Residents feel stuck at massive San Jose homeless camp
Tony Payer, a resident of the sprawling homeless encampment near Columbus Park, says he's waiting for pandemic relief money so he can leave for Nebraska. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

The clearing of a major homeless encampment near San Jose’s Columbus Park has forced scores of unhoused residents to live together in squalid, cramped conditions.

Over the last two months, the city has cleared about two-thirds of a 40-acre plot of city-owned land near Columbus Park. About 150 unhoused people, 200 vehicles—of which 53 are RVs—occupy about one-third of the space they had before. The remaining people will be forced to move when the city begins clearing the last section of land next spring.

Gail Osmer, a homeless advocate, said the clearance has been a disaster for homeless people living near the park. She told San José Spotlight residents need more porta-potties and streetlights. On a recent visit, she pointed to trash piled up between tents and RVs.

“This is so environmentally disastrous,” Osmer said. “It’s hard to see people living like this.”

The Federal Aviation Administration demanded the city remove homeless residents living on the flatland near Columbus Park, near the intersection of Spring and Asbury streets. City spokesperson Daniel Lazo said the land is under the flight path of airplanes flying into Mineta San Jose International Airport, which is dangerous for inbound aircraft and people on the ground. The FAA is threatening to withhold millions of federal dollars if the encampment isn’t cleared.

Frustrated by the constant upheaval, residents who spoke with San José Spotlight said they want to leave the area, but lack the means to do.

Tony Payer, a former mechanic, said he’s been living in the area for about a month. He moved there to avoid being hassled by police, but he doesn’t want to stay. Payer, who’s sleeping in his truck, said he’s waiting for “pandemic relief money” so he can move to Nebraska to live with his parents.

“I just want to get my money so I can leave,” Payer said.

Trash scattered across the field where scores of homeless residents now live following city sweeps that cleared most of the flatlands near Columbus Park. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

Carolyn Roberts, another resident, said she wishes the city would bring a dumpster near her tent because people are constantly illegally dumping their trash. She hopes to be placed in a tiny home, but she has to see whether the city will let her take her two dogs, D-O-G and Boo Boo.

“If I can’t take my dogs, I ain’t going nowhere,” she told San José Spotlight.

Like other residents at the site, Roberts has lived in a few different spots near Columbus Park. Her partner is in jail, and she wants to stay in the area because it’s closer to him.

“Everybody said don’t go back to the field, but where am I supposed to go?” she said.

Carolyn Roberts, her two dogs and the tent where she lives near Columbus Park. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

HomeFirst spokesperson Lori Smith said the nonprofit—which does not participate in encampment sweeps—has been providing people with food, blankets and tarps. The organization is also looking for volunteer mechanics who can help people get their vehicles repaired.

Smith said HomeFirst is in constant conversation with government and nonprofit partners on how to get people housed before the scheduled removal next Spring. 

No clear next steps

Earlier this year, homeless residents and activists marched to protest the clearing of the camp, saying the city should instead focus on finding permanent housing for people living there. As the pandemic slowly winds down, the city has become increasingly aggressive in efforts to limit where unhoused people can build encampments. In April, city officials imposed a 150-foot buffer zone around schools where encampments can’t be installed. The city led or participated in at least 97 abatements between October 2020 and April 2021.

Just last month, the San Jose City Council considered building a giant fence around the site to stop homeless people from moving in. They took no immediate action.

The city started removing people from the site in September. Smith said HomeFirst is in constant conversation with government and nonprofit partners on how to get people homed in the next few months.

“We’re always pushing for more resources to become available, to come online, so come spring we’ll have more places to put people,” she said.

Lazo said 10 people have been moved into emergency interim housing and five into bridge community housing. Two people have been permanently housed.

“As part of the phased approach, our hope is that we find appropriate accommodations for everyone before the area is cleared,” Lazo said, adding that these opportunities will vary depending on each person’s requirements and eligibility.

Luke Ebling, a resident at the homeless camp near Columbus Park, has been trying to get permanent housing for three years. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

Luke Ebling, who has lived in the area for about 18 months, told San José Spotlight he’s been on and off a list for transitional housing for three years. He spends some nights in an RV with five other people, including his brother who is sick with an immune deficiency disorder.

“I want to go into some kind of housing, like a tiny home, something where I can stay away from frivolous living, like drug use,” he said. “(Out here) there’s no locks on the doors, no way to keep anything safe, or keep myself safe, whether it be vices, habits or things I don’t like to participate in.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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