‘Do something!’ — San Jose business owners say they are fed up with homeless
Trash is piled up along Coleman Avenue in downtown San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

They’ve reported gun violence, had cars stolen and watched in outrage for months as trash piles up and homeless encampments grow around them.

Business and property owners in downtown San Jose are demanding the city take action to end vandalism, theft and increasing illegal camping they say is destroying their livelihood.

And they are not mincing words — one man even calling homeless people parasites.

“We will soon see a hero before us to rid the world of these parasites who infect and destroy life and property,” Arturo Lionetti, plant manager at Airgas, wrote in an email to Councilmember Raul Peralez.

The email was part of an email thread obtained by San José Spotlight to Peralez from five business owners along Coleman Avenue — that started in 2019 — complaining about the problems. The business owners claim the city has turned a blind eye.

“If the city can’t provide the basics — if I have to continue to shoulder the costs to repair the ongoing, almost nightly, acts of vandalism and destruction to me and my customers’ property — I will be out of business by June,” said Rose Garden Auto Care owner George Fota in a Dec. 17 email.

“Councilmember Peralez, do something!,” the email continued. “It appears you are knowingly helping the individuals that are illegally camping in the neighboring area to destroy small businesses.”

Peralez said his office is getting bombarded with emails similar to the Coleman area business thread. He said residents are most concerned about encampments near Guadalupe River Park and Coyote Creek.

The Centers for Disease Control and Santa Clara County health department prevent the city from dismantling encampments during the pandemic unless people living there can be transferred to housing.

Peralez told business owners San Jose’s largest shelters stopped accepting new residents because of rising COVID-19 cases within the shelters. San Jose has about 6,000 homeless residents.

“The emails started to turn pretty nasty several months ago after several months of people not getting a response on the abatements and seeing encampments grow the way they did,” Peralez said.

Lionetti sent another email about an encampment near his workplace, which is on Montgomery Street.

“What a glorious day, today I looked out my office window to see a new tent erected with two homeless men occupying it. Claimed the land and settled it like the times of NewfoundLand … ‘I drive a stake in this here ground and claim it for myself,’” he wrote. “Back — you heathens! — for the law has no jurisdiction for those who trespass on private property.”

Peralez said he hopes the city can find a way to end the “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to the homeless.

“We shouldn’t be thinking that way about our neighbors, regardless of what challenges we’re all facing,” Peralez said. The councilmember has advocated for sanctioned encampments where the city could have some control but the idea has not been supported by enough of his council colleagues, Peralez said.

Shaunn Cartwright, a longtime homeless advocate, said businesses and the city need to work together to foster change.

“Are these same businesses out there supporting rent control? Are these same businesses involved in saying, ‘Yes, we need more low-income housing?’ Are they pushing the City Council just as hard for these two items when they come up on the calendar on the agenda?,” Cartwright said.

“If you want to address the homeless — quote, unquote — problem, you need to address it systemically and at its root,” Cartwright said.

According to Cartwright, that root cause is a low minimum wage, lack of low-income housing, scarce mental health treatment and a lack of detox beds. The San Jose City Council is ramping up efforts to fund more housing and support programs for homeless residents, but Cartwright said the pandemic and reduced shelter capacity are making it more difficult for homeless residents to stay housed.

A Coleman Avenue building owner said he supports social programs for the homeless and families who need help but said the city needs to fairly enforce the law.

The owner, who was not part of the email thread, was granted anonymity for fear of retribution.

“I have fought with people. I have people camping at my front door. I have been accosted by some of these crazy a– people,” he said. “We need an alternative for people that refuse any assistance. They should not be able to walk around the city and break the law.”

His said his truck is in the shop after someone broke into it. Another truck was stolen. He reported the crimes but said nothing came of the reports.

He also complained about people who pitched tents and parked campers along Coleman. In one incident, a homeless resident brandished a gun against another homeless resident in front of his office. This was the only incident police responded to, he said.

Prior to the pandemic, he said the city met with business owners to talk about how to best protect themselves and their employees but since the pandemic, response has been minimal.

“It’s a bad situation down there and everyone is very frustrated,” he said. “It is illegal to occupy public places. It is illegal to do half the things that are being done and the city will not do anything about it … It’s a crying shame Silicon Valley has allowed this to happen.”

Peralez said he has informed the police department of the complaints but enforcing the law is not always simple.

“It is indeed illegal to camp in our parks, to vandalize or steal from your businesses and to illegally dump trash. But simply demanding that our police officers enforce those crimes is much easier said than done,” Peralez wrote in response to the businesses. “Unless a felony has been committed, utilizing police enforcement is not the best solution to actually achieving a better outcome.”

Peralez said he and other San Jose leaders are simply trying to get people housed. He cited the Project Homekey hotel project — which will serve as transitional housing — as a step in the right direction but added there is much work left to be done.

He said the COVID-19 vaccine may also help the city’s efforts to get people off the streets.

“What I hope we can do is get (homeless residents) vaccinated and then we can go in and start to better manage these encampments rather than what we’ve been doing, which is essentially just letting them continue to grow,” Peralez said.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.