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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Addressing Homelessness in San Jose



Beau Scott

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

As we rapidly depart from the excitement of Election Day and are now hopefully enjoying a renewed sense of optimism for what the near future holds, it is important that we also take note of what ethical problems still linger after all ballots have been counted and all votes tallied. In particular, it is vital that we keep our attention fixed on the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity within California since several housing initiatives failed to pass during this election cycle. Hope Village of San Jose is thus an exemplary model of what is being done beyond ballot measures to combat this problem.

Marketed as a “homeless encampment alternative,” Hope Village continues to fight for the realization of its stated vision “to organize and develop successful tent communities of varying sizes for homeless individuals.” They also seek to distinguish themselves from basic homeless shelters and sporadic “tent cities” by working ardently “to provide a safe, clean, protected space to live on a continuous basis and a path for personal development--until permanent housing is available.” Yet, it seems that what distinguishes  Hope Village from typical homeless accommodations is not the vision itself. Rather, it is the means by which Hope Village intends to reach it.

Supported and endorsed by private donors and organizations, as well as elected officials like Congressman Ro Khanna, Hope Village has been able to work with the city of San Jose to lease land from Santa Clara County on which to establish its encampment. This innovative sense of legitimacy, conferred by its connection to the county, seems to be a brilliant attempt at solving one of San Jose’s most looming problems, but an examination of such tactics through the lens of the Ethical Framework developed by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics helps to parse out any possible ethical dilemmas involved with using public lands to assist private individuals. By analyzing the ethical implications involved in this case, a more concrete model is produced for alleviating housing insecurity throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

From a Utilitarian Perspective:

Hope Village promises clean, safe, and secure facilities where residents are guaranteed access to showers, meals, and clothing. Thus, it seems absurd to question whether it serves the greater good. Yet, we must ask whether Hope Village operates on a big enough scale to allow all people to find utility in its service. Does the project serve only the homeless or others in the wider community?  Preliminary work conducted by Hope Village leadership sought assistance from San Jose’s Water District to help answer questions like: Does the absence of something like Hope Village detract from overall public health? Is the environment better cared for through the construction of these encampments? Are public health and a clean environment conducive to the greater and common good?

From a Rights Perspective:

Does the United States Constitution explicitly guarantee a right to adequate shelter for all Americans? Beyond the Constitution, it is worthwhile to examine issues such as homelessness and question whether any human rights violations result from the conditions that many unhoused individuals must live in. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on conditions which plague Bay Area homeless shelters, explaining the extreme overcrowding and disastrous inefficiencies involved with shelter administration.Will the widespread institution of encampments such as Hope Village fully protect unhoused individuals from experiencing such violations if it continues to grow as steadily as it is now?

From a Fairness and Equity Perspective:

As mentioned above, Hope Village was able to close a deal with Santa Clara County to lease land in San Jose upon which to build. Surely, it is the equitable choice to offer unused public lands to those most in need, but is it really fair? Considering that the land could also be used to construct high-rise apartments for the influx of tech professionals in the Silicon Valley or for university students struggling to afford rent, is it fair to carve out swathes of land when shelters already exist? On the opposite side, with companies like Google, which is now valued at $753 billion, driving up the cost-of-living, is it really fair to not provide public space for those most in need and instead reserve more space for employees of extremely wealthy tech companies?

From a Common Good Perspective:

The analysis of the common good in the context of encampments like Hope Village returns to questions similar to those asked from the utilitarian perspective. Is it conducive to the common good of all San Jose residents to have public lands for unhoused individuals? Beyond public health and environmental concerns, however, is the notion of justice. Aristotle, the “Great Philosopher” asserted that justice is the object aimed at advancing the common good, so we must be able to ask ourselves whether it is just to deny vulnerable communities a right to shelter. Contrarily, is it just to use public lands for private individuals who themselves contribute to issues associated with public health?

From a Virtue Perspective:

Several forums on Facebook have revealed that public attitudes toward homeless and unhoused populations tend to be negative, illustrated by several Facebook users “warning” others when they have had an encounter with someone who is homeless. Yet, examples like Hope Village require that we review these attitudes and try to understand the societal virtues such as compassion and empathy which exist within our community as a whole. By doing so, we can better estimate if Hope Village can truly be viable as a model solution. Thus, we must ask if we, as members of a community faced with widespread homelessness, are prepared to advocate for spaces like Hope Village. What do our answers to that question tell us about what we value or find virtuous or who we are as a community?

Dec 3, 2018

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