By Kiet Do

SAN JOSE (KPIX) — The first city-sanctioned RV parking site for the homeless opened its doors in San Jose on Tuesday, amid protests by neighbors, who asked pointed questions about the approval process and accused Councilmember David Cohen of “lies”.

The RVs, many of them inoperable, began rolling in from the Apple encampment along Component Drive by mid-afternoon. Tow trucks brought the vehicles onto the site at 71 Vista Montaña, positioning some towards the rear of the property, behind two fences.

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Deborah Kempkoble, who was first profiled by KPIX at the Component Drive encampment in July, was among the first to arrive. Kempkoble pleaded with her new neighbors for time, compassion and understanding.

“They might be one paycheck away from where we are. So they shouldn’t judge, and they should give us a chance. We’re not gonna rob, steal, thieve, cause problems. Each of us has our own story,” said Kempkoble.

Several dozen protestors arrived at the site at sunrise, chanting and holding signs, calling out the city’s approval process as “sneaky”, and calling for more transparency. Also at issue, the RV site is directly adjacent to a playground, separated by a 7-8 foot stone wall.

“We are not against the homeless. I have a lot of compassion and respect for the homeless. I just feel that what the city is doing is it’s not gonna help them at all,” said Ofelia Hernandez. “We basically were in the dark about this.”

The first public notice about the parking lot came in a post on Next Door last Wednesday, from Councilmember David Cohen. Hernandez first learned of the parking site through a flyer posted on her door September 3.

“How can we be the bad guy? We didn’t even know it was coming,” said Hernandez.

“I’ve been here for 20 years, this is not how things happen in the Silicon Valley, in California, in America. So there’s no need to scheme behind us, and do these kinds of things. It’s totally negligent. It’s corrupt. We have to be part of the process,” said neighbor Bharat Ramakrishnan.

Jason B., another neighbor, came out in support of the RV parking site, calling the protestors actions “shameful,” but also took issue with the city’s approval process.

“It doesn’t sit well, obviously. The process can always be better, always be improved. But you know, there’s reactions, and this is the best solution they can come with on a short amount of time. So it is what it is. All we can do now is support the community, support these people that are going to be here, and just make everything better for them,” said Jason B. “We’re human, and with everything going on in the world, (protesting) is the last thing we should be doing.”

The Vista Montaña site is located on city-owned land, will be operated by the City of San Jose, and will be paid for with $400,000 in COVID federal funds. The eight to nine people staying at the site have undergone criminal background checks, mental health screenings, have agreed to adhere to a code of conduct, and will not be allowed to entertain guests. The new residents will also have access to portable toilets and running water. The site will have a 24-hour security team on the premises.

Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, said Apple has contracted with the non-profit to provide mental health counseling and case management at Vista Montaña two days a week. Urton said there have been no major issues, such as increased crime, involving their bridge, or emergency interim housing sites around the South Bay.

“I would like to allay people’s fears with that. Housing people in their neighborhood is part of the solution. Once people are housed in a neighborhood, everyone in that neighborhood is safer because now there’s nobody sleeping on the street,” said Urton.

Following is a transcript with District 4 Councilmember David Cohen, lightly edited for clarity.

Regarding accusations that city actions were “sneaky” and not transparent:

“The process was quick. As soon as we knew that the final decision was made, we let the community know. This is a natural reaction for people who are skeptical when something’s coming into their neighborhood. Obviously, we wish there had been more time to let them know. I also know that this reaction probably would have been similar had there been more time. I don’t think people want this in their neighborhood. And I think, unfortunately, the timeline makes people feel a little bit worse about it. But we had to move quickly, and I think the city’s doing a good job making sure that all the precautions are in place to make this be successful.

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Was it a conscious decisions to exclude neighbors from the approval process?

No, it wasn’t a conscious decision not to include neighbors. As soon as the decision was made about what site was available, the community was informed that that site was the best for us to have this solution.

On pushing the approval through without public input, and “asking for forgiveness later”:

Our city staff was looking for various locations. I was hopeful that we’d find a location in conjunction with the County or other parties. I asked the city staff to identify any possible sites. The only site that worked was this site. City staff determined that this site could be safe and secure, and I trusted their judgment, based on the fact that we had a timeline, and needed to get this site ready in this week. I trusted that the group of people that was put together by the city to make it work, could do it. And I think that they have a good plan in place to make this site work for the short term, while we look for the long term solution, which will probably be in conjunction with the county or other landowners who need more time to stand up a permanent solution.

Any regrets, would you do anything differently?

I don’t know. I wish we had more time. I wish there had been a longer process to do this. But I don’t know that we could have controlled the the process that was happening on the private property where people were being swept.

You know, it’s easy to say that we could have anticipated that we would have this issue. But the private property owners were telling us you have to get this thing closed quickly.

My feeling is that the right thing to do is to make sure that we don’t just leave homeless people off a site and not find a safe and secure solution for them. It’s always been my vision that if we’re going to move people, we don’t just tell them that they have to move without a place for them to go. So the only thing I ever said was, if we’re going to move people off a site, we’re not just going to sweep them and disperse them onto city streets, and hope that they don’t end up somewhere less safe, or in neighborhoods where we’re going to have to deal with them later. So I told the city, let’s find a place where we can safely and securely housing them, so that we don’t cause other problems that we’re going to have to deal with, that will be unanticipated.

Should taxpaying neighbors have been included in the approval process sooner?

We could ask the whole city, ‘Where should we pick a spot?’ I think that people were aware that we were trying to sweep this site. I don’t know how to include everybody in picking a spot in the city. We could have put up an entire list of available sites. But until we knew what site was potentially available, and whether it could be done, it was pretty hard to include people earlier. You know, we could have maybe gone a day or two earlier, but it was pretty hard to go any earlier because we didn’t know for sure that this was happening until last week.

Do you feel the need to apologize to anybody at this point?

No, I don’t. I don’t feel the need to apologize. I mean, I feel that we need to bring people together, work together. I want to make sure people are included in the process going forward, that we work collaboratively with the community. That we have an open process as far as communication, so that they are involved in helping us be the eyes and ears in the neighborhood, in case of issues. I want this to be successful. I want this to be a model for how we might be able to deal with the RV problem we have across our city.

Regarding future potential RV parking sites in San Jose, will there be no public input during the approval process?

I don’t know yet, because we’re still working with the county to see what sites we can identify. I’m hopeful it won’t be this way. I’m hopeful we’ll find a site that will be more…you know, it’s hard to say. The history of finding sites in San Jose and Santa Clara County has not been a good one. There’s always people near whatever site is picked that have been frustrated and angry. So I’m not going to try to predict what the residents nearby might think, because I don’t know yet where that site’s going to be and what kind of reaction there might be.

Will the public be included in the next RV site to be chosen or considered?

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We’ll have more time, obviously in the next process. We’ll be able to have a more deliberative process the next time we open a site for sure. Because it won’t be a rushed emergency situation, like it was in this situation.