San Jose homeless sweeps create a revolving door
Former encampment resident Brian Ross (left) said recent trips in-and-out of the hospital hindered his ability to move out of the area quickly. Photo by Vicente Vera

Drivers plunge down freeway ramps until shooting past the entrance into an endless stream of vehicles, some undoubtedly pushing past speed limits.

Freeway ramps were made to be launch pads for cars – but for Joe Martinez they’re a place to sleep when he’s looking for more privacy and security.

He lived off Highway 87 in San Jose with a community of more than 25 people.

“We’ve been back here for over a year now,” Martinez told San José Spotlight. “I didn’t get homeless because of drugs or nothing. I got homeless because I messed up my back at my job.”

For a year and two months Martinez and his wife had a place to rest their heads at night – then came San Jose police and Caltrans officials to clear the encampment.

Martinez said they’ve come to expect abatements no matter where they resettle.

Abatements have become a revolving door for San Jose’s homeless residents, many of whom have not been offered immediate housing, or turn it down. San Jose has led or participated in at least 97 abatements since Oct. 2020, according to city documents.

The sweeps, as they’re called by homeless residents and advocates, continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against breaking up homeless camps because it could spread the virus.

The City Council even voted in March to continue sweeps during the pandemic.

“The City has taken CDC and County public health guidance far too literally in declining to relocate encampments where those encampments pose a risk to public safety,” Mayor Sam Liccardo wrote in a memo.

Unhoused resident Joe Martinez said he plans to move his belongings not too far from where his community was swept March 25. Photo by Vicente Vera

Martinez’s encampment is one of the first to be dismantled since the vote.

Once the site was cleared, all that remained of the site was a cluster of shopping carts. An American flag remained untouched – for now. But the sweep didn’t last long.

Less than a week later, a handful of tents sprang up just outside the abated area along a narrow path facing the freeway ramp.

“This is why sweeps don’t work,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a longtime homeless advocate and founder of the Unhoused Response Group. “People are forced to move and it doesn’t take much time for them to come back and rebuild.”

Not everyone returned. Some moved to an encampment on the other side of the freeway behind Gunderson High School.

Michael Mosier is one of the homeless residents who moved to the new site. He stopped counting the number of times he’s been shuffled from one site to another.

“I just moved here about a week ago when they first told us we’d be posted, I left before the sweep,” he said. “We get swept more and more every year.”

Councilmember Raul Peralez suggested last month the city explore establishing a sanctioned encampment as it continues to do sweeps, a proposal that was approved by his fellow lawmakers.

Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network, said the sweeps are emotionally traumatizing for residents. Homeless sweeps in San Jose date back to 1983, he said.

“An encampment site sprouted up at Guadalupe River with about 200 people (in 1983). That had never been seen before,” he said. “The number of unhoused people just exploded from a few hundred up into the thousands.”

Without stable housing or sanctioned encampments, he said, all the city is doing is moving people into other areas – and the cycle continues.

“I’m all for sanctioning encampments, but we would need multiple in every council district, not just one in each district,” Perry said. “You add up the number (of unhoused) — it’s around 7,000. One site is not going to do it.”

Former ‘Cal gate’ unhoused resident Michael Mosier said he moved across the street to another encampment site after learning of the imminent abatement. Photo by Vicente Vera

According to city records, 63% of the city’s abatements in the past five months were encampments in districts 3 and 7 – districts that carry the highest population of homeless people.

These abatements included dismantling encampments that obstructed streets and sidewalks, along with evacuating unhoused residents from sites the city deemed hazardous to health and safety.

Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco in March called for a buffer zone between schools and areas where homeless people congregate because of safety concerns.

But city officials said abating people out of buffer zones would result in unhoused residents going around the corner to other parts of the neighborhood.

Jeff Scott, a spokesman for the city’s housing department, told San José Spotlight city outreach teams visit encampment sites ahead of abatements to offer residents shelter opportunities.

“Some homeless residents accept our offer, some decline,” he said.

Brian Ross, who also lived under the Highway 87 ramp, said he would not go to a shelter, if offered, because he suffered from COVID-19, spider bites and ulcers, among other ailments.

“I’m not going to put myself in a situation where I’m going to be amongst a group,” Ross said. “I’ve already contracted things all year long and I’m still not in a good situation.”

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

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