San Jose blight program buried in trash
City workers pulled up in trucks at a sprawling encampment along the Guadalupe River Creek to haul away trash, tents and safety hazards such as fuel cans and car batteries. File photo.

San Jose’s trash pickup program is a success story—so much so that it may be contributing to more illegal dumping.

BeautifySJ, the city’s program tasked with tackling blight from illegal dumping, graffiti, trash and homeless encampments, saw a rise in blight eradication and volunteer participation in 2022-23, according to a report coming before the San Jose City Council on Tuesday. The number of participants assisting with trash pickup grew roughly 300% last year. Staffing skyrocketed as well from less than 17 full-time employees to more than 91 in four years.

The report said BeautifySJ has removed 9.5 million pounds of trash from San Jose’s public spaces as of the 2022-23 fiscal year, a 19% increase from the year prior.

Mayor Matt Mahan is a proponent of the program, and is known for carrying his own graffiti cleanup kit even when out with his family. He told San José Spotlight his office collaborates with the city and other partners to host regular cleanups, where he can be often found on Saturday mornings. The city council approved $12 million for BeautifySJ in this year’s budget.

“Community engagement like this creates the cleaner, safer city we all want to live in,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “After years of declining rates we’re witnessing an exciting resurgence in engagement and volunteerism.”

Andrea Flores Shelton, deputy director of the city’s community services division, said while she’s proud of BeautifySJ’s progress in trash cleanup, the victory is bittersweet. She said she’s noticed an increase in illegal dumping from residents who appear to be taking advantage of the more frequent city trash pickups.

“We’re trying our best to have a prevention strategy and an education strategy (to) promote ways that people can use free junk pickup through their garbage provider,” Flores Shelton told San José Spotlight. “But this is an ongoing challenge with eradication efforts being used, unfortunately, inappropriately, (and) people taking advantage of us.”

While the city council has prioritized picking up trash and eradicating blight, Flores Shelton said, she believes a more efficient and effective strategy is to provide better education and enforcement. BeautifySJ went from receiving one-time COVID-19 relief dollars to being an item in the general fund this year, but more is needed, she said.

“We just need the whole system funded more,” Flores Shelton said. “Beautify(SJ) can only do so much.”

Another task BeautifySJ is responsible for is cleaning homeless encampments. The city program has a strained relationship with some homeless advocates, including Scott Largent, an advocate who spent several years living in an RV on San Jose streets. He told San José Spotlight earlier this year the program had competent, compassionate workers interacting with homeless people during cleanups, but that is no longer the case.

“We try to volunteer our knowledge, our firsthand experience … it just seems in one ear, (and) out the other,” Largent said. “They just really wouldn’t listen … they send in people that, in my opinion, just don’t have the skills to deal with the homeless.”

Flores Shelton said BeautifySJ operates in a challenging, complex legal landscape and environment when cleaning homeless encampments. But she is still proud of the team’s efforts over the last two years.

“We’ve had a lot of mandated abatements that we’ve had to focus on,” Flores Shelton said. “We’re still trying to catch up on the emergency interim housing side and sheltering options. It’s a very, very challenging environment.”

Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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