Why does San Jose sweep homeless encampments?
Homeless resident Elizabeth Piña, 56, sits near her encampment next to East Santa Clara Street near Roosevelt Park. She's been homeless for over six years, and suffered through abatements several times. Photo by Kyle Martin.

    Elizabeth Piña lost her blanket, a pillow, bikes, cookware and food — pretty much everything she owned — the last time authorities cleared her homeless encampment and tossed her stuff in the trash. It’s happened before.

    “Where do we go to place our belongings?” Piña, 56, asked. “Where do we have to live?”

    She said an abatement crew last November swept away her encampment near the bank of Coyote Creek and the Roosevelt Community Center and Park beside East Santa Clara Street.

    But the San Jose resident has nowhere to go. She’s been homeless for more than six years. Since the abatement, she’s gotten a new tent, tarps, food and more. And she still lives in the same spot.

    What is an ‘abatement’?

    When a homeless encampment triggers an abatement, the area is swept usually by police or government officials, often displacing homeless people who live there. But as the Bay Area housing crisis rages on, what’s the point of sweeping people from one place to another when they’ve got nowhere else to go?

    An audit from last November shows San Jose spending on abatements since 2013 has reached $2 million — up from $1.5 million. Meanwhile, abatement sites rose from fewer than 50 to more than 560 sites. The city’s abatement sites are cleared out by contractors and crews permitted by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which also provides the “heavy equipment” necessary to clean out a site, like trash compactors and trucks.

    According to the report, the city Housing Department does not track services provided before and after an encampment is cleared, making it “difficult to track the effectiveness of abatement actions.”

    According to a December memo presented to the city as an update on abatements around city waterways, the housing department and the water district conducted 499 joint cleanups along creeks and removed 799 tons of trash in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

    Why do we need abatements?

    The city’s deputy housing director, Ragan Henninger, told San José Spotlight that her department “does not consider abatements a housing solution.”

    But there are certain obligations the city has to fulfill, Henninger said, including the environmental obligation to keep waterways clear of trash and debris; the community response to trash, debris and homelessness in public areas; and care for homeless people. These goals are “often competing,” Henninger added.

    That’s partly why coordinating solutions to abatements is difficult. In a region struggling with housing more than 4,300 homeless people — nearly 75 percent of whom live unsheltered — there is no quick fix. “People are sleeping in the creeks and on the streets and until we house them I think there are still going to be impacts of homelessness,” Henninger said, “I anticipate abatements will continue.”

    A lack of shelter for homeless people leads to more encampments — which leads to more abatements — and more displacement of the city’s homeless residents.

    “We have the obligation to reduce our trash that flows into creeks,” Henninger said. “And I think the challenging part is — which is true not just for abatements, but true in our city — is that we don’t have enough affordable housing.”

    Fire safety concerns

    Caltrans and Union Pacific operate their own abatement sites in the region. They usually sweep homeless camps for more functional reasons.

    “Our job is to go out there and make sure our roadways are safe,” said Victor Gauthier, Caltrans’ information manager for Santa Clara County.

    Caltrans notifies people 72 hours before it clears out an encampment. In areas of overgrown vegetation, Caltrans crews will clear trees and brush to limit fire dangers to homes, Gauthier said.

    Homeless people live in some of these areas. And Caltrans has hundreds of service requests in areas containing homeless encampments, with this region having “more than any other location in the state,” according to Gauthier.

    “Really, it’s working with the city to find solutions. The city is coming up with temporary housing, or the shelters or the programs,” Gauthier said. “The challenge is when we abate one particular area, there will be another area that pops up.”

    Homeless advocate Gail Osmer, 71, often spends time at homeless encampments throughout the city and passes out supplies like trash bags, food, tarps and blankets to campers.

    “I see a lot of the homeless, especially a lot of the seniors, that have nowhere to go,” Osmer said. “They don’t get help, and they’re [back] out on the street in a couple of days.”

    She said abatements do little to help mitigate homelessness, and hopes for new abatement policies that help homeless people find housing instead of sweeping them away.

    “Maybe if the city would give some of these encampments bags to clean up, they wouldn’t be having all these sweeps, because they want to keep it clean, Osmer said. “And where I’ve gone, they’ve kept it clean. I think if the city had dumpsters in a few places, it wouldn’t be like this at all.”

    Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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