This past Saturday, Milpitas residents rallied as part of a group called Milpitas Hope for the Unhoused, which works in support of the city’s homeless residents. Dozens of ralliers gathered in front of Milpitas’ Extended Stay America, where Santa Clara County is set to soon launch a homeless housing project, though not without some controversy from the public and local officials.
Initially, at the urging of Mayor Rich Tran, the Milpitas City Council voted unanimously to pursue litigation against Santa Clara County to stop the project, though last week, the morning after Election Day, the Council reconvened and voted 3-2 to abandon the litigation pursuit. Councilmembers Anthony Phan, Bob Nuñez, and Karina Dominguez carried the majority, with Mayor Rich Tran and Councilmember Carmen Montano still desiring to sue.
The council’s initial intentions of a lawsuit drew strong words from California Governor Gavin Newsom, who publicly told the Council to “do the right thing.” Likewise, in a letter, the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley cited a variety of legal reasons why the lawsuit would fail, and pledged to intervene if the City of Milpitas insisted on pursuing it.
For the time being, the lawsuit is off the table, but with a strong local movement (complete with a privately waged lawsuit) against the homeless housing project still well intact, and a new council formation due for early 2021, the suit could be voted back in and the project’s hopes interrupted once again. Those opposed to the project have cited a suite of concerns, ranging from safety to crime to land use to the need for Milpitas to sit at the table and give more input.
After having gathered at Extended Stay, the Milpitas Hope for the Unhoused ralliers marched over to City Hall, where both citizens and elected officials took to the mic for emotionally charged remarks on behalf of Milpitas’ homeless population.
Event organizer and homeless advocate Allyson McDonald spoke of the previous night’s drizzle and wind, which she had experienced firsthand at a vigil. “The reason why we’re here today,” she said, “is because some of our neighbors don’t have the option of staying out of the cold and the rain — or the heat. They don’t have the option of staying home during a pandemic. They don’t have a home.”
Another local advocate, Kathy Forward, who has a sister and a son with diagnoses of mental illness, said to the crowd, “I’m here because of the comments the mayor made a few weeks ago about stigmatizing mental illness…I’ve been involved with NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, for over 20 years, trying to educate and support people and families who are dealing with mental health challenges, that’s what we do. We are their peers. And stigma is ignorance and fear.”
Mayor Rich Tran had posted on his Facebook page that the new homeless housing project would be in close proximity to Bevmo, implying that its residents would be at risk of frequenting the store for alcohol. In addition, at a City Council meeting about the project, the mayor had listed a series of mental health ailments, including anxiety disorders, while citing his concerns about the mental health of the planned homeless housing project residents. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental disorder in the United States, affecting about 18% of the U.S. population, or roughly 1 in 5 individuals. Likewise, an estimated 21 million Americans, or 6% of the general population, grapple with an addiction problem. Meanwhile, 0.2% of the U.S. population is homeless.
“The City of Milpitas has not done nearly enough for our unhoused community. All we have done is fuel the negative social stigma and ignored the fact that they are people just like you, me, and our city council,” said Timothy Alcorn, who is Vice Chair of the City of Milpitas’ Planning Commission. He added, “Thank you Governor Newsom for your sobering words. I am looking forward to Homekey opening up and helping over 130 people. Milpitas staff and leadership,” he went on, echoing Newsom, “do the right thing.”
Alcorn also said he’s glad the pending litigation has been shot down, stating, “We shouldn’t let government incompetence keep over 100 people off the street.”
Recent Milpitas City Council candidate Tiffany Vuong, a Hope for the Unhoused organizer who also works with the Milpitas Renters Coalition, said to the rally, “We want the city council to step up to take care of our unhoused residents. It’s a regional problem and we need to be part of the solution.”
Vuong cited Hope for the Unhoused’s specific demands, among them short-term solutions such as ensuring homeless residents’ hygiene and safety needs are looked after, along with ensuring them access to showers and safe parking. “And,” she added, “we need the long-term solution, as well, which is housing.”
The full list of Milpitas Hope for the Unhoused’s demands follows here in abbreviated form:
—That City Council endorse the County 2020-2025 Community Plan to End Homelessness, which requires County jurisdictions, agencies, communities, and residents to pool resources to address our joint houseless challenge.
—That City Council establish a co-ordinated and specific strategy for Milpitas within the “County Plan” that addresses the unique challenges for our City (such as getting our local unhoused population assessed and into the Community Queue, accommodating some Milpitas residents in the Hillview Court project, and providing case management).
—That City Council to allocate immediately sufficient funds to assist our Milpitas unhoused residents.
—That City Council send a clear and demonstrative message to our residents regarding the critical needs of our unhoused and the immediate and long-term benefits of developing a homeless program.
Vuong was endorsed in her Council bid by Mayor Rich Tran, yet their alliance waned as the pair parted ways on the homeless housing project.
Assemblymember-elect Alex Lee, Councilmember Anthony Phan — who is currently leading in the ballot count for re-election — and Otto Lee — who appears to be the likely winner in the District 3 County Supervisor race — also addressed the rally. All have prioritized affordable housing in their platforms. Phan gave a notably forceful speech, wherein he said, “This issue has never been about community input. It’s never been about safety, or crime, or land use. It’s about doing the moral thing. And I’m sorry that I didn’t see it earlier…The words that Governor Newsom said made a huge difference, and helped me to realize that there are bigger things — there’s a bigger picture here. That we can spend a lot of time being pissed off at the county, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are over 100 people in need of housing, who are unhoused in Milpitas.”
Addressing Tiffany Vuong directly from the mic, Phan said, “You made a difference. You had the courage to break away from the mayor, and it gave me the courage to do so as well. So thank you for making me a better councilmember.”
Phan then pledged to contribute $1,000 of his remaining campaign funds to Hope for the Unhoused, while committing himself to the cause in full through his legal defense fund, where possible, as well as his own fundraising efforts: “You guys are onto something here,” said Phan. “If the other side can get organized and they can get political, we can too, and we can do it better, and we can do it the right way, the decent way. Because we can’t let them get emboldened. ‘Cause then they’re going to come out and do this every single time, on every single progressive issue there is.”
Credit for all photos: Thac Nguyen