‘Miserable’: San Jose homeless brace for cold, wet winter ahead of Christmas
Unhoused resident Carole Roberts said her dogs, D.O.G. and Boo Boo, keep her warm at night. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Standing near her tent in San Jose’s Columbus Park with two dogs in her arms, Carole Roberts said the holiday season is not a joyful time of year.

“It’s the worst time of the year, with the cold and the wind,” Roberts, who has been homeless for 13 years, told San José Spotlight. “Christmas is just another day for me.”

Roberts, 53, wraps herself in a hoodie, puffer jacket and blanket she got from different groups and advocates to fight the wind seeping deep into her bones each night.

“I also got two portable heating units right here,” she said, referring lovingly to her dogs, D.O.G. and Boo Boo. “It just gets so windy at night.”

Roberts, along with thousands of other unhoused residents in Silicon Valley, won’t be celebrating any holiday cheer. All that matters is staying warm and dry and finding the next meal, as the torrential downpours in recent weeks flooded their camps and turned them into mud pits.

Those who live by the Guadalupe River saw the water creep up quickly as the rain poured down Thursday night, prompting the San Jose Fire Department and a rescue team to head out to the camps Friday morning, an unhoused resident at Columbus Park said. It’s unclear whether any residents were swept up overnight. The department did not respond to an inquiry Friday.

An area near the Guadalupe River flooded overnight due to heavy rain. Photo courtesy of Scott Largent.
Photo courtesy of Scott Largent.

Some use makeshift solutions such as lighting fire pits, dressing in layers and cuddling with pets to keep from freezing as winter sets in. Some had to dig drainage paths to keep their tents from being swept away in the rain.

“Last year was worse, so this year we knew to prepare,” said Eugene Blackwell, who moved from Colorado to San Jose to take care of his mom and became homeless six years ago.

Blackwell’s mom and siblings still live in San Jose, but he couldn’t get assistance with housing because of his criminal record. This Christmas, he will stay in his tent in Columbus Park, which has a tarp over it to keep him from the rain.

“I get depressed sometimes, but I just make do with it,” he said, adding he found a sense of community with others around him. “You gotta look out for each other out here.”

That’s the cruel reality facing more than 150 other people calling Columbus Park home this winter. The park, one of the Bay Area’s largest homeless camps, is located just two miles north of bustling downtown San Jose where families join hand in hand to celebrate the festive season.

Eugene Blackwell has been unhoused for six years. He had to dig some drainage paths to keep his tent from being swept away by the rain. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Not enough housing

The growing homelessness crisis in San Jose is the city’s “greatest failure,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said during his State of the City address Thursday evening.

“I take responsibility for that failure and for every unhoused neighbor who are in camps in our parks, our creeks and our sidewalks,” he said.

Local government has been racing to build more interim and permanent housing through different initiatives to lift people off the streets. During the pandemic, San Jose managed to open three emergency housing sites, adding more than 300 beds to its inventory. The tiny home community on Evans Lane, which now serves up to 50 families, hosted a Christmas party this week with toys and snacks. San Jose is looking to add more housing by converting motel rooms.

But the waitlists for those spots are long, and many of them also come with restrictions and rules that don’t make sense to unhoused residents.

Joseph Jenkins and his domestic partner Peter, who declined to give his last name, were kicked out of their room at the SureStay Hotel a few weeks ago for ripping up the room’s carpet that Jenkins said was covered in black mold, among other violations.

Now, they’re back on the streets and in the cold.

“We’re trying to take it day by day with the help of our friends,” Jenkins told San José Spotlight. “I just hate being out here again.”

Joseph Jenkins (right) lived in a room at the SureStay Hotel with his partner before being evicted a few weeks ago. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Peter said the director of the program was going to let them stay, but then changed her mind without giving the couple any formal notice.

“I’m just upset that I’m going to spend Christmas and the New Year out here again,” Peter said.

Mark Thompson, who became homeless about three years ago, is glad he has his daughter nearby this Christmas. But there’s little else to celebrate. Although his daughter became homeless around the same time, she moved into an emergency housing site. Thompson was not comfortable moving into interim housing or a shelter because he didn’t feel safe. So his daughter comes to see him in Columbus Park.

“It’s miserable,” Thompson said of the weather, adding he’s battled a cold for several days. “How do I deal with the rain and the cold? I don’t. My socks are still soaked in mud.”

Mark Thompson, who has been homeless for three years, said living in the cold weather has been “miserable.” Photo by Tran Nguyen.

According to the Unhoused Response Group, a homeless advocacy organization, seven people died in Santa Clara County during the cold and rainy nights last week. The recent lives lost came on the heels of another 250 homeless deaths this past year—the highest number of deaths the area has seen in one year.

Local government does not have an official count of how many people have ended up homeless during the pandemic, but camps across the city have grown significantly in size and visibility. Advocates say they meet new people and families every week.

Gail Osmer, a homeless advocate for more than three decades, spent Thursday driving around the park to hand out blankets, food, clothes and COVID test kits.

“It’s shameful,” Osmer said, looking out at the camps.

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

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