UPDATE: Silicon Valley water agency delays decision to fine homeless people
PATH social worker Mei Curry and her colleagues walked up and down Guadalupe River Trail in San Jose on Jan. 24, 2023 to tally the number of homeless people along the waterways. File photo.

The penalization of homeless people living along regional waterways appears to be less imminent after leaders of Santa Clara County’s largest water agency delayed a policy on penalties and fines for later this year.

The Valley Water board of directors on Tuesday postponed voting on a policy that poses $500 fines or up to 30 days in jail for unhoused people residing on agency-owned land. Directors want to hear from other government agencies, nonprofits and unhoused advocates at an Oct. 11 housing summit before making a decision. They sent the Water Resources Protection Ordinance back to the agency’s Environmental Creek Cleanup Committee to review and consider comments from residents and the board.

“The status quo is not working. Maybe this ordinance isn’t perfect,” Director Barbara Keegan said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But we’re spending a lot of money to deal with unhoused issues and it’s not benefiting the unhoused or the society at large.”

Over the last three years, Valley Water has spent $8 million cleaning encampments and $4.8 million relocating encampments along Coyote Creek. In that period, workers also removed nearly 6 million pounds of trash and debris.

The agency owns the land rights to 295 miles of the 800 miles of waterways in Santa Clara County. There are more than 700 people encamped along Valley Water property, a number that has risen considerably since the pandemic.

Mark Bilski, assistant officer in the Valley Water maintenance division, said the penalty is more of a last resort measure.

“The intent of the ordinance is to not result in criminalization,” Bilski told San José Spotlight. “Valley Water is going to start with an educational approach. We really just want encampments to relocate.”

Along with prohibiting encampments, the policy would also ban trash and pollutants related to encampments, activities that disturb those living nearby and activities that create potential harm for Valley Water employees or the public by those living in encampments.

Homeless advocates say while the water agency may not intend to criminalize homeless people, the policy results in criminalization. They urged the board not to go through with the policy until there are safe places for people to be relocated to.

“This is the wrong direction,” Emmett Abatecola said at the meeting. “The environment is so sacred, but when it’s being put over people, then it no longer makes sense. When we are trying to fine these people and incarcerate them, it becomes not about the environment anymore, it becomes about human rights.”

Jim Campbell, who is currently homeless, said Valley Water and Santa Clara County must have better solutions for those living along the creeks, calling it “inhumane” to penalize homelessness. Campbell shared that he’s faced traumatic situations in shelters and that putting people in congregate facilities isn’t the answer.

“I won’t go back there,” Campbell said.

If the policy is approved, Bilski said Valley Water will begin with passing out information to those on the waterways, informing them of the policy and giving them an opportunity to relocate before sweeping an area. If needed, Valley Water may bring in law enforcement to assist.

“Implementation (of sweeps) will be judicious and based on the availability of housing or shelter opportunities balanced by situational needs,” Matt Keller, Valley Water spokesperson, told San José Spotlight.

Valley Water workers are not responsible for relocating individuals. Rather, the agency contracts with service providers who will try to find them another place to live. However, with most shelters and temporary housing sites full, there will be no place to put those hundreds of people living in encampments until San Jose’s safe sleeping sites materialize or more emergency interim housing is built.

“By the end fiscal year 2025, the city intends to have 1,200 new shelter options for the unhoused,” Jennifer Codianne, deputy operating officer of Valley Water, told San José Spotlight. “So under that collaborative agreement, we are going to lay out the framework for the relocation of the encampments off the waterways.”

Contact Joyce Chu at [email protected] or follow @joyce_speaks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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