Homeless advocates worry that a misleading cleanup notice has prompted homeless residents along Guadalupe River to leave their camps—days ahead of an important census count.
On early Friday morning, San Jose officials and contractors pulled up in trucks at the sprawling encampment along the Guadalupe River Creek near Columbus Park to haul away trash, tents and safety hazards such as fuel cans and car batteries. The city confirmed Friday afternoon that no unhoused residents would be evicted or swept out of the area, but the posted information left people confused and scared.
Residents anticipated the worst after reading a notice that said they had to remove all of their property off the site. Out of fear of a sweep, at least five people packed up what they could carry and left, people at the camp said.
“There was a lot of confusion over what this is,” Deante Lee, an unhoused person who has lived along the trail for several years, told San José Spotlight. “We all thought it’s a sweep, and that sent a lot of people into panic mode.”
In three languages—English, Spanish and Vietnamese—city notices posted on trees and empty shopping carts said “a cleanup” had been scheduled along the trail between Hedding Street and Highway 880. They further stated all property had to be removed from site—wording that homeless people and advocates said resembles a sweep notice.
“You must remove all of your property from this location if you would like to keep it,” the notice read.
The notices prompted immediate concerns from advocates, who said homeless residents were supposed to stay put so that the county could get an accurate count next week.
The biennial count is a critical metric in understanding the homeless crisis and identifying the needs of people on the streets. The county opted last year to cancel the 2021 count due to COVID-19. Advocates said the lack of information has left the region without a clear picture of how bad the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis.
San Jose agreed this month to halt all abatements—or sweeps—until the biennial homeless count is completed next week.
The city said such cleanups are not unusual in areas that pose public health concerns and are not meant to scare people from their camps.
“Because we work in the area regularly, we have no indication that people had left today because of the escalated cleanup,” city spokesperson Daniel Lazo told San José Spotlight, adding that city officials talked to people at the camp about the cleanup.
Unhoused people on edge
Krystal Cooley, who was at the camp when the city posted the notices, said workers explained to her that the city wasn’t going to sweep the encampment. But for others who just read the notices, the message wasn’t clear.
“People were worried,” Cooley told San José Spotlight, adding her neighbor left after reading the notice. “I explained to them, but I also told them to be prepared. The city lied to us before. It’s just unnecessary anxiety while people just try to get by.”
Homeless resident David Delarosa said he was helping four people around the camp after the notices came Monday, but they packed up and left anyway, leaving him with all their remaining belongings.
“I’m just tired and frustrated,” Delarosa said. “It wasn’t until late Thursday afternoon that the city came out to clarify. It’s too late at that point.”
Several unhoused residents said they’d have welcomed the cleanup if it wasn’t for the misleading notice. The city hasn’t picked up their trash for at least a month now, they said, and left them living in squalid conditions infested with rats.
Several advocates, including Richard Scott, a retired social worker, and members of advocacy group HERO Tent came out Friday morning to watch the cleanup. Scott learned about the notices after several people at the camp called him.
“It was instant panic,” Scott said. “People didn’t know what to do.”
Brodie Storey, an organizer with HERO Tent, said Lee’s and Cooley’s concerns are not far-fetched.
“San Jose often goes back on their words when it comes to sweeping and cleaning up,” Storey said. “The worries are that they’ll take down structures without permission.”
As city crews broke down abandoned tents and hauled away hundreds of gallons of biowaste, Linda Andrale and William Walker looked on, wondering when actual help would come.
“I’m 63, and I’m tired of this,” Andrale told San José Spotlight. “The elderly and the sick should be prioritized for services, and here I am.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.