San Jose has cleared out 224 homeless encampments since January, with more than 75% of those removals happening in Districts 3 and 7, city data shows.
City officials said a sweep could mean booting one person from their camping spot—or clearing out a massive site with multiple people.
Advocates, who have long called for the city and its partners to halt sweeping homeless sites during the pandemic, said the numbers are sobering.
“That’s unbelievable,” Gail Osmer, a longtime homeless advocate, told San José Spotlight. “I’m just shocked. I had no idea they were doing that. It’s very disturbing.”
The city conducted 108 sweeps between January and November in District 3, data shared with San José Spotlight shows. That’s almost half of all removals across the city.
“District 3 is home to more encampments than any other council district, so unfortunately, it’s not surprising that we also have more abatements than other districts,” Councilmember Raul Peralez told San José Spotlight.
Data also shows that in District 3, the city conducted 31 sweeps in September and another 25 in October.
“Most of those are in the Spring and Taylor Street area,” Daniel Lazo, a spokesperson for Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, told San José Spotlight, referring to a large encampment site with some 150 residents near Columbus Park.
Peralez said these encampment sweeps only serve as a short-term solution.
“My office has consistently taken the lead on initiatives to prevent homelessness and provide support for our unhoused community members,” he said. “District 3 was also one of the first districts to host a safe parking site, providing opportunities for homeless families and individuals living in cars and RVs to park in safe places overnight.”
District 7, also with a large number of unhoused residents, had 61 sweeps over the same time period, data shows. Councilmember Maya Esparza did not respond to an inquiry about abatement activities in the district.
"This is not surprising to me at all," Shaunn Cartwright, a local homeless advocate and founder of the Unhoused Response Group, told San José Spotlight. "We have a councilmember that consistently votes against unhoused people and has shown a hostility toward unhoused people."
In contrast, District 1 had no sweeps in 2021. All other districts removed 10 or fewer sites.
Not solving the problem
Roughly 25% of all encampment removals were to clear right-of-way, such as on sidewalks, Lazo said. The department began handling clean-ups and encampment sweeps earlier this year.
Abatements also took place to address public safety and fire prevention, or to clear out abandoned camps and those located near schools, Lazo added. San Jose implemented a 150-foot “buffer zone” around schools in April.
Abatements, or sweeps, are costly to the city and destructive to the unhoused population, city officials and local advocates said. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows San Jose spent $4.85 million clearing out camps in 2019. Many residents lose all their belongings during these sweeps, and often move around the corner or come back to the site after the abatement crews leave.
"It's not really solving the problem," said Councilmember David Cohen, who's called for abatement to be the last resort in dealing with unhoused encampments. "We don't want to put so much money into abatements that we have fewer resources to provide housing solutions. That's a big challenge for cities."
San Jose, like other cities in the area, halted encampment removals early in the pandemic out of concerns of COVID-19 spread—with some exceptions. But as the pandemic pushed more people into the streets, camps grew in size and visibility. Last fall, the city started to dismantle homeless encampments regularly again and voted earlier this year to make it a priority.
Advocates said the sweeps only leave more trauma and erode trust among unhoused residents and officials.
"We've told them for years that this is what's going on, and nobody listens," Cartwright said.
San Jose estimates it currently has 220 encampments across the city.
The city continues to struggle in providing enough housing and shelter to those sleeping on the streets. Local officials are exploring different options to beef up interim housing inventories, including converting hotels and motels and building prefab communities on public land.
Santa Clara County’s biennial homeless count in 2019 estimated there were 6,100 homeless residents in San Jose—a number local advocates suspect has grown since the pandemic.
"The issue of homelessness is a housing issue," Sandy Perry, president of Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, told San José Spotlight. "The city has failed miserably at it. As long as they're sweeping people and pushing people out under threat of arrest, that's wrong."
"They talk about, 'We're building this and we're building that.' We are not even building at a pace that keeps up with our death rate," Cartwright said. "Our death rate this year is going to be well over 200 people and we're not even building 200 units of housing."