds of voters, the bond would generate funding to build housing for the homeless as well as low- and moderate-income residents and first-time homebuyers.

The committee also suggested that the board approve the County of Santa Clara’s resolution finding that the problem of homelessness in the county constitutes a crisis and urging jurisdictions in the county to consider policy options for increasing the availability of affordable housing with the purpose of housing the homeless.

This resolution, which the board adopted, urges all local jurisdictions, including the water district, to prioritize their surplus lands for affordable housing development, and to address the issue, staff will be evaluating the water district’s inventory of property to identify surplus parcels that may be available for affordable housing development.

The Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee meetings are open to the public. Check back here for the agenda, date and time.

Hear more from Director Santos about the Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee and what the water district hopes to accomplish through it:

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