San Jose struggles to clean up illegal dumpsites in wake of coronavirus
San Jose, which struggled to clean up illegal dumping sites before the coronavirus pandemic, has seen a reduction in the workforce and a big drop in cleanups in recent weeks. Photo by Grace Hase.

    Despite a years-long effort to reduce blight, graffiti and trash, San Jose has been forced to scale back on its resources to clean the city’s streets, spurred by the COVID-19 quarantine.

    The city in recent years has beefed up its efforts to reduce blight, aided by a new app that allows residents to report where trash is piling up. But with most city operations shut down, the threat of illegal dumping and graffiti grows.

    The city’s Beautify SJ program faced a shortage of staff and volunteers before the pandemic, but in the midst of the shelter-in-place order, those city resources have been cut in half. While the city has not yet seen an uptick in illegal dumping, cleaning crews have continued to pick up debris, fearing trash piling up will create a public health concern.

    “From a public health perspective, leaving trash to accumulate is not a good thing,” Deputy City Manager Angel Rios told San José Spotlight. “We’re really trying to find ways to ramp up more of the trash and illegal dumping pickup. But the one thing for sure is that we’re not going to just ignore it.”

    A 2019 report on the program highlighted challenges in keeping up with the demand for cleanup services triggered by the city’s 3-1-1 app, which residents use to report illegal dumping, litter and graffiti.

    The city averaged 543 monthly requests to clean up illegal dumping sites before the launch of the app, but they nearly tripled to 1,583 requests afterward.

    Before the coronavirus pandemic, city cleaning crews regularly swept 70 hotspots a day, though San Jose has identified more than 160 trouble sites around the city. Now in the midst of the crisis, only 25 of the city’s most common dumping grounds — sites with 13 or more clustered illegal dumping incidents — are being cleaned in an effort to save money and time.

    “Right now we’re focusing in on 25 of the biggest hotspots, the largest encampments,” Rios said.

    Keeping homeless encampments clean is a top concern, as the threat of the coronavirus spreading among the homeless community continues to worry public health officials. City officials said they’re employing new strategies to get more sites cleaned and hope to add staff once they receive additional equipment and masks for the cleaners to wear.

    “We’re trying to figure out a staffing ratio where we could hit up another 15 to 20 sites and as we get access to more equipment, then that’s going to give us more latitude to be able to add back more staff,” Rios said.

    Normally, the city has 10 people on its rapid response team to clean up illegal dumping, but that was scaled back to four people when the shelter-in-place order was implemented two weeks ago.

    “Technically, the rapid response team wasn’t really deemed essential,” Rios said.

    The city last February renewed a yearlong contract with California Waste Solutions, San Jose’s largest recycling hauler, which serves nearly 166,000 homes. The company continues its trash pickup services and has not laid off any employees, officials said.

    “Despite the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, we have not laid off or furloughed any of our employees,” said CWS spokeswoman Tasion Kwamilele. “As we provide an essential service to the residents of San Jose, we will continue taking every precaution to prioritize the health and safety of our valuable employees.”

    Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, who has led several campaigns to clean up piling debris in his district, said it’s important to not let the community “deteriorate and fall apart” during the shelter-in-place order.

    But he has a larger concern related to the pandemic.

    “What concerns me more are the budget shortfalls,” Jimenez said. “How is that going to impact our ability to deliver the services residents want?”

    Jimenez said dumping could become a larger problem when the city resumes its operations.

    “(Residents) see it as a symbol to the inefficiencies of government, but what we’re fundamentally trying to do here is change people’s behavior,” he said.

    Rios said many construction workers regularly contribute to illegal dumping, but the stay-at-home order has reduced their illegal disposal of hazardous materials. “During this public health crisis there’s been less work, which means less dumping,” he said. “So that’s one silver lining in some of this.”

    The city still faces significant challenges with enforcing penalties and collecting fees for illegal dumping, which includes a $2,500 fine for a first-time violation and up to $10,000 for a third violation.

    But Rios said the city is keeping an eye out for illegal activity and will continue to enforce the law. Starting this week, he added, city staff will perform regular inspections throughout San Jose. In addition, he is confident that new masks and cleaning supplies will keep workers safer during the public health crisis.

    “I feel much better this week,” he added. “We have a stronger game plan … and we’re protecting the worker staff that are out there because right now their safety is our first priority.”

    Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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