Rights and Wrongs: Updates From My Fourth Human Services Commission Meeting

Today was my fourth San José Human Services Commission meeting and we made progress on some important issues. Here is the agenda and my initial thoughts on it.

Public comment in support of making the Women’s Bill of Rights gender-spectrum inclusive.

Context: Because I’m chairing the ad hoc subcommittee on improving the language of the Women’s Bill of Rights to make sure it includes trans folks, I reached out a few weeks ago to a colleague at the LGBTQ YouthSpace (a program for queer young people in Santa Clara County under 25 that I know does excellent work) to see if one of their participants or staff would be willing to speak. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear back in time to get them on the agenda itself (which has to be finalized and posted a week ahead of time), so we made space during public comment.

Erika Cisneros spoke for 2 minutes about the importance of including transgender, genderqueer, and gender-expansive people in the gender analysis portion of the Women’s Bill of Rights and then read the following statement from a participant and volunteer at the YouthSpace (though it was public comment, I am not 100% sure the young woman was comfortable having her name out there, so I’ll leave it off until I get specific permission):

“To include language that is expressly gender-neutral, be it for systems of bureaucracy or otherwise, is essential in recognizing and respecting the presence and inherent value of Queer, Trans and Gender Expansive People; to include language that is outside the gender binary, with pronouns such as they, them, hir and zhe, will encourage those in positions of legislative and communal influence to recognize and commit themselves to new and positive involvements with a community that has long been left behind. As such, this inclusion will increase the possibilities for people’s who are Trans/Non-Binary to have a space to assert the unique needs of their communities, most of which includes overarching narratives of impoverishment, violence, abuse, houselessness and unemployment.”

A note on language: as a cisgender queer woman, I know I don’t get my language always right about the experiences of my genderqueer, nonbinary, gender-expansive brothers, sisters, and siblings. If some of the words above were new, weird-sounding, or confusing — that is totally fine. The language around gender and sexuality is evolving so fast, there is absolutely no consensus about terminology; but there is a profoundly-felt consensus about the importance of respect and self-determination. So when I meet someone and they tell me they use a particular word to describe themselves, I use it for them too, immediately, without arguing. If I don’t know the word, I Google it and pretend I’m cool and already knew what demi-sexual meant (to use a specific example; sorry Chris). Just like if someone told me their eyes are hazel but I thought calling them green would be easier for people to understand, I wouldn’t be a boor and say that out loud. I mark their eyes as hazel in my head and move on. We all have better things to do.

Census update

We heard from staff that the city is still working to update the list of addresses that the census will go out to to make sure every person in San José gets counted, per the constitution. That is tough, when people are living in informal (and probably unpermitted) converted-garages, side rooms, etc. Some key information from this update:

On 5/12 starting at 9am at the Seven Trees Community Center (3590 Cas Dr, San Jose, CA 95111), there is a big census event in my area, where volunteers will walk the streets and try to eyeball how many people they think are living in a given unit, so the city knows how many forms to request the Census Bureau to send to that address. Volunteers send that info via Facebook Messenger or text to a system and it goes into a database that is air-gapped from the rest of the city systems and locked in a room in City Hall until it is sent to the Census Bureau, so no one from Code Enforcement to ICE can get to it. Volunteers also have to delete all texts and messages about the program at the end of the day. I’m intending to come out and hope you can too!

Community Budget Meetings

I haven’t participated in these before, but apparently they are a way residents of San José can voice where we’d like our dollars to go. Below are the meeting times and locations for each district — I’ll be trying to make mine!

Property Rights of People Who Are Homeless

At my second commission meeting (the first one where I could contribute agenda items), I asked Anthony King of DeBug Silicon Valley to give a presentation about how the property of people who are homeless is treated during what the city calls “sweeps” or “cleans.” The commission had requested to speak with SJPD about a proposal asking them to handle the bags, tents, clothes, and other personal property that is currently being managed by a nonprofit provider, a construction company, and the city. Instead, we had an unagendized presentation from Vanessa Beretta of the San José Housing Department. Below are my notes on that presentation:

