San Jose preps sweep of migrating homeless camp
Homeless resident Robert Hernandez organizes his belongings ahead of a sweep at a camp in San Jose's Columbus Park. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose spent September sweeping homeless people from a large encampment near Columbus Park—now it’s clearing out another growing camp nearby.

    More than 100 people living in a baseball field at the corner of Asbury and Irene streets—many who moved over from last month’s sweep—are finding themselves in a familiar situation. Dubbed the “field of dreams,” the camp is comprised of more than 140 RVs, campers and other vehicles in various states of disrepair.

    The city posted notices to sweep the camp last week—with plans to start clearing the field and nearby areas. The sweep, scheduled to go through Nov. 18, is part of city efforts to clear the area between Hedding Street and Coleman Avenue—including encampments along the Guadalupe River Trail.

    Service provider Destination: Home, a city partner, is offering a vehicle buyout program to clean up the clunkers. Representatives were not immediately available for comment.

    Robert Hernandez speaks with city staff about the upcoming sweep. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    On Friday, city officials and police officers gave individuals two options before sweeps start on Tuesday: the homeless residents can trade in their vehicles for $500 or leave the area.

    Some are taking the city up on the offer. Others are refusing because they say their vehicle is their only means of shelter.

    “I think it is a good deal, because about half of the RVs and stuff on this lot don’t run—they were towed in,” Robert Hernandez, who lives at the site, told San José Spotlight. “So it gives them an opportunity to get a couple of dollars while they find someplace else to go.”

    Hernandez traded his inoperable trailer for the cash, but said he was able to do it because he has a tiny home he can go to.

    “I’m doing the tiny homes because in the end, I’m hoping to get housing, just like everybody else,” Hernandez said. “I just have to wait my turn. It could be next week, could be next year but I’m not angry, I’m grateful.”

    There are a handful of city-owned tiny homes around San Jose—with more in the pipeline. It’s one of the tools San Jose is utilizing to combat the growing rate of homelessness. In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Jose set a goal to build 1,000 prefab units by the end of 2022—there are 717 units under construction or in development as of September. 

    San Jose police officers and city staff informed homeless residents at a camp in Columbus Park of their options before the area is cleared. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Clearing the camps

    This latest camp clearing comes one week after San Jose wrapped up its monthlong sweep of the land in the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s deadline. The city risked losing millions in federal funding if the camp wasn’t cleared by the end of September. The 40-acre plot of land was once home to several hundred homeless people during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. San Jose started the clearing process last year.

    Homeless resident George Villanueva, a San Jose native from Alum Rock, said there is no way he would trade his RV for $500, especially after making costly repairs to keep it operable with a functioning shower, fridge, stove and bed.

    “I’ve been looking online and something like this costs at least $10,000,” Villanueva said. “Why would I take a deal like that?”

    George Villanueva, who lives in his RV near Columbus Park, is worried about where he will go after an upcoming sweep. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Villanueva and others in the field told San José Spotlight they would like to move into a safe parking site like the one planned at the Santa Teresa VTA Light Rail station. But until that opens, he worries about where to go next.

    Plans for additional safe parking sites will come to the full San Jose City Council in November.

    San Jose first explored safe parking programs in 2019 at the Seven Trees Community Center parking lot. The program was shut down in less than a year due to concerns of safety and lack of participation. The city also funded two more locations at Roosevelt and Southside community centers, which did not see similar concerns and closed last year when the contract with site manager LifeMoves expired. Last November, a temporary safe parking program in North San Jose ended earlier than expected because the few residents who utilized the site moved to transitional housing.

    Homeless advocate Gail Osmer, who helped move individuals from the original camp into the baseball field, said she is pleading with city officials to turn the field into a temporary safe parking site until other places for RV dwellers become available.

    “I just don’t understand what the rush is,” Osmer told San José Spotlight. “Why not wait until the VTA site is ready at the end of the year? Why not do what Mountain View did and give 3-4 miles of streets for safe parking?”

    San Jose Parks Director Jon Cicirelli and Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand said in a city memo that San Jose is sweeping the area because of safety concerns.

    “Significant fire and safety hazards created by this new encampment are extraordinarily difficult to mitigate,” they wrote in a memo. “There are also the same safety hazards to inbound aircraft and people on the ground that prompted the FAA-directed (abatement).”

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

    Editor’s Note: Destination: Home CEO Jennifer Loving sits on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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