Several hundred people descended on the Fremont City Council meeting Tuesday to protest city plans to place its first homeless navigation center in one of two locations by next year.
In one of the starkest displays of protest in the city in recent years, hundreds of people packed the council chambers and overflow rooms, while hundreds more flooded the city hall courtyard, demanding the city council locate the center somewhere else other than near their neighborhoods.
Fire officials estimated nearly 1,000 people were in and around city hall just before the meeting began.
At one point, after the mayor suggested cutting the meeting off by 11:30 p.m., some in the chambers began yelling “shame” at the council, and others outside yelled “let us speak” and banged against the windows of the chambers, prompting the city’s police chief to interject, telling the crowd to be quiet.
Here’s a video of that exchange at the Fremont City council meeting. pic.twitter.com/hmqQovRH8C
— Joseph Geha (@josephgeha16) July 17, 2019
The navigation center, according to officials, would be made up of portable buildings in which up to 45 homeless people could stay for up to six months at a time, while case managers help find them permanent housing and connect them to services.
But the question of where to locate it has sparked fraught discussion at public meetings, competing online petitions with thousands of signatories supporting or opposing different sites, and lengthy online forum threads pitting neighbors’ views on the issue against one another.
At a meeting last week, the council narrowed down the potential sites for the center from 11 to two. After hearing from dozens of residents, they chose to further explore putting the center at a parking lot at the rear of city hall in downtown at 3300 Capitol Ave., or on surplus city property next to a plant nursery in the northern part of Fremont at 4178 Decoto Rd.
TJ Mai, a Fremont resident who helped organize opposition to the city hall site, said Tuesday he is concerned about safety, as he thinks crime will increase wherever the center is located.
“It’s all about my family and people living around here,” he said. “I don’t want my wife walking with my daughter in the downtown area and then getting mugged.”
Many others opposed the Decoto site, also raising concerns about their safety, and about lowering property values if the center were to be near their neighborhoods.
“Yes I want to help the homeless, but I oppose having a homeless navigation center in a residential area,” resident Peter Fong said to the council.
“If the city council thinks the residents of Decoto will just take this and accept this unjust decision, then you are wrong,” Jamie Zhu, a resident, said to the council.
“If you take the most basic needs away from us, then we will definitely take you to the court, and file a class action lawsuit for the lost value in the homes,” he said.
“You may have homeless breaking into your car for pennies,” one man said about if the center were located a the Decoto site. “You may have homeless trying to open your side door.”
Others threatened to vote councilmembers out of office over the issue.
Ghada Srour-Musselman, a resident who said she lives near Decoto, told the council she supports putting a homeless navigation center at both sites.
“Fremont is a compassionate city, we need to take care of our homeless. They are already living on our streets and near our school property,” she said.
She also said those opposing the centers near where they live are basing their arguments on “fear, bigotry and selfishness.”
The city hall site scored the highest based on criteria set by the council last month, including proximity to schools, food services and bus stops and transit.
It is about 1.3 acres, and near services such as the Fremont Family Resource Center, Alameda County Veterans Services, and Washington Hospital.
It is also within about a half-mile of the Fremont BART station and three bus stops, and within a quarter-mile of two grocery stores. Washington High is the nearest public school, and there is a private school, both about seven-tenths of a mile away.
The Decoto site is also about 1.3 acres, located on a nearly 10-acre city-owned surplus property, most of which is leased to Regan Nursery.
It has “sufficient access” to food services, including a 7-Eleven about a half-mile away and two grocery stores also less than a mile away, according to city reports. There are also six bus routes within a half-mile of the site. The nearest public school, Warwick Elementary, is less than a mile away, and is separated from nearby homes by Decoto Road and a flood channel.
The city will host two community workshops regarding the center in August where residents can ask questions of city staff, and the council could choose a final location for the center in September. It could open by mid-2020, officials said.
Councilman Rick Jones said there’s a lot of “information and fear” being circulated, and people concerned about the center should go to those meetings to get answers from city staff, not “Nextdoor, or Facebook.”
At the July 9 meeting, Vice Mayor Raj Salwan said, “Everybody wants to support the homeless, but not near them.”
Fremont has the third-largest homeless population in Alameda County, behind Oakland and Berkeley. The number of homeless people in the city rose nearly 27 percent, from 479 in 2017, to 608 in 2019, according to the latest homeless point-in-time count, city staff said. Alameda County saw a 43 percent increase in that time.
The council did not have the navigation center topic scheduled on its agenda, so no action was taken.
While nearly 250 people signed up to speak to the council Tuesday night, most about the navigation center issue, not all had a chance to speak, as the council ultimately decided to cut the meeting off at midnight, angering some of those in attendance.
On her way out of the chambers at midnight, one woman yelled back toward the council, “Good luck at re-election.”