Explosion at San Jose’s largest encampment leaves resident without RV
The aftermath of a propane tank explosion at Columbus Park. Photo courtesy of Scott Largent.

As homeless resident Deborah Santos watched her trailer go up in flames, she and her son wondered where they would stay—a homeless shelter, a motel room or maybe even a temporary tiny home. She was given a two-person tent and a blanket.

Residents at the Columbus Park homeless encampment near downtown San Jose say a propane tank exploded Thursday night, destroying Santos’ and another resident’s RV. A homeless resident was helping Santos fix a propane tank attached to her home when it exploded. No deaths were reported.

“I got arthritis and nerve damage in my legs, I can’t bend down and get into a tent anymore,” Santos, 61, told San José Spotlight. She had been living in the RV since April, and on the street for more than 10 years. She is now living with a friend in her van. “I literally just have a pair of pants, a belt and a jacket. That’s all I have to my name now.”

Damage from a fire and explosion Thursday night at Columbus Park in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Deborah Santos.

City officials have been removing individuals and RVs from the 40-acre Columbus Park site to meet a looming federally mandated deadline. The Federal Aviation Administration has threatened to pull funding from nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport if the city does not clear the encampment by April 2022, located in the “crash zone” of the airport. The FAA needs the area clear to provide a buffer zone for flights in case plane emergencies happen.

Columbus Park is considered one of the largest encampments in the Bay Area since San Jose dismantled a sprawling homeless camp called The Jungle nearly a decade ago.

“(The blast) was loud,” Scott Largent, a resident of the encampment, told San José Spotlight. “I heard people screaming and yelling. It was just chaos. They were trying to get out of the area and people were firing up their cars.”

Santos didn’t have a chance to register her trailer to claim insurance. The approximate $150 per month in county assistance isn’t enough to pay for registration.

“Here is an unhoused person. They need to get her in a motel,” homeless advocate Gail Osmer told San José Spotlight. She says she’ll continue to reach out to city and county officials to get Santos help. “But instead two guys came to her at midnight to talk to her and that was that. It’s sickening to me because she has nothing.”

Over the last two months, the city has cleared approximately two-thirds of a 40-acre site near Columbus Park. About 150 unhoused people, 200 vehicles—of which 53 are RVs—were relocated to another area of the park in about one-third of the space they had before. Those remaining individuals will need to relocated as well.

City officials tossed around ideas in September for revitalizing the park, including adding playgrounds and sports fields. The San Jose City Council in October grappled with placing a giant fence around the site to discourage new people from moving in — but ultimately took no action.

Officials last week installed barriers at the intersection of Spring and Hedding streets in an effort to clear the airport-owned land. About a third of the encampment remains uncleared.

For Santos, regardless of what San Jose does to the park, the end result is the same—the city wants her gone.

“They say everything happens for a reason, and eventually there’s a good reason,” Santos said. “I’m still waiting for that to happen.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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