San Jose sidesteps lawsuit from homeless resident
San Jose homeless resident Rudy Ortega stands in front of the courthouse after his second informal mediation on Sept. 20. Photo by Jana Kadah.

A judge this week ordered the last man living in a massive San Jose homeless camp to move out—with the city’s help.

Rudy Ortega is the sole holdout camping near Columbus Park. He filed a temporary restraining order against San Jose and housing provider HomeFirst to prevent being swept and to protect his property from being destroyed. His location needs to be cleared by Sept. 30, or San Jose risks losing millions in federal funding. San Jose started the monthlong sweep on Sept. 1.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Edward J. Davila said Ortega is obligated to leave the site. Instead of moving forward with a restraining order as Ortega hoped, Davila said he would help mediate with the city to get Ortega’s trailer fixed so he could safely relocate. Davila directed the city to start on repairs this week.

“It’s definitely not what I was hoping for,” Ortega told San José Spotlight, who hoped his attempt for a restraining order would change how the city conducts sweeps.

In his lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Ortega alleges city officials and the city’s partners breached their contracts and violated his constitutional rights. He named two city officials who promised to get his trailer fixed, but it has yet to happen. He argues that if the trailer isn’t fixed, the city will discard it—violating his private property rights, Ortega said.

He has been homeless in the area for seven years. Last year, Ortega purchased a trailer to live in, but rat infestations and rough living conditions destroyed it along with his Buick. Without a working car, Ortega cannot move his trailer or other belongings off the encampment site. He said he was threatened with arrest if he didn’t leave and turned to the court for help.

Davila heard the claim last week and directed the city to explore options to get Ortega off the site with his belongings. On Saturday, the city’s mechanic went to inspect Ortega’s trailer and said the slew of dead rodents would need to be removed from the vehicle before an assessment can be completed.

This week, the city attorney said San Jose is willing to purchase the necessary parts for Ortega’s trailer and repair the vehicle. The cost is about $150-200. They can then tow his trailer to one of three different locations around Columbus Park. Ortega’s car is beyond repair, but the city could potentially purchase it.

Ortega vehemently opposes all three locations and said his life and wellbeing are at risk if he doesn’t find a long term place to stay.

“I’d rather set my trailer on fire and burn it up like blades of glory before I move over there,” Ortega said. “Because that is what’s going to happen if I stay there anyway.”

The three potential parking places proposed by the city attorney have time restrictions and are subject to sweeps as well because they border the site currently being swept, said homeless advocate Scott Largent.

Largent has been helping Ortega through the legal process. He said though Ortega isn’t getting what he asked, this lawsuit may set a precedent for other unhoused residents to seek mediation through the court.

“I’m gonna let other people know on the streets that the better route is to go through federal court because let’s be honest, the city really hasn’t pulled through with any of their promises. And I don’t think they will until they are forced to,” Largent told San José Spotlight. “This lawsuit might finally get the city to jump and do something. And if there is enough people suing it may make the judge realize there needs to be other major changes.”

Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, said if more people have Ortega’s “courage and will,” change is imminent.

“San Jose and the system like to do their dirty work—sweeps, discarding property, breaking promises—in the dark,” Perry told Spotlight. “Actions like (Ortega’s) help to bring it out into the light of day.”

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

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