UPDATE: San Jose extends deadline to clear its largest homeless camp
Tony Payer, a resident of the sprawling homeless encampment near Columbus Park, is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose officials are asking the Federal Aviation Administration for more time to clear out the city’s largest homeless camp as a June deadline approaches.

The site sits under the Mineta San Jose International Airport flight path, and the FAA has threatened to withhold millions in federal funding if it isn’t cleared by June 30.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to push the deadline to Sept. 30—pending FAA approval—with about 130 people still living in the camp. The homeless encampment is located near the Guadalupe River Park, and the city has already swept hundreds of people off the land between Spring and Walnut streets.

Officials say the extension would help the city find more options to house these people, including interim housing at a San Jose police parking lot. The extension received support from residents and local organizations during the meeting.

“There are not sufficient beds or alternate places for (unhoused people) to relocate to,” said Becky Moskowitz, supervising attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. “So (without the extension) this will only force individuals into unsafe locations and potentially criminalize them for our community’s lack of affordable housing.”

Planning a park

Councilmember Dev Davis, who represents the area near the airport, told San José Spotlight prior to the vote she was skeptical changes can be made within two months. She ultimately voted in favor of extending the deadline because the city agreed to sweep another area bordering the FAA site.

“We have a growing outcry from our residents to see something be done and if we are telling them we are going to clear this site and we actually pull the rug out from under them and don’t clear the entire site, it looks bad for all of us. It looks like we’re ineffective,” Davis said. “I just think it’s important for us to go all out on one site and to really honestly prove to our residents that we can do it.”

San Jose was asked to clear the encampment in July 2021, when more than 200 individuals were living in tents, RVs and cars at Columbus Park, near the Guadalupe River Trail. Last fall, the city cleared nearly half of the 40-acre site. Since then, city officials said they’ve had to re-sweep the area six times because homeless individuals returned and re-established camps.

To prevent re-encampment, the city approved building a prototype park to fill its space. The park’s plan has a 5.5-acre dog park, a 15.8-acre disc golf course and approximately nine acres for wildflower plantings and meadows in the interim period, with that space set aside for future community gardens or urban agriculture.

Davis pushed for the city to start construction on the prototype park by October of this year to prevent re-encampment. City workers said they could expedite construction to begin by the first quarter of 2023.

“As we’ve been looking more into that the past few days, there’s gonna be a lot of challenges (like) when we have a dog park, we want to have water for the dogs which will cause a little bit more design work,” said Matt Cano, director of public works. “Design is starting this week and so we are moving and we’re gonna push really hard on this project.”

Moving in the right direction

Gail Osmer, a homeless advocate who visits the Columbus Park camp several times a week, is also skeptical the city can house the remaining 130-plus residents by Sept. 30. However, she thinks the extension is a step in the right direction.

“We can house more people,” Osmer told San José Spotlight. “But the city has known about this for years and hasn’t done a single thing to help the unhoused. I find it hard to believe two more months will make a big difference.”

She said unhoused people in the camp want to be housed, but the city and partners failed to adequately provide shelter. The city has escalated efforts to sweep and tow vehicles without housing solutions. A more realistic timeline would be to extend the deadline until the end of the year, Osmer said.

Since February, 71 people have been housed and nine vehicles at the encampment have been serviced, according to city documents.

However, with the slow pace of affordable and interim housing construction, it’s unclear how the city will support the rest. About 76 interim homes are slated to be completed, but by the end of the year. The city also identified two safe parking zones—one of which is at a VTA light rail station—but that won’t be ready until the fall, assuming everything stays on schedule.

San Jose is also working with Santa Clara County’s Office of Supportive Housing to provide rental assistance through Section 8—which provides housing subsidies. The city and county applied for 60 vouchers, but the approval timeline is unclear.

“Vacancies at all city interim housing sites prioritize residents living in the Guadalupe (area),” city officials wrote in a recent memo. “There is an urgency for solutions.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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