San Jose’s ‘cleanest’ homeless encampment swept away
Cleaning crews with Caltrans clear out a homeless encampment across the street from the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum underneath the Guadalupe Freeway on June 25. Photo by Kyle Martin.

The homeless encampment across the street from downtown San Jose’s Children’s Discovery Museum was swept out and cleared Tuesday morning, and less than a dozen homeless people moved or surrendered many of their belongings while crews from the California Department of Transportation loaded up trucks and hauled it all away.

The encampment is affectionately called “Camp Phoenix,” after the street-appointed camp leader — Arthur “Phoenix” Turner, who lives at the camp and said Tuesday that he would return to the spot after the crew who swept the camp left.

“I’m coming back home,” Turner, 42, said. “This is where we are, this is where I feel safe.”

On Tuesday, Caltrans swept the homeless camp located at Woz Way and Auzerais Avenue beneath the Guadalupe Parkway Freeway — one that advocates described as the cleanest in San Jose and one that they’d been working to turn into a sanctioned encampment.

Victor Gauthier, a Santa Clara County spokesperson for Caltrans, alluded to complaints of graffiti in the area, but said the abatement came because of a request in March from the museum to clean the area beneath the Highway 87 underpass. And he said most abatements start with a complaint or service request.

Gauthier said complaints to sweep encampments such as this could come from “a ticket complaint, a resident complaint, a museum complaint, or it could have been a scheduled maintenance cleanup.”

“Usually that’s how it works if it’s on state right-of-way,” he said.

Gauthier said Caltrans workers on Tuesday cleared out 40-cubic yards of debris and two “loads” of scrap metal from the area, totalling about five dump trucks-worth of stuff from the camp inhabited by less than a dozen homeless people. The camp had been posted with a notice to vacate by June 19 and when crews showed up to sweep five days later, “nothing had been moved,” so they postponed the abatement until the next day.

Turner said he doesn’t blame the workers for clearing out the camp, and noted that he was given time to clear his belongings when they came through Tuesday morning.

“It’s just when you don’t have anything, it’s hard to let stuff go,” Turner said. “It’s crazy to see how the value of things change.”

The encampment has been swept about three times in the two years he’s been living there, but Turner said “people are becoming numb to the fact that we’re going through trials and tribulations.”

“The reason we’re out here in front instead of hiding is because there’s nowhere to run,” Turner said. “We don’t know where to go. We don’t know what to do.”

Housing advocates have been pushing for local housing leaders and legislators to sanction the encampment and allow the homeless residents to remain in the area. One of those advocates, Shaunn Cartwright, says the spot is ideal for a sanctioned camp and called the sweep “complete waste of our tax dollars and resources to clean a clean camp.”

“It’s also not near any houses, it’s not near a creek, it’s not causing any deforestation,” Cartwright said. “It’s a site that’s mostly in the shade all the time which is good for the summer, and it’s also, for the winter, out of the rain.”

While some worry the homeless camp is too close to the beloved downtown museum — possibly turning off visitors, tourists and children — Cartwright said it speaks to a greater understanding of the state’s housing realities.

“If parents don’t want their children to discover there’s homelessness, then they probably shouldn’t live in California,” Cartwright said.

Valerie Kirkland, a 64-year-old homeless resident of the camp, had cleared most of her belongings out of the way during the sweep. She said because she has three dogs, she chooses to stay outside instead of at a shelter.

“My dogs are my home,” Kirkland said. “It’s all good, because you know why? The weather is beautiful.”

Kirkland’s nickname is “Mama Val,” and she calls Turner her neighbor and unofficial son.

On Monday, Turner was treated for a spider bite that’s infected his right hand. He thinks it was a Brown Recluse. Then the next morning, his camp got swept out. It was in the mud of that encampment that Turner said he discovered himself, where he said he had to rebuild his life two years ago when he became homeless. It was a message from God, he said.

He dreams of opening a transitional housing facility and a martial arts center to help homeless people like himself. Now he has to do it all over again.

“This is a fresh start,” Turner said, “a new beginning.”

Contact Kyle Martin at kylebmartin96@gmail.com or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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