San Jose sweeps homeless to meet federal deadline
Jonathan Todd Carlson carries some of his belongings as city workers break down his makeshift shelter at homeless camp near Columbus Park on Sept. 1, 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

With a shopping cart full of his belongings, Jonathan Todd Carlson watched as bulldozers broke down his makeshift home for the last six months—a tarp shelter near Columbus Park.

A mechanic by trade and a veteran of 10 years, Carlson has been navigating homelessness in San Jose since 2015, after spending his money on his mother’s cancer treatments and facing two evictions.

“Why do they evict some people and abate others,” Carlson told San José Spotlight. “To abate means to get rid of something negative. We don’t matter here.”

Carlson is one of the first homeless residents to be swept from a sprawling camp near Columbus Park in downtown San Jose. This follows months of planning and delays to clear the area to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration deadline. The site is in the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport, and the city risks losing millions in federal funding if the camp isn’t cleared. More than 100 people are still at the site—down from an estimated few hundred during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

@sanjosespotlight

One of the largest #homeless camps in #SanJose is being cleared. This is what it looked like. Story link in bio. #news #fyp

♬ Sad Scene BGM Piano Instrument(313618) – HomeMadeGarbage

City workers dismantle a large homeless camp near Columbus Park. Photo by Jana Kadah.

San Jose has seen its homeless crisis explode in the last few years, with the COVID-19 pandemic further upending the lives of thousands of families and residents. Despite unprecedented funding to bring more housing solutions online, efforts continue to fall short, as residents continue to fall into homelessness at a faster rate than people are being housed. San Jose saw its unhoused population grow 11% during the pandemic, from 6,097 homeless people in 2019 to 6,739 this year.

City officials and police officers showed up with garbage trucks and bulldozers around 8 a.m. on Thursday to tear down makeshift living spaces.

San Jose workers began clearing the area between Hedding and Asbury streets as unhoused people who lived there packed their things. Carlos Rampolla, who was moving his paintings into his vehicle, said he has spent the last few days helping others get out of the camp.

“It’s just sad,” he told San José Spotlight. “People are all stressed out.”

Officials estimate the city’s efforts to disband the encampment will take a month, right up to the FAA deadline. The FAA already granted a three-month extension in May.

San Jose and its partner HomeFirst, a nonprofit homeless services provider, have spent the last few months connecting people living in the camp to resources and housing. According to the city, roughly 130 people have gotten into shelter, temporary housing or a permanent home.

“Communication with encampment residents and stakeholders will continue until the project is complete,” city spokesperson Daniel Lazo told San José Spotlight, adding social workers are coming out to the site five days a week.

A plane flies over a sprawling homeless camp near Columbus Park. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Several homeless advocates are also helping people navigate the sweep.

“Where are services that would actually help?” advocate Scott Largent told San José Spotlight, referring to mental health and animal programs. “That’s what we need out here.”

Unhoused residents at the camp said they have turned down offers to live in tiny homes— quick-build, temporary housing being championed in San Jose—because they can’t bring all their belongings and pets there.

Amy Chavez and Bruce Mims worry the city will keep sweeping them. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Some people living in RVs also said they feel left behind because the city didn’t fix their vehicles without valid registrations.

A few homeless residents in the camp banded together, with the help of advocate Gail Osmer, to move more than 30 RVs—some immobile—across the street into Columbus Park days before the sweep. This area is also under the flight path, but because it is city property, the FAA is not requiring it to be cleared.

“City housing and HomeFirst dropped the ball,” Osmer told San José Spotlight. “They made a lot of promises that didn’t happen, that’s why we took things into our own hands.”

Maria Fierro, an unhoused resident who pulled a number of RVs out of the camp, said people are just trying to survive.

“We pulled, towed and in some cases pushed the vehicles out of there,” she told San José Spotlight. “People lost a lot of stuff, and this is all they got.”

Bruce Mims and Amy Chavez are among a few dozen people moving to the new camp. They worry the city will end up sweeping them out of there too.

“It’s like a waiting game to be harassed,” Mims told San José Spotlight. “If they keep pushing us, we’ll just keep moving.”

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

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