Santa Clara County agency’s homeless creek cleanup sparks concern
Volunteers are pictured during Valley Water's most recent California Coastal Cleanup Day last month. Photo courtesy of Valley Water.

Thousands of residents in Santa Clara County are unsheltered, and that number has steadily increased — a by-product of skyrocketing rents, an exponentially high cost-of-living and a shortage of affordable housing, making the Bay Area one of the most costly regions in the country.

In San Jose alone, there are more than 4,000 homeless individuals living in the streets of the city, and as that number increases, more and more of them have been flocking to the banks of Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River. While local leaders brainstorm new ideas to help homeless residents get housed, the region is increasingly finding new ways to clean up the city’s affected waterways.

As a result, the Santa Clara Valley Water District this week voted 5-2 to implement a new Environmental Cleanup Day — a one-of-a-kind restoration project intending to help homeless people living alongside Coyote Creek clean up their own debris.

Chair Linda LeZotte and board member Barbara Keegan cast the two dissenting votes.

The homeless encampments along the city’s creek embankments and riverbeds have spurred outcry from local leaders and concerned residents, who worry about blight, dingy living conditions and homeless individuals posing a dangerous threat to the ecology of the city’s waterways.

To help curb the growing population of unhoused residents along San Jose’s waterbeds, the city has conducted massive sweeps of the encampments, but the clearings don’t stop people from living there and often incite distrust among the homeless who’ve lost what little they have left of their belongings. The cleanup day — set for Dec. 7 — addresses these concerns, while aiming to prevent floods ahead of the rainy season and reinstill trust among those who have suffered from the hundreds of city-led sweeps in the past.

The effort, spearheaded by the water district’s Homeless Encampment Ad Hoc Committee, will cost about $90,000 and will be a regional partnership between San Jose, Santa Clara County and the water district.

“The proposed environmental day event would be a collaboration of organizations and volunteers coming together to clean trash and debris from the area at three sites along Coyote Creek,” said Mark Bilski, senior management analyst for Santa Clara Valley Water. “This is an opportunity for county and city agencies and social service organizations to not only help with the cleanup, but to set up information booths at the sites and conduct outreach activities for any individuals in need.”

Water district officials said the event is not a sweep, or intended to clear out or remove the homeless encampments. To help offset the hefty price tag, Bilski added that the water district will collect donations. Along with the public, officials from local government agencies, social service organizations, environmental and homeless advocacy groups and volunteers, including local unhoused residents, are expected to participate.

“Most importantly is flood prevention and we have to do what we can. The district’s job is to clean the streams, but because we’re trying to have sensitivity for the people living near the creek, we’re trying to do it a little differently,” board member Richard Santos told San Jose Spotlight on Friday. “We won’t remove their valuables or their housing — we’ll just remove trash. We hope it’s successful, and the police will be there to make sure people are protected.”

Santos, who chairs the committee that thought of the idea, added that the cleanup day is a win-win scenario for everyone — the neighboring community who would like to see the area cleaned, the homeless residents living there, environmental activists concerned about the health of the estuary and taxpayers who want to see their money being used wisely.

“The cleanup day will create more trust from the unhoused community who will help clean up their own mess and taxpayers will see their money is being used wisely. We look forward to the help and volunteers,” he added. “Healthy streams are good for everybody.”

But some board members aren’t convinced the cleanup day is a good idea, citing safety concerns for families and children about handling toxic materials and drug-related paraphernalia.

“I can’t ask the volunteer to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I wouldn’t go into a situation where I feel my health and safety could be at risk and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone’s child to do that,” said Keegan. “So, If I don’t do it, I feel very hypocritical encouraging others to do it.

“Not painting everyone with a broad brush — there are people who are just having a tough time, who are living there under really extreme, sad situations,” she added. “But there’s also a criminal element, a mentally ill element and a drug user element and I’m concerned about people’s safety.”

Lezotte also expressed worry that the water district is spending more money on homelessness efforts than other regional partners, such as the county.

“The county does zip when it comes to the homeless. I get a little annoyed spending now $1.5 million on cleanups and we don’t get the credit for the work,” Lezotte said. “We have to put our people out and participate in these cleanups twice a year and I don’t see the participation by the other organizations who are supposed to be doing something.”

Board member John Varela, whose district includes the encampment, said he was “baffled” by some of the comments he heard over the safety of the volunteers, but added that he was “particularly proud” to serve on the committee dedicated to helping the unhoused community.

“We’re all concerned, we understand what the hazards are,” said Varela, who also sits on the committee. “But the volunteers are there to do a job and do the work that we’re asking them to do.“

Bilski said safety will be the top priority, and water district staff will manage the event and oversee trash and debris removal.

“This is an opportunity for county and city agencies and social service organizations to not only help with the cleanup,” Bilski said, “but to set up information booths at the sites and conduct outreach activities for any individuals in need.“

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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