  • Ms Beretta runs San José’s homelessness response team doing outreach and what she called “abatement.” She has previously worked at HomeFirst San José.
  • She wanted to share what the process for a “sweep” or what she called “a cleaning” was:
    • 1) A resident or business calls the abatements/homeless concerns hotline, staffed by the city 9-5 on weekdays or emails a dedicated inbox.
    • 2) That concern then goes to outreach providers.
    • 3) Ms Beretta goes to the reported location to see if it is city or water district property (since the city can’t “clean” Caltrans or Union Pacific property). She selects sites based on: if there’s an environmental issue (people’s stuff falling into a creek); if it is near a school; if the site blocks a right-of-way; if there are health-and-safety issues.
    • 4) Ms Beretta goes to the property again (or one of the contractors do; this was unclear) and posts a sign saying it will be “cleaned” in 72 hours, telling people they need to find somewhere else to sleep, and provides a number to call if people want to get their stuff back after its taken.
    • 5) Tucker Construction, Ms Beretta, outreach workers from a service provider, and San José Police Department officers on “secondary employment” converge on the site. The officers “clear” the came “for their safety” (“their” is the construction workers, outreach workers, and city employees I believe). Employees of Tucker Construction evaluate items in the site to decide if it is “deemed storeable,” and throw-away what is not. This is a specific concern from Mr King’s presentation, because a broken tent might not be “deemed storeable” but when it’s the best cover someone has, it would be better for them if it was not thrown away. Ms Beretta emphasized that Tucker Construction follows guidelines on store-ability written by department lawyers. Follow-up: She said she would provide that this to the commission and I’ll post it here when we receive it.
    • 6) All of the items “deemed storeable” are moved to a secured location “so people can’t just show up.”
    • 7) Outreach workers and the 72 hour notice signs include a phone number people can call to find out how to get their things back. Ms Beretta wasn’t sure how long it usually took for people to get their things back, but it sounded like 7-10 days was common — if people got their property back at all, which Mr King emphasized many people have stopped trying to do because the process is so onerous. To quote from my notes on his presentation:“He knows of only 3 people who have gotten anything back — not all of their stuff, but anything at all. He said some people don’t even try to get their belongings back anymore.”
    • 8) From Ms Beretta’s perspective, the process of having property taken and then getting it back goes like this.
      • Someone comes back to where they’ve been living to find a notice saying they need to leave within 72 hours.
      • For whatever reason (and I can think of several excellent ones like: they didn’t see the notice, they were trying to find someplace to stay and couldn’t on the timeline, etc) they don’t pack everything up.
      • The “clean” starts; some of their property is thrown away, some is taken.
      • The person finds a phone and calls the number to get their stuff back, using a general description and a time/date of the clean.
      • HomeFirst picks-up the call, then calls Tucker Construction, who then goes to the secondary location to find the stuff, then drops it off at the Little Orchard shelter.
      • The person makes their way to the shelter and picks-up their stuff. Ms Beretta emphasized that the shelter has no place to store belongings, so if someone doesn’t come the day they say they would, they have to start the process over again.
  • The city’s Housing Department sent out a new Request for Proposal (RFP) for “homeless encampment abatement” and has nearly-finished selecting which contractor will handle it for the next fiscal year. She said it was unlikely HomeFirst would apply, because it’s not in their mission. But she said they want to change the process to address some of the concerns advocates like Mr King have been bringing-up to make the retrieval process better.
  • On a Woman’s Bill of Rights note, I asked if Ms Beretta knew of any report on how much money is being invested in women, men, and transgender people respectively who are homeless. She said she did not.

Next steps:

There was some confusion about what action to take moving forward. The chair highlighted that the city’s Housing and Community Development Commission may also be elevation to city council this issue and we should communicate with them; he will be connecting with their chair to see how we can work together.

I believe there is a role for our commission in this work, given our unique human rights focus. Follow-up: I will be advocating for making this issue one of our focuses in FY19 by working to get it added to the work plan for the commission.

We also had some discussion about better ways to including the people most directly impacted by services in deciding who gets contracts, like the “homeless encampment abatement” RFP Ms Beretta spoke about. The staff person from the City Manager’s office who serves as secretary of the commission cautioned us that there are a lot of processes in place; but there remains a clear and painful gap between how we talk about serving vulnerable people and how we actually serve them.

Conversations like this are always a balancing act for me; I’ve worked with and for human services providers in Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Seattle, and Santa Clara County and know how hard the work is to do right and well. I also see how far we are from where we need to be. So I try to push for the justice and respect vulnerable deserve, standing firmly grounded in my understanding of the frictions and complications involved. I was not impressed by the process outlined above and hope to support making it better.

Key moment: There was a powerful moment, after Ms Beretta had left, when I asked the commission if we thought that “sweeps” or “cleans” helped people who are homeless. There was no one on the commission who thought they did. We can do better.

Process Updates from the City Attorney’s Office

We had sent quite a few questions to the City Attorney’s office in the past few months and just heard back on several of them. In the order they were shared with us:

  • The letter we wrote to council about fully funding the Women’s Bill of Rights gender analysis went to council; the op-ed and letter to the editor the commission reviewed and unanimously approved will need to be reviewed by a sub-committee of the city council and may not be sent out for months. Strategically, since the purpose of the op-ed and letter to the editor was making sure staff and councilmembers heard our requests, it being an item covered by a sub-committee is not bad, since someone has to read them to vote on whether to allow them to go out into the world. Timing-wise, we have about 6 weeks before the budget is finished, so the op-ed and letter to the editor probably won’t make it out from the commission in-time. But community members can (and should) voice their support.
  • The city attorney is still looking into if the text of the Women’s Bill of Rights would prohibit city departments from tracking how they or the organizations they give grants to invest in transgender people.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Invitation

Staff sent a follow-up to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and will be sending another before the next meeting. More on this request and the importance of holding ICE accountable.

