San Jose to sweep homeless from ‘Field of Dreams’
George Villanueva is trying to fix his van so he can move before San Jose sweeps where he's staying on Oct. 7. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Homeless residents living near Mineta San Jose International Airport are in a panic knowing that in just a few days they will have nowhere to live.

    Starting Friday, San Jose will disband a makeshift homeless RV camp where more than 100 people are living. City officials estimate more than 140 RVs, trailers, campers and cars—many inoperable—have moved into the baseball field in Columbus Park at the corner of Asbury and Irene streets. The move started as the city swept a nearby, sprawling encampment in the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport in September.

    The city posted notices to sweep the new 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.

    “Significant fire and safety hazards created by this new encampment are extraordinarily difficult to mitigate,” said San Jose Parks Director Jon Cicirelli and Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand in a memo. “There are also the same safety hazards to inbound aircraft and people on the ground that prompted the FAA-directed (abatement).”

    San Jose homeless residents living in a baseball field at Columbus Park will have to find a new place to live as the city prepares to sweep the site. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    San Jose wrapped up its monthlong sweep of the land in the flight path of the airport last week to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s deadline, parks spokesperson Daniel Lazo said. The city risked losing millions in federal funding if the camp wasn’t cleared by the end of September. The 40-acre 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.

    In total, San Jose removed more than 180,000 pounds of trash and debris, 34 vehicles and 11 RVs from the area in September, Lazo said.

    People living in the baseball field, dubbed by some as the “Field of Dreams,” said they don’t have anywhere else to go. The field started with a few dozen RVs in September and has grown significantly, with vehicles parking side by side in the last few weeks. On Monday, the field was somewhat thinned out after a number of vehicles moved away. More than 60 RVs and trailers are still at the field.

    Amber Patterson, who’s staying at the field, said people are worried about the upcoming sweep. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    More sweeps loom

    After clearing the land required by the FAA, San Jose is gearing up to sweep the nearby area, saying it’s also in the flight path. The city swept along Asbury Street last week, sending even more unhoused residents into the baseball field, down the creek and along adjacent streets.

    With the sweep looming, Jose Cortez and his father are scrambling to find a new place. Cortez used to own a shop where he fixed old cars for a living. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered his business, Cortez and his father became homeless. They have four cars, an RV and a trailer. Some of the cars still work, and Cortez hopes to fix the remaining vehicles to sell for a profit.

    “We’re really worried,” Cortez told San José Spotlight. “We’re on a waitlist for housing, but the social worker said it could be a year.”

    San Jose has helped 174 people from the FAA site into temporary or permanent housing since last year, according to a city memo. Some declined offers to stay in tiny homes—quick-build, temporary housing being championed in San Jose—because they can’t bring all their belongings and pets. A new safe parking program at a VTA parking lot will not be ready until later this year, and there’s no guarantee the people living at the baseball field would be eligible to move there, advocates told San José Spotlight.

    “Everybody is talking about what to do,” Amber Patterson, an unhoused person living at the field, told San José Spotlight. “People are very upset about it.”

    Patterson said she’ll pack her belongings and drive the truck she’s sharing with a partner to a different spot in the city, but others aren’t so lucky if their vehicles don’t work.

    “The city is just kicking us around,” she said.

    San Jose will start clearing the makeshift RV yard where more than 100 people are living on Oct. 7. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    San Jose has seen its homeless crisis explode in the last few years, with the pandemic upending the lives of residents. The city’s unhoused population grew 11% during the pandemic, from 6,097 homeless people in 2019 to 6,739 this year. Despite unprecedented funding to bring more housing solutions online, efforts continue to fall short, as residents become homeless at a faster rate than people are being housed.

    Castro Mario, who has been homeless for years, said he turned down a tiny home offer because the room’s small size reminds him of a prison cell.

    “I feel like it’s all promise and no action,” he told San José Spotlight, adding he has worked with four different local organizations to find a stable home with no results.

    George Villanueva, who has lived in his van along Asbury Street near the baseball field for several years, is also facing the sweep. He’s trying to fix up his van so he can move to another location.

    “They said we gotta get out of here,” Villanueva told San José Spotlight. “Luckily I was able to borrow some money to try to fix my van. Everything is just so hard right now.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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