San Jose homeless sweep creates new dangers
Homeless residents swept from a camp in the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport moved to the baseball field at the corner of Asbury and Irene streets at Columbus Park in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    The sprawling land once home to hundreds of San Jose homeless residents sits mostly empty this week—but a new crisis is brewing in the baseball field across the street.

    More than 60 RVs and cars have squeezed into the empty baseball field at the corner of Asbury and Irene streets after the city started its monthlong sweep to clear the sprawling encampment near the Mineta San Jose International Airport a few weeks ago.

    The new camp, dubbed by some as the “Field of Dreams,” is growing increasingly dangerous, people living there told San José Spotlight. As the city escalates its efforts, more people are moving into the field with their belongings, pets and vehicles, unhoused resident Leslie Kerbow said. The threat of fire is his greatest concern.

    “All it takes is one fire and this whole thing could burn down,” he told San José Spotlight.

    Leslie Kerbow is living in his RV in the baseball field. He said he worries about a potential fire in the camp. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    San Jose is in the process of sweeping the land in the flight path of the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration has set a deadline for the city to clear the area by the end of this month. The city risks losing millions in federal funding if the camp isn’t cleared. It was one of the biggest encampments in the Bay Area with a few hundred people living there during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The city has already helped 143 people into shelter, temporary or permanent housing, officials said, but many still have no place to go. Days before the monthlong sweep, a local advocate and several homeless people in the area banded together to move dozens of RVs and trailers into the baseball field.

    The number of people and vehicles at the field has grown significantly in the last week. Vehicles are parked side by side with little room in between. The field also only has one entrance—making it difficult for people to evacuate in an emergency, camp residents said. Last year, multiple fires broke out at the sprawling encampment and a propane tank explosion left some people without any shelter.

    “This started out as a good idea, but we need more organization and rules,” Kerbow said.

    Maria Fierro, a homeless person who helped organize the camp, said she has been going around the field to stop people from burning garbage or starting fires.

    “It has been very overwhelming,” she told San José Spotlight. “I’m just trying to keep everybody safe.”

    Some local advocates are putting together a list of rules for people in the field to follow and might ask people to leave if they don’t adhere to the guidelines.

    “It has been frustrating,” advocate Gail Osmer told San José Spotlight. “People need to clean up and keep fire away.”

    More than 60 vehicles—some immobile—are parked in close vicinity at the baseball field at the corner of Asbury and Irene streets. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Next steps

    As residents and advocates attempt to keep the area safe, city officials said they have no immediate plan to address or clear the area. Columbus Park is also under the airport’s flight path, but because it is city property the FAA is not requiring it to be cleared, parks department spokesperson Daniel Lazo told San José Spotlight.

    “The city is still assessing and monitoring the Columbus Park situation, as our current priorities are finding resources for the individuals currently living in the FAA land area and clearing the open space as required,” Lazo said.

    San Jose Fire Department spokesperson Erica Ray said the city has no special fire mitigation efforts for the field.

    “SJFD has been an active part of the city’s greater efforts by working to keep the unhoused residents in the area safe and by responding to emergencies as they occur,” Ray told San José Spotlight.

    Shaun Benak has lived in his car along Asbury Street for several years. He said he doesn’t have a place to go as the city is planning to sweep his camp. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    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. The city’s unhoused population grew 11% during the pandemic, from 6,097 homeless people in 2019 to 6,739 this year. Despite unprecedented funding to bring more housing solutions online, efforts continue to fall short, as residents become homeless at a faster rate than people are being housed. A number of temporary housing projects—or tiny homes—won’t come online until later this year. A safe parking program at a VTA parking lot also won’t be ready until November.

    Since the beginning of this month, roughly 100 people have cleared out of the FAA site—either voluntarily or by force when bulldozers, city workers and police showed up at the camp. The sweep has prompted an unhoused resident there to sue the city. He’s the only one left in the area as of this week.

    Some are worried Columbus Park will get even more crowded, as the city plans to start clearing out camps along Asbury Street Wednesday. The street was not part of the original area, but Lazo said the city is clearing it under the FAA’s direction.

    Shaun Benak, who has lived in his car along Asbury Street for the last several years, said he has nowhere else to go.

    “It’s been a nightmare,” Benak told San José Spotlight. “I became homeless in 2018 and I lost everything. Now the city is going to take my stuff again.”

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

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