San Jose clears homeless camp despite concerns over COVID-19
Garbage crews rip up a homeless camp at Kelley Park in San Jose on Nov. 30. File photo by Vicente Vera.

San Jose started dismantling a homeless encampment this week to make way for an upcoming trail renovation, flouting health recommendations and stoking fears the action will lead to the spread of COVID-19.

While placing people in housing is the best option, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends allowing people in encampments to stay in place.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” according to CDC guidelines.

Jeff Scott, a spokesperson for the San Jose housing department, said 40 to 50 residents of the encampment at Coyote Creek Trail in Kelley Park, at the corner of Story and Senter roads, were offered the opportunity to move to a shelter before the camps were cleared. But only one person accepted.

Gail Osmer, a longtime homeless advocate, said the city should follow CDC guidelines and leave the residents alone.

“They’re not even blocking anything, and the city is not even supposed to be doing this during another surge in the pandemic,” she said. “I’ve been advocating on behalf of these people all over town, and it just breaks my heart to see them get tossed around like this.”

Denise Lee said she turned down the offer to go to a shelter because she previously had been assaulted in one.

“I don’t like that, living open among strangers where someone can just come at you,” she said. “After I was attacked, I said I was done with shelters.”

Santa Clara County shelters enacted COVID-19 measures, such as social distancing between sleeping spaces, since the start of the pandemic, said Sparky Harlan, CEO of youth housing nonprofit Bill Wilson Center.

Despite those efforts, Santa Clara County leaders announced a troubling spike in COVID-19 cases at homeless shelters.

At the Boccardo Reception Center, an emergency shelter on Little Orchard Street in San Jose, 60 people tested positive since Nov. 23, four of them staff. At South Hall, another homeless shelter in San Jose, seven people tested positive since Nov. 18, one of them staff.

Harlan denounced the city’s homeless sweeps amid a deadly pandemic.

“I don’t like how they cleared everyone out while we’re in the middle of a surge,” she said. “They should have waited to do this early next year when things slow down hopefully.

A flyer distributed Nov. 25 by city outreach workers stated the encampment was blocking a public right-of-way and posed a health and safety hazard. It notified residents to remove their belongings by 7 am. Nov. 30.

A bulldozer clears a homeless encampment along Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose, despite the pandemic. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Promptly at 7 a.m., crews covered head to toe in protective suits and wearing gloves and gas masks arrived and started tossing items into garbage trucks.

“It looks like a tornado went through here,” said Crystal Cortez, a three-month resident of the camp. “We started (packing) like at 5 in the morning. We had a few days notice.”

Among the items discarded were mattresses, tent poles and a bed frame – items residents say they’re not likely to see their belongings again.

“We were told that they’d be taking our personal belongings that didn’t seem contaminated and hold them at Little Orchard (shelter),” said Cortez. “But I haven’t seen them sorting through anything. They’re just scooping it up with the bulldozer.”

According to the flyer, personal property collected during the sweep will be held at Little Orchard, also known as the Boccardo Regional Reception Center, until Feb. 20 unless the items are perishable or pose a safety hazard.

Osmer said outreach workers with the city delivered the flyers a week before, adding 25 people would be displaced.

“They take everything,” Osmer said. “You could have a brand new tent, but the second it touches the ground, it’s no good anymore. They can just say it’s trash and dump it.”

The residence of Denise Lee was the last remaining structure after two days of encampment sweeps by San Jose.

By the second day of the clean-up, Cortez’s tent was gone. Lee’s structure along with two neighboring tents were the only ones left standing among the patches of loose dirt and litter that was once someone’s living area.

Teichert Construction is scheduled to begin construction of the trail Dec. 7, Scott said.

“Master planning for this work on the Coyote Creek Trail dates back to 2005,” he said in an email. “These trail improvements will provide a bicycle commute route to downtown San Jose and a recreational trail that connects to Anderson Lake.”

Scott said the city’s garbage cleanup initiative, BeautifySJ, distributed flyers with the goal of removing people from an active construction site.

BeautifySJ program manager Olympia Williams said the area will soon be fenced off and the city did not want people there until the last minute.

Cortez called a relative who drove to the encampment to help her store essential belongings in his car until she finds a new temporary residence.

“I’ll move a little bit further down the creek I guess,” she said.

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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