While many Santa Clara County residents are gathering for Thanksgiving in warm settings, dozens of homeless people living in tents, RVs or cars in and around San Jose’s Columbus Park are facing a more somber reality.
Many residents there claim the city illegally trashed or destroyed their shelters and belongings in recent sweeps, and are hoping to make it through the colder weeks ahead as fall turns to winter. Some are doubtful a newly-elected mayor will improve their situations, while others are a bit more optimistic.
Tom, who declined to give his last name, said he is feeling “almost hopeless” this Thanksgiving week. He’s living in his truck after the city destroyed a makeshift home he built out of wooden pallets about two weeks ago.
“They came in with the police one day and said, ‘You’ve got 10 minutes to grab what you want,’” Tom told San José Spotlight.
He had to leave behind photos, clothes, food, cooking equipment and toiletries, among other belongings. The city ripped his structure down with heavy equipment, he said, tossing the debris onto a garbage pile nearby.
He’s happy the city and county are working to place people into shelter during the sweeps, but said it’s cruel to take belongings from those who haven’t yet made it to permanent housing.
“You’re going to destroy my home because why? Because they didn’t get me housing on their timeline?” he said. “You’re going to… leave me with nothing in the middle of the winter? It doesn’t make any sense.”
San Jose in September swept hundreds of homeless people out of Columbus Park near the city’s downtown airport amid demands from the Federal Aviation Administration, which cited safety concerns. Many moved across the street to a dilapidated baseball diamond. The city has since followed up with more sweeps, as part of a larger effort to clear around the Guadalupe Gardens area.
Tom said Mayor-elect Matt Mahan, who takes office in January, probably can’t fix the crisis either.
“It’s not like he’s handing me a tent,” Tom said.
Mahan has proposed rapidly expanding the city’s interim housing for the homeless by scaling the city’s efforts to find land for tiny homes, including using county or other publicly-owned land. He has also supported a city plan to build hundreds of prefabricated homes in South San Jose, and has advocated for building more market-rate housing.
During his mayoral campaign, Mahan criticized the high costs of constructing affordable housing and pushed to reduce fees and eliminate red tape to make building cheaper and faster.
Another homeless resident, 58-year-old Mickey Kesler, said the city smashed her camper and pickup truck without permission. Now she lives in a tent with her five dogs, including two puppies, just about 50 yards from the smashed remnants of her trailer and truck.
“I’d like to see someone give me a new trailer and a new truck,” she said.
Despite historic funding and unprecedented efforts to quickly bring housing projects online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, residents are falling into homelessness at a faster rate than people are being housed. San Jose saw its unhoused population grow 11% during the pandemic, from 6,097 homeless people in 2019 to 6,739, according to county data.
The city could soon face a state audit scrutinizing the success of its emergency housing programs and services.
More sweeps looming
The city set a Nov. 18 deadline to sweep any remaining residents from Columbus Park, but 61-year-old Mark Thompson filed a temporary restraining order to stall that action. The city has said it will respect the order and is pausing sweeps for now, until at least after Thanksgiving. A hearing is set for Monday.
Another homeless resident in the area was previously unsuccessful with a similar tactic to end a sweep. A county judge helped mediate to relocate the resident’s belongings.
“The city will continue to work with our county and nonprofit partners to connect people living in Columbus Park with housing opportunities,” city spokesperson Carolina Camarena told San José Spotlight. “Housing opportunities may include interim housing or permanent affordable housing, based on each person’s needs and eligibility.”
Camarena declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Juaacklyn Fincher, 44, lives part time in a camper that she installed new flooring in, painted and decorated with art, colorful skulls and masks. The extra time the restraining order is bringing everyone at the park is a relief, she said. Still, she worries about what action the city will take following the holiday.
“I’m kind of afraid because now they might come back with a vengeance,” she said. “We basically put a monkey wrench in their whole routine.”
Fincher has been working with the county to find permanent housing for a few months without any luck. She has a temporary hotel room run by the county.
“It’s not the best situation, it’s not the most stable,” she said. She hopes Mahan can change the tide for park residents, but thinks permanent housing for homeless people needs to be his priority, not temporary housing.
“Homelessness problems seem to be on the top of his list,” she said.
Tom, the park resident, hopes the city won’t destroy anyone else’s property or continue sweeps until there is a permanent home for everyone.
“Homelessness is a problem. You can’t push it away, you can’t squeeze it to the side. We know that,” he said. “You have to face up and deal with it.”