Commissioner Baracio and I both went through the Rapid Responder training. I spoke to about 70 people at the Orchard City Indivisible meeting last Tuesday asking them to sign-up for a 2-hour training as well and if you’re reading this, you should sign-up too. The training reminded me of a mix of my training to become a volunteer clinic escort for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania when I was in college at Carnegie Mellon and the trainings I’ve given to people canvassing for candidates. It’s one of those trainings you’re grateful to have and hope to never have to use.

Follow-up: We need to continue to hold ICE accountable and I’ll be continuing to speak to members of my community about how the commission can do that.

Women’s Bill of Rights Policy

Great update: The Vice Mayor’s office’s may have included a line-item for funding a consultant to conduct the gender analysis survey in their most recent budget request! We’ll know for sure in mid-May.

The commissioners had a few great edits to the survey on which city departments should undergo a gender analysis (here’s the memo on the process). We will be sending it out as soon as the city translates it into Spanish and Vietnamese. This isn’t a huge time-crunch, but if it’s not translated by the next commission meeting I would be surprised. I’m planning to collect both qualitative and quantitative support for which departments need to undergo the gender analysis; the survey will provide the quantitative and the other comments we’re seeing will be the qualitative ones. I’ve already started hearing from survivors of domestic violence who want to use this survey to improve how women, girls, and nonbinary people are treated in San José. Trigger warning for domestic violence:

“An Asian survivor was physically assaulted by her abuser and ran away to a public location while bystanders called the police. The officer who found her was from her community and spoke her language, but told her to please settle domestic matters at home and don’t bring them to the public. We’ve also seen this happen during non-crisis situations, for example when an Asian survivor went to the police station to file a report, and the Asian lady at the window told her to go back to her husband and not make things public. And this is not limited to the Asian community; other DV agencies have told me that, for example, an officer stopped speaking Spanish to a survivor and forced everyone to speak English after he found how long she’d been in the U.S. – because he felt she needed to acculturate.”

“It’s taking 4-6 months for abusers who violate retraining orders/criminal protective orders to be arrested. I’ve heard the delay is because SJPD only has two detectives. I can’t speak to police capacity or city budget issues, but I can share that this lack of follow up not only has an impact on the emotional well-being of the survivor, but it sends the wrong message to abusers: that they won’t be held accountable for their actions and can continue acting with impunity. For example, we helped a survivor whose abuser showed up three times over three months and wasn’t arrested until four months later.”

“In terms of anecdotal, the most frequent mishandlings we hear about are language access issues (not having/utilizing interpreter, non-certified interpreter or inappropriate interpreter (child, abusive partner), not offering EPRO’s at the scene without consulting a judge, and not knowing how to DV issues if there are LGBTQ individuals involved (not knowing who the dominant aggressor is, making dual arrests, etc).

“I also want to be clear that the officers I’ve spoken to have been VERY helpful, and I do believe individuals are doing what they can to work within a challenging system. At the same time, anything we can do to make the system less challenging for our communities would be great.”


  • Funding: To help ensure the Women’s Bill of Rights is full funded in San José, I will be requesting a meeting with my council member to emphasize my support as a community member for the recommendations made by the commission. I will also be coordinating with Santa Clara County’s Cities for CEDAW to ensure their affiliated organizations make their voices heard on this important issue.
  • Improving the language: I’ve reached out to a wide range of local LGBTQ organizations to see how best to improve the language. I’m hoping to have a final copy of the changed bill language by the next meeting.

Commission and Associated Events:

  • 5/12: Census Volunteering at the Seven Trees Community Center (3590 Cas Dr, San Jose, CA 95111)
  • 5/26: Children’s Rights Event at the Seven Trees Community Center (3590 Cas Dr, San Jose, CA 95111)
  • 10/25: Disability Rights Day with a movie festival (called ReelAbilities)

Items to propose for the next meeting:

  • Action: Vote to follow-up with the Housing Department to see, specifically, in what ways they will be changing the way that the property of people who are homeless is being handled in the coming months.
  • Action: Vote on the letter to city council asking them to improve the language of the Women’s Bill of Rights to be gender-spectrum inclusive.
  • Presentation: I would love to hear from the Office of the Independent Police Auditor about whether SJPD should be one of the first departments to undergo the gender analysis portion of the Women’s Bill of Rights.
  • Presentation: Uplift Family Services
  • Action: Following-up on the suggestions by Sharan Dhanoa (South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking) and Josue Fuentes (District Attorney’s Office of the County of Santa Clara) at the 2/15 commission meeting, draft a letter to City Council requesting additional funding for transitional housing for survivors of human trafficking be provided, as a lack of housing is stoping people from being able to leave exploitative in our city. Note: This is building-on the 2017 – 2018 Work Plan topic of Human Trafficking.
  • Discussion: Find ways for the commission to use our networks and community relationships to help grow the Rapid Responder network in San José as part of our continuing work to hold ICE accountable.


I continue to enjoy my time on the commission and look forward to the upcoming budget discussions and seeing how we can ensure more vulnerable people in San José get the justice and respect they deserve.

Thanks for reading!

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