UPDATE: No fence around San Jose homeless camp — for now
Planes fly over the large encampment of homeless residents in San Jose's Columbus Park multiple times a day, as the campsite is just blocks away from Mineta San Jose International Airport. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Faced with the tough choice of building a giant fence to keep homeless people out of a public park, San Jose lawmakers took no action — despite an upcoming deadline to clear the encampment.

The controversy centers around a 40-acre encampment at the Guadalupe River Park in downtown San Jose where nearly 200 homeless people live. The land is federally-owned property that sits under the flight path of the Mineta San Jose International Airport. The location is unsafe due to its heavy noise pollution and proximity to runways, federal officials say.

In a letter to San Jose Airport Director of Aviation John Aitken, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the city until April 2022 to clear out the encampment.

The San Jose City Council on Tuesday considered building a $1.5 million, 8-foot high fence around the encampment to stop more homeless people from moving in.

But the lawmakers took no action. Instead, city officials will focus on clearing the encampment and monitoring the site to curb illegal dumping. Officials will report back to the council in January.

If homeless people return to the site and dumping continues, the city will reevaluate whether or not to build a fence.

The council voted 9-1 to postpone a decision on the fence until Jan. 11, with Councilmember Dev Davis dissenting and Councilmember Sylvia Arenas absent.

“I’m sympathetic to the idea that a fence makes it easier, although I’m sympathetic to the idea that a fence seems to push the problem around,” said Councilmember David Cohen. “A lot of the same things are going to happen with or without the fence. So if we can avoid spending one-and-a-half-million on the fence, then we can use it on other things that might be better long-term solutions.”

Cohen, along with Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmember Raul Peralez, proposed an alternative plan — to deploy park rangers, San Jose Bridge workers and San Jose police to keep Guadalupe River Park clear of homeless encampments. The effort would include building biking and walking trails and a community garden to liven the park. The plan, which would not include a fence, would cost about $2.1 million.

The council discussed the plan from the four lawmakers, but took no action.

According to city officials, the city has 10 full-time park rangers spread across Alum Rock, Kelley Park and Lake Cunningham Park.

“The fence was never going to be foolproof, and you’re talking about a really big area to fence off,” Peralez told San José Spotlight earlier Tuesday. “We can try to activate the space and in other areas, working on a mix of patrol.”

Despite the plan costing more than a fence, some say it would make the park more welcoming.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time defending this fence,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo. “I don’t understand how a fence will make our lives slightly better.”

The city must relocate the park’s approximately 250 to 300 homeless residents by mid-2022 to meet the demands of the FAA. The city originally proposed building a fence around the encampment in a May letter to comply with the FAA’s demands.

The area is meant to be a buffer zone for planes in the event of an emergency. Some councilmembers supported the fence to keep the houseless out.

“I don’t want to kick the can down the road for another 60 days,” Davis said. “I was out there at Spring Street over the weekend. It looks terrible. … It just looks like a really lawless area. Trying to have a human presence there instead of a fence is not ever going to work.”

Liccardo and his allies also suggested establishing a safe parking place on private or public land for the RVs at the park. Officials from the city’s housing department said they’re looking for potential sites. To combat illegal dumping, the group wants to invest in “no dumping” signs and cameras. Some of the proposed efforts would be funded by American Rescue Plan dollars.

Councilmember Maya Esparza hoped the city would seek more input from encampment residents. She worried too many resources would be pulled away from the rest of the city and into this project.

“I think we’re sending a lot of mixed messages about this site,” Esparza said. “We want it open but want it secure. We want it to be vacant but we want to activate it.”

Cleaning the area, which is already underway, will cost another $1.5 million. When city officials started a phased approach to clean the park, residents moved their belongings to other parts of the park, according to residents and advocates.

The city originally planned to clear out the encampment in June, according to a letter from Aitken. But the FAA rejected a previous plan from Aitken, asking the city for a more specific timeline. The city submitted a new plan to clear the encampment in August.

Residents of the encampment say they’ve been left out of the conversation and have no resources.

“We had a good gig. It was just a good little area where we’re at,” said Scott Largent, a resident of the encampment. “Everybody got their hopes up that something would come along. We’re the undesirables in the city of San Jose. … You guys have literally created a humanitarian disaster out there.”

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

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