In its latest attempt to tackle an increase in homelessness, the Milpitas City Council passed an ordinance on Tuesday that restricts individuals from sleeping and setting up tents in public spaces.
The new rule will affect around 120 individuals that reside in the city, according to estimates from homeless advocates.
The ordinance delivers on a key promise from Mayor Rich Tran, who has stated at numerous council meetings and on social media over the last year that he intends to take a more hardline approach to tackling homelessness in the 80,000-person city.
It also comes at a high stakes moment for most of the city councilmembers, three out of five of which are vying for the mayor’s seat. Vice President Carmen Montano and Councilmember Evelyn Chua, allies of the mayor, voted with him to approve the camping ordinance, while Anthony Phan voted against and Karina Dominguez abstained. Montano, Phan and Dominguez are all running for the city’s top seat.
Milpitas’ new ordinance is similar to rules passed in other Bay Area cities, like Oakland, San Jose, San Rafael, Novato and Santa Cruz. Such rules have satisfied residents’ concerns to varying degrees. In Oakland, a lawsuit is ongoing from a grassroots group who claims the city isn’t enforcing their ordinance strongly enough.
Housing advocates, however, argue that the laws criminalize homelessness and simply push individuals from one spot to another.
“These are extreme ideologies that frankly reminds me of Nazis,” said Councilmember Dominguez, who has frequently clashed with the mayor over issues surrounding homelessness and has pushed for more funding from county-led programs that promote direct outreach.
Dominguez said she disagreed with the new law and abstained from voting for it because she felt the council wasn’t provided enough information about it during Tuesday’s meeting.
But Mayor Tran said he sees the law as part of an overall strategy that will eventually show results.
“This ordinance is not going to solve homelessness,” he said. “Or eliminate the issue. This ordinance is to focus 100 percent on the public safety of all people, including folks that are experiencing homelessness.”
The Milpitas rule effectively prohibits sleeping and setting up a tent on most public areas in the city from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and also covers areas like schools, day cares, parks and libraries.
Violators will first get a verbal warning, then a 72-hour window to pack up and leave before facing fines of between $50 and $500, as well as possible jail time. Items that are confiscated will be stored by the city for 90 days free of charge. The ordinance allows violators to complete community service hours instead of paying a fine.
The law also allows the council to place camping restrictions upon any location within the city that lasts up to a year and requires a separate vote for approval.
Robert Jung, who oversees the local homeless nonprofit Hope for the Unhoused, said that he hadn’t been able to take a comprehensive look into the ordinance, but is against its passage.
“It certainly isn’t a positive thing,” said Jung. “It doesn’t go to the heart of solving the problem.”
How to crack the problem of homelessness has become a key political issue over the last year in Milpitas, most recently in December when the mayor posted on his Facebook page about a one-person encampment located at the city’s school district headquarters with the caption “Soon.”In February, the mayor started advocating for a city-wide camping ban, specifically mentioning an encampment of mostly RVs and cars behind the city’s library that sheltered a couple dozen individuals and was later disbanded in the spring.
The mayor’s more aggressive approach sparked Councilmember Dominguez to protest the mayor’s proposal by sleeping outside in front of city hall in her own tent in late February. The councilmember also opposed the mayor’s homelessness task force, established in January 2021, which she argued was proposing ineffective strategies.
The new ordinance will go before the council for a second reading on Sep. 14, though the step is procedural and will likely be passed on consent. Ordinances usually go into affect 30 days after their official adoption, meaning the camping ban’s enforcement could happen as soon as mid-October.