San Jose approves park plan to keep homeless out of flight path
Planes fly over the large encampment of homeless residents in San Jose's Columbus Park multiple times a day, as the campsite is just blocks away from Mineta San Jose International Airport. File photo.

San Jose is moving forward with plans to convert a 40-acre homeless encampment at the Guadalupe River Park in downtown into a recreational site.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, councilmembers unanimously approved plans to build a prototype park, Guadalupe Gardens, to help prevent homeless camps from popping up again and comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations that mandate no residential uses in the area by June 30.

Councilmembers also directed the city to remove cars parked on the Guadalupe Park Trail and complete sweeps in the area by June 30, contrary to staff recommendations.

The area sits under the flight path of the Mineta San Jose International Airport, where during the camp’s peak hundreds of homeless people lived last summer. The city is required to clear all encampments in the area because the location is unsafe for high-density residential use due to its heavy noise pollution and proximity to runways.

“All of our ambitions about this park obviously are certainly worthy, but the most important and critical path is dealing with the human need,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo, who called for $2 million to go to housing solutions.

Residents called in to eagerly advocate for a roller skate park or pickleball courts to be included in the plans, while others shared concerns about uprooting homeless individuals without alternative sites or housing that would be ready in time.

“I do want to be clear that it’s very unlikely that there will be enough adequate housing in time for the June 30 deadline,” said Becky Moskowitz, supervising attorney with the Silicon Valley Law Foundation. “I’m very concerned that people will be forced out at that point with nowhere to go.”

Map of proposed prototype park at the Guadalupe Gardens site.

Upcoming sweeps

The city began sweeping the encampments at Columbus Park and along Spring Street and Taylor Street last year. In September and October, the city cleared nearly half of the Guadalupe Gardens site. Since then, the city said it’s had to re-sweep the area six times because unhoused individuals returned and re-established camps.

San Jose conducted more than 200 sweeps last year, which advocates have criticized because it pushes those individuals into other neighborhoods and parks.

City staff wanted to halt sweeps until the future interim housing site at the San Jose Police Department parking lot is complete in the fall. In a recent memo, officials wrote they already notified the FAA there would be a delay in the last sweep until the housing site was ready.

However, councilmembers said they would consider asking the FAA to delay the deadline when staff comes back to council with an update on April 12.

“It’s good to have an aggressive goal for now, and then coming back and revisiting that and coming up with a firmer date that can be achieved,” Councilmember David Cohen said.

Councilmember Dev Davis said she was hesitant to extend the deadline because the site has become a “lawless area” unsafe for residents and trail users.

“We don’t want to make perfect be the enemy of the good,” Davis said in favor of the prototype park plans. “Quick build is really the way to go.”

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 and/or urban agriculture.

Since it is a prototype park, there is a chance any amenities built now could be changed as the city looks for long-term solutions, according to city officials. Estimates place the park’s cost at about $2.9 million, without potential soil remediation or agricultural preparations which would add about $5 million.

The city currently has $1.5 million to allocate to the proposal. In October, the City Council voted against using those funds to build a fence around Guadalupe Gardens, noting that it could be ineffective at stopping encampments. On Tuesday, councilmembers once again downvoted funding a fence.

“(It’s) a waste of money,” said Bob Sippel, manager of the Guadalupe River Park Gardens. “People can cut into fences and get on the other side anyway. I’d rather see the money spent more for things that all of us could enjoy or might help the unhoused.”

A housing problem

It’s still unclear how the city will remove the remaining homeless individuals from the area by the June 30 deadline.

Roughly 150 unhoused people live in Guadalupe Gardens now, according to city estimates. Homeless advocates say it is likely higher. The city has housed 45 individuals in a myriad of locations, according to city documents.

Scott Largent, a homeless advocate and resident at the Guadalupe site, said park plans fail to properly address the most important aspect—where are all these unhoused people going to go?

“What I’ve watched happen out there recently is they’ve just made the conditions so miserable for people out there, that that’s how they’ve been getting them to leave,” Largent told San José Spotlight.

He said the city has removed dumpsters and other services that resulted in rats infesting and eating the electrical wiring of people’s RVs, so their vehicles do not work anymore. Largent also said city promises to fix vehicles have not been met. Staff said they’ve fixed five cars.

He added the site at the SJPD parking lot will not work for most of the individuals remaining in the area.

“Many of the ones that are now out there need medical care, as in some type of institution because they’re severely mentally ill,” Largent said. “They’ve been left out in the elements for such a long time that they need to be reassessed, stabilized and back on their medication.”

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

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