Advocates for the homeless gathered Monday to protest an upcoming sweep this week of an encampment, comparing the action to former President Donald Trump’s church photo-op and calling it cruel and out of touch.
“We have open buildings, we have the space. There’s no need for these people to be on the street in inclement weather or under any other circumstances,” said the Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the local NAACP. “I’m here to today to tell you, ‘No more sweeps.’ We must have some place for them to go, somewhere to take their belongings.”
The advocates allege the clearing is taking place to make room for a photo-op for Mayor Sam Liccardo at a nearby tiny-home project on Felipe Avenue called Felipe Bridge Housing Community, which opened Thursday.
The mayor’s office and the city’s housing department denied they wish to hold a photo-op.
“Felipe Bridge Housing Community opened last Thursday and there is no planned opening event,” said Rachel Davis, the mayor’s press secretary. “The abatement is happening due to safety concerns and extensive outreach has been completed by city staff to the residents of the encampment, starting in December.”
San Jose’s Deputy Director of Housing, Ragan Henninger, said the Felipe encampment was posing a public safety issue to residents there and the general public, prompting the city to schedule a sweep.
“The encampment along Felipe was blocking the public right of way, specifically street and sidewalk, and therefore subject to cleaning,” Henninger said.
The tiny home project, on a lot owned by Caltrans at the intersection of highways 280, 680 and 101, was approved in December 2018. The 40-unit site will be overseen by nonprofit HomeFirst.
Each cabin costs approximately $6,500, according to the city. The project is meant to house people temporarily before they transition to more permanent housing. The entire project costs approximately $2.6 million according to Henninger.
Under SB 519, co-authored by former state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Caltrans can lease unused properties for $1 per month to San Jose and Los Angeles for tiny-home projects.
But activists Monday said Caltrans has only exacerbated the problem because some residents have been swept from a larger encampment near Highway 101, forcing some to set up camp at the Felipe site.
“All these people are going to get swept, a bunch of them are going to end up on the onramp and Caltrans is going to say, ‘This is dangerous, can’t have you on the onramp,’ and they’re going to be swept from there. And it’s going to be this thing over and over,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a local activist for the unhoused.
San Jose business owners say problems caused by homeless residents and their encampments are ruining their livelihoods, and want lawmakers to take action.
The city’s housing department estimates there are 40 people at the encampment. Of them, Henninger said 39 have received services from the city or county in some form, including five referrals to the Felipe BHC, seven referrals to a shelter, two referrals to the county’s rapid rehousing program and three to drug and alcohol services.
Similar encampment clearings have taken place in the past few months, which has also raised concerns from activists that such actions could spread COVID-19.
According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encampments should stay in place because clearing them can cause homeless residents to disperse and break connections with service providers, which increases the potential for spreading COVID-19.
Activists said they will continue to protest similar clearings.
“This is worse than when Donald Trump cleared the streets of Black Lives Matter protesters so he could have a photo op with a bible in front of a church,” said Sandy Perry, a local housing advocate. “That bible tells us to never turn away from our own flesh and blood.”
The sweep is scheduled to take place on Feb. 17-18.
For residents of the encampment such as Joseph Gutierrez, a 51-year-old street artist recently released from jail, it might mean going back to The Jungle, a San Jose encampment billed as one of the nation’s largest homeless camps, or trying his luck on the county’s housing waitlist, where Gutierrez said he hasn’t heard back from in weeks.
“I’ve just been hanging out here,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve been trying to keep it clean here but some people have been messing this up on purpose just to make us look bad just so they can get donations to get to their camp.”