Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Biking and Homelessness in San Jose


San Jose looks different when you ride a bike through it. For starters, you're moving a lot slower. Both hands are occupied on your handlebars so you're not looking at a phone like a lot of drivers are. 

You feel the temperature changes on your skin. Climate control consists of pulling the zipper on your jacket higher or lower - or even removing it entirely. 

You can hear different things than you can in a car since - with the exception of those who rudely carry a bluetooth speaker for all to hear on non Bike Party occassions - you're not carrying a seven-speaker stereo with a subwoofer under the dashboard. The rusty drivetrain of the slow beach cruiser with the bent rear wheel will make you wince. The roar of tires from a truck better suited for a Fury Road sequel than the streets of the 10th largest city in the country will make you frown.

The slow speed and open visibility of a bicycle - and the fact you're not in a small, wheeled living room going 50 miles an hour - means you get to see parts of the city others miss. 



Sometimes on Monterrey Road there are homeless tents set between the street and the train tracks. Last October I saw a network of tents taped together. In front there were pieces of plywood sticking out of the ground and a mannequin's leg coming out of a mound of dirt in front.

They had decorated for Halloween.

On a bike path that runs underneath the maze of freeway interchanges encampments are always visible. One of the tents I've seen the last couple of months bears a striking resemblance to the huge, green one my family I and would use when camping when I was a kid. Now it's someone's home. 

It won't last. Sometimes the encampments - we're talking twenty or so tents - will vanish only to reappear elsewhere. Often that elsewhere is somewhere else along a bike path. I can't imagine they'd get away with setting up a tent on a residential street - you know, where cars go. 

I've smelled food cooking on these rides by the encampments. I stood completely still watching someone on one side of a trail hit a golf ball and someone on the other side pushing a grimy bicycle through some bushes. 

Early one morning, while silently pedaling, I saw a young woman get out of a tent while folding something in her arms. As I got closer I realized it was a barista's apron and she was on her way to work. 

That tip jar at the coffee shop isn't there for show. Use it.

A few summers ago I did a free yoga class in St. James Park. I'd see a chatty and friendly woman there sometimes. I guessed her age at about fifty. Once I noticed a strange scar on her forearm and asked her how she got it. She matter-of-factly told me she had been bitten by a rat while sleeping in her tent by the Coyote Creek Trail. 

Later, when a friend at Be the Change Yoga & Wellness told me this woman's bike had been stolen, I donated a replacement. I got her cell phone number and told her I wanted to give her a bike. When I asked her where I could bring it, she gave me a very specific window of time since, as she told me, she needed to take a shower at a shelter and there was only a certain time she had time to take a shower. 

I was thinking about her again this very morning. I rode my bike to the light rail station to head toward downtown San Jose. I sometimes run into a homeless woman from Gilroy by the train's bike racks. She was a bit down and was complaining that while she had the previous week off from the San Jose school where she works she didn't get to do any of the things on her "to do" list.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Take a shower," she answered, sadly.

A region that can invent an app that allows you to turn up your thermostat while you're still in bed shouldn't also have people who can't take a shower whenever they want.

Yet here we are.



An affordable housing bond measure in San Jose failed almost a year and a half ago. For two years running, SB50, the bill that would have made it easier to build homes near transit, failed. 

In 2017, a report came out that said half of millennials wanted to leave Silicon Valley because of the cost of housing and the time spent in traffic. I pointed out - correctly - that housing and traffic are not separate issues. Today a report came out that said even more residents want to leave than to stay in San Jose . Homelessness, which spiked 42% last year, was cited as a reason. 



Homelessness is a complicated problem that needs a lot of solutions - some of which involve funding. The question I have for those opposed to Measure E - the ballot measure that would help decrease homelessness and build housing in San Jose - is the following: do you think this is all just happening on TV? Did you think years of telling people to build-more-homes-just-not-here was a winning, long term strategy for a thriving city? How long do you think it will be before conventions worth millions of dollars stop coming here because the city has picked up a label nobody is comfortable with? Before businesses stop relocating here? Before jobs move elsewhere? 

I won't get into the weeds of what Measure E is - I'll leave it to the experts but I can tell you it is a tax of 2% or less that comes from the sale of houses that sell for $2 million or more. 

Resistance to Measure E takes two forms: one is the 1980s battle cry of "No new taxes!" I'd be happy to sit with anyone making that claim - I'm guessing it is mostly those who pay half as much in property taxes than I do for a house worth twice as much as mine - which happens a lot in California. You want to talk fairness or tell me 'enough is enough' with taxation? 

The other response is the money goes into the general fund and we can't control what a future city council might do with the money. I'm much more worried about the money my city (and yours) is paying for car infrastructure that can't afford to be maintained than I am about that. 

The city can't be afraid of imaginary problems that might happen in the future. It has to deal with the real problems of today. Decades of NIMBYism and car-based city planning got us where we are. Measure E is step in the right direction, and it is a step we can take on March 3 in San Jose if we vote yes.  

That's all I feel about writing now. Please vote Yes on Measure E in San Jose. If you want to look into the eyes of a homeless person and tell them they should keep sleeping in a tent so you can feel a tiny bit better about your personal worth, let me know - I can help make that happen. In the meantime, drive slower and bike more. You might notice the city you live in. Thanks for reading and thanks for voting. 


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