A ‘quiet panic’ over looming sweep of San Jose homeless camp
Homeless residents living in vehicles and tents in San Jose's Columbus Park will be swept off the site in a few weeks. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    After 19 years on the streets, unhoused San Jose resident Kellie Goodman is finally moving into a home. But she’s worried about her friends who aren’t so lucky—some of whom will soon be cleared from their camps.

    More than 100 homeless residents in Columbus Park in downtown San Jose have about five weeks before the city conducts a final sweep of the area. Unhoused people are living in the flight path of the Mineta San Jose International Airport, and the Federal Aviation Administration is threatening to withhold millions in funding if the city doesn’t clear the site. The FAA already granted a three month extension in May.

    “There is a quiet panic that has set in,” Goodman told San José Spotlight.

    Goodman, 55, has spent 12 years living at Columbus Park. She’s seen it grow over the years, overflowing with people when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, reaching a peak of more than 500 residents to roughly 200 there now.

    She said after two years of working with nonprofit housing provider Abode, she is finally getting a place of her own. But others are sitting on their hands, awaiting their fate.

    The city is set to post warnings for the sweeps on July 25, giving residents about a month to gather their belongings and move elsewhere. The final sweep of Columbus Park will start on Sept. 1 and is expected to take the entire month, said Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the housing department.

    “Our outreach teams have continued to engage with encampment residents, and BeautifySJ has continued to service the area,” Scott told San José Spotlight. “We will continue serving this location weekly, providing trash pickup and working with SJPD to identify and remove inoperable vehicles.”

    But Goodman and other unhoused residents are wondering where the city wants people living in the flight path to go.

    “Nobody out here is expecting the city to come in and say, ‘Oh, let’s baby you or take care of you,'” Goodman said. “We understand you need the FAA money. But tell us where we can go where we won’t be harassed by the police, where we can live safely until either a housing program comes through or while we try to get back on our feet.”

    Kellie Goodman sits in her car that she has lived in for years. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose conducted more than 200 sweeps last year, which advocates have criticized because it pushes individuals into other neighborhoods and parks. It comes as San Jose works to address its homeless crisis. According to this year’s tally, more than 6,700 people are sleeping on the streets of San Jose. The city’s homeless population increased 11% from 2019, despite housing more than 6,000 residents over the past three years.

    Too little, too late

    The city began sweeping the encampments at Columbus Park and along Spring and Taylor streets last year. In September and October, the city cleared nearly half of the Guadalupe Gardens site. Since then, the city said it’s had to sweep the area six times because unhoused individuals returned and reestablished camps.

    The most recent sweep at Columbus was mid-May. Many homeless people in the park have also left on their own because conditions have continued to deteriorate. In the past year, to deter people from staying at the park, the city has cut waterinstalled K-Rail barriers and taken out dumpsters which created a rat infestation issue.

    The city has housed 138 residents from Columbus Park, officials say, but advocates and residents don’t think that’s enough.

    “The city and HomeFirst have not done anything since May,” advocate Gail Osmer told San José Spotlight. “They do not provide the services they promise they will. It’s a joke.”

    For example, she said only one mechanic was hired to fix vehicles stuck at the park.

    Guadalupe “Lisa” Negerte, 65, who has lived in a trailer at Columbus Park for two years and can still drive out of the park, said it’s too late for the city’s help anyway.

    “I don’t know what I am going to do in these weeks,” Negerte told San José Spotlight. “I’m hoping I get housing, but if I don’t I’ll park on different streets until I get tagged, and then I’ll move to another location and do this same thing over and over again.”

    Guadalupe “Lisa” Negerte shares her experiences living at Columbus Park. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Osmer said to the city’s credit, it has helped clear blight. But she thinks it’s for the benefit of the park redesign planned for the area.

    Through public meetings and surveys, residents are helping shape development of the 12.5-acre site, located at Asbury and Irene streets in San Jose. The new park design will feature a sign bearing its name, and synthetic softball and soccer fields on each end with an open paseo in the center. It will also include horseshoe and pickleball courts, multi-use sports courts for basketball and futsal, a mini soccer field and a play area for children.

    The newly imagined Columbus Park will offer fields and courts for softball, soccer, basketball, and futsal. Photo courtesy of San Jose and RRM Design.

    The revamped park is set to open in summer 2025. In the meantime, the city is turning to residents to help pick out a name.

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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