San Jose to vote on sweeping homeless camps, creating sanctioned encampments
Unhoused Response Group founder Shaunn Cartwright and RJ Ramsey, a formerly homeless resident (right) protest the City of San Jose’s practice of sweeping encampment sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Vicente Vera

Some San Jose leaders want to clear homeless encampments immediately — despite health regulations cautioning not to do so during a pandemic — and move homeless residents to a government-approved camping site.

The San Jose City Council could vote Tuesday to dismantle encampments — against COVID-19 health guidelines. Councilmember Raul Peralez and city officials proposed creating temporary a sanctioned encampment on unidentified public property to allow people to shelter in place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends allowing homeless people to stay in their respective encampments. Clearing camps can cause individuals to scatter, lose touch with service providers and potentially spread the virus, according to CDC guidelines.

San Jose has frequently ignored this guideline and has booted numerous unhoused residents from their established camps — in fact the council made clearing encampments a top priority for the next financial year. The city swept roughly 50 people from a camp along Coyote Creek in December to renovate the trail. Advocates continue to protest similar and more recent sweeps.

Unhoused advocate Shelley Leiser brings a broom and makes a sweeping motion to symbolize what she describes as the nonstop effort to disperse houseless people in Santa Clara County. Photo by Vicente Vera.

“Moving people from one camp to another camp to another camp is so hard and distressing on everyone,” longtime homeless advocate Gail Osmer told San José Spotlight. “In most of the sweeps, they don’t get any of their belongings back.”

While advocates are concerned about displacing unhoused residents, city leaders face pressure over growing encampments.

Businesses along Coleman Avenue started an email chain in 2019 with Peralez’s office, urging San Jose to clear nearby encampments. Some business owners called homeless residents parasites and heathens.

Without any proof, they blamed them for theft, vandalism and gun crimes in the area. They lamented that police did little to solve the problems.

Mayor Sam Liccardo is now taking a more aggressive stance.

“I have repeatedly urged that the city has taken CDC and county public health guidance far too literally in declining to relocate encampments where those encampments pose a risk to public safety,” Liccardo wrote in a recent memo. “After much pushing, we softened our rigid adherence to the public health guidance to clear public rights of way, but not enough to address many other basic public safety concerns of our residents. I urge that we do so immediately.”

Liccardo proposed clearing encampments near schools and child care centers — using the same distance standards that keep bars and cannabis dispensaries away from children. He said individuals should only be moved after being offered services and shelter.

RVs will also need to relocate under his proposal if they are illegally dumping waste, engaging in illegal activities or being disruptive near child-serving areas.

Shaunn Cartwright, founder of the Unhoused Response Group — which provides information and supplies to homeless residents — favors creating sanctioned encampments but worries about who might be classified as a “threat” to public safety.

“Anybody can figure out a way to deem something ‘unsafe’ if they want to,” she said.

Cartwright and other advocates gathered on Monday at San Jose City Hall to protest the city’s decision to continue sweeps.

Protesters against encampment sweeps in San Jose create signs and write messages to show solidarity with houseless residents and rail against their displacement. Photo by Vicente Vera

“We are here because sweeps kill people, they traumatize people,” Cartwright said. Five other homeless advocates bared signs reading, “sweep leaves, not lives” and “stop the sweep.”

“I was swept before, and they force you to leave the place you live,” said Geneva Strickland, a formerly homeless person who found housing through the Santa Clara Housing Authority last year. “Imagine if you had to just up and leave your house.”

Cartwright said her group is proposing a plan to ramp up vaccinations for unhoused residents, advocates and volunteers. Cartwright also proposed creating a task force to take stock of encampments and see which current sites could be used as effective sanctioned encampments.

Councilmembers David Cohen and Pam Foley said the city should use sweeps as a last resort when encampments are in the public right of way or pose a hazard to other residents.

Peralez agreed encampments should be cleared if they pose a threat to public safety but advocated for the creation of sanctioned encampments to avoid displacing people. He said sanctioned sites should provide health care and case management services and options to help people transition into permanent housing.

“Sanctioned encampments will provide the basic living conditions that most of us take for granted on a daily basis, such as safe and stable shelter that has been absolutely essential during these trying times,” Peralez said in a memo. “It will help end the unhoused from being unjustly criminalized and the disruptive and traumatic nature of the abatement process.”

Cohen and Foley said they’d rather see the city expand housing programs over sanctioned encampments. Liccardo did not specify whether he’ll support a sanctioned encampment, but has previously said sanctioned encampments “don’t work.”

Osmer worries the government will be overly controlling of the camp to the point where it is “run like a prison.”

“There’s no reason why a camp can’t be run by the people living there,” Osmer said. “A lot of these camps have a person that kind of runs the camp and lets people in or tells people they can’t come in or to clean up … there’s no reason a sanctioned encampment can’t be run like that.”

Advocate Shelley Leiser showed up at City Hall on Monday with a broom, sweeping it back and forth to symbolize the decades-long effort to disperse houseless people from encampment areas.

“The way houseless people are being treated is dreadful,” she said, “they need a safe place to live.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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