‘We’re losing everything’: The fight to keep San Jose homeless camp
Homeless residents and advocates march along Coleman Avenue on July 20, 2021. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Federal officials are demanding a 40-acre homeless encampment outside San Jose’s airport be dismantled. Protesters fought back at a rally Tuesday, urging the city to keep the encampment open.

    But the Mineta San Jose International Airport could stand to lose tens of millions of dollars if it doesn’t clear the homeless camp.

    Residents are pleading with city and airport officials to meet with the homeless residents to ensure none of them get displaced. Many of the residents fear the city will eventually sweep the encampment to comply with demands from the Federal Aviation Administration to clear it. The site is home to approximately 200 homeless individuals—though informal estimates place the resident count at more than 400—and has become the largest encampment in Silicon Valley after The Jungle was cleared years ago.

    “I’ve met some of the most generous, loyal people who I consider friends here,” Kelly Goodman, a resident of the encampment and former nurse, told San José Spotlight. “This is a community… Let us police ourselves.”

    If the city sweeps the encampment, residents are asking for help to find permanent housing instead of being swept to another encampment.

    Protesters started their march at Spring and Asbury streets at the heart of the encampment, and made their way down busy Coleman Avenue before rallying back at the encampment, located in Columbus Park. The encampment is less than three miles away from the airport. Planes headed to the airport fly over the location daily.

    “It’s important that we put pressure on the San Jose City Council to negotiate with the FAA to allow the homeless to remain here and to have organized encampments where people can be helped more efficiently,” homeless activist Richard Scott told San José Spotlight. “This area really is not near any residences. The folks who have businesses near here have had some problems. But I think if you organized the area, they’d have (fewer) problems.”

    Kelly Goodman, a resident in the encampment, speaks to a fellow resident before the march begins. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    The encampment, which stretches over a mile, is on the brink of closure after the FAA sent two letters to the city earlier this year demanding it clear the encampment, which is on airport property and under the federal agency’s watch. The FAA threatens to withhold millions of dollars in airport funding if the encampment isn’t cleared.

    According to one of the letters, the airport told the FAA it plans to clear everyone out by April 2022 and build a fence around the site to stop new people from moving in. The city would leave the gate open for existing homeless residents, but close it once they relocate to “prevent future encroachment.” FAA officials worry this will allow more homeless people to move in.

    The city and airport officials say they’re still figuring out how to respond to the FAA, and requested an extension until July 31. Airport officials say they will come up with a plan balancing the needs of the unhoused residents with demands to clear the area.

    “The airport continues to coordinate the fence line with its stakeholders along with the city’s timeline which will be provided in the city’s response to the FAA by July 31,” airport spokesperson Keonnis Taylor told San José Spotlight.

    At the end of the rally on Tuesday, homeless activist Shaunn Cartwright called on attendees to put pressure on the city to host a community meeting. The rally drew about 30 people.

    “When you sit there and say, ‘Hell no, I won’t go until I have this tiny home, this shelter home, until I have another place to go, until I have safe parking for my RV’—whatever it is—nothing’s going to change,” she said.

    If the city doesn’t comply with the FAA’s demands, Taylor said, the agency could withhold money from passenger facility charges, which goes to airport upkeep, as well as Airport Improvement Program grant funding which pays for safety improvements.

    The annual passenger facility charges depend on the volume of passengers, but pre-pandemic estimates place annual fees at approximately $30 million. The improvement program funding averages $10 milllion to $15 million annually, according to Daniel Lazo, spokesperson for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department.

    The city backed off on its plan to evict residents from Columbus Park last month after it posted notices at the encampment threatening arrests if anyone interfered with cleanup efforts. The city maintains the notices were just to inform residents of the encampment they were cleaning the area—not evicting residents.

    Marchers make their way back to Columbus Park after marching down Coleman Avenue. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    “Unhoused residents of this encampment are not being evicted at this time. The process of clearing this area will take months of planning, preparation and execution by the city of San Jose,” Lazo said. “City staff are currently assessing the needs, preferences and eligibility of encampment residents for housing, shelter and supportive services.”

    The encampment’s population ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some informal estimates placing its size to over 400 residents. People who live in the camp say there are too many people living there to evict with few solutions.

    “There has to be a give and take. It can’t be that the city says this and the FAA says this. I understand that we need that money in the city. But we’re part of the city too,” Goodman said. “The city is taking and we’re losing everything.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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