A slap shot from HP Pavilion, through Guadalupe Park and into the neighboring creek bed, a rooster makes its home. He lives among shopping carts, deflated tire tubes and toilet paper rolls, empty beer cans and coolers, a Negro Modelo sign lodged in the fresh mud and a half-dozen people who spend their nights sleeping in tents.
Karen Ellfson is one of these people. She lives here with her husband. At 30 years old, a month shy of her next birthday, the Morgan Hill native knows that in two weeks she’ll need to find a new home. She’s one of several dozen homeless people with targets on their backs.
“Last summer, they did it for a month,” says Ellfson, talking about the city cleanup crews that go through San Jose’s more crowded homeless encampments and uproot tents and clear garbage and debris. “Every weekend they came through and swept out, like, three spots. But people kept packing up and moving to the next spot. And then they moved back to the spot. Eventually they stopped doing the sweeps. But I know they’re going to start back up. It’s summer time.”
The seasons mark a noticeable shift in the manner the city handles its homeless population, estimated to be a little more than 4,000 souls as of last year. Rather than displacing people when it’s coldest, the city’s Environmental Services Department (ESD) partners with the Santa Clara Valley Water District and concentrates efforts on creek bed and waterway encampment cleanups during the spring and summer months.
The city’s housing department estimates there are 60 encampments within San Jose, consisting of 600-900 residents in total. Last year, 11 cleanups resulted in 163 tons of possessions, debris and trash being removed—equal to the weight of 16 semi trucks—at a cost of $235,000.
“It has a significant impact to our watersheds,” says ESD spokesperson Jennifer Garnett.
“We have permit requirements to keep trash out of our waterways, and homeless encampments are definitely a source of trash in our waterways.”
But, over the years, an untold amount of property that should have been stored for the homeless to retrieve at a later date was illegally trashed.
Amazingly, this just came to the attention of city officials this spring. None of the items taken in cleanups were tagged and stored by police—which oversees the cleanups for safety—as mandated by law. A memo from former City Attorney Joan Gallo in 1990 notes that the city must hold encampment property for up to four months if a homeless person wants to collect them, in order to avoid lawsuits of unlawful property seizure.
“The question of where that stuff was stored—it wasn’t stored,” says Sgt. Jason Dwyer, of the San Jose Police Department. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. Nobody knows when it stopped or what was done.”
Lawsuits filed by homeless citizens deprived of their property have been filed in courts in Fresno, Laguna Beach, Sacramento and other areas of the country, after negligence similar to San Jose’s was found. Had Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell, whose office oversees complaints against SJPD, not received two grievances late last year from people evicted from encampments, the issue could have remained unaddressed.
Instead, Cordell says she and her staff personally followed up on the complaints by visiting encampments and documenting what they saw.
“I could have just ignored them and write them up (and forwarded complaints to Internal Affairs), do what we do,” Cordell says. “But I decided not to. I can’t tell you why. I just really needed to know what’s going on out there.”
Cordell, a retired judge, drafted a document called “The Cost of a Quick Fix: Kincaid v. City of Fresno,” to grab the attention of city officials. The document noted that inaction could result in a lengthy, costly court battle. It took the city of Fresno 18 months to settle its 2006 lawsuit at a cost of $2.25 million, not including its own attorney fees and costs, according to the document. A lack of follow-through in Fresno has once again brought the issue to the forefront in that city, and served as an additional warning to San Jose.
“Our police department was notified by the independent police auditor that we needed to revise the policies,” Garnett says. “We suspended cleanups in March and it took a lot of coordination with the water district and our own internal departments on deciding what we wanted to do as quick as possible.”
A growing number of neighborhood complaints about encampments, as well as a dangerous fire near the Water District headquarters, increased that urgency. Responders to the fire found flooring and furniture, showing that the sophistication of some encampments goes well beyond a few humble dwellings.
“A few years ago there was a place in North San Jose called Tent City,” Sgt. Dwyer recalls. “Unless you hiked down there under the bridge you never would have seen it. It was fascinating; they had their own little city government. They had an unofficial mayor. They had their own police force. They were a microcosm of the city. They had their troublemakers, and they had their good people who were just down on their luck.”
City officials believe the number of homeless in San Jose has dropped slightly since 2009, but the number of chronically homeless—more than a quarter of the total number—grew by 10 percent during that time. A new approach by the Water District and ESD to address encampments, called Phase I, began at the end of May, and two more cleanups are slated for this month. The last is set for June 21 at Guadalupe River by Julian Street.
Serving a notice 72 hours before crews begin the sweep, city officials are also putting homeless in touch with the nonprofit EHC Lifebuilders, which will oversee storage of tagged items in an effort to funnel homeless into shelters, housing, treatment centers and work programs. Several other organizations are also assisting. The SJPD, at the behest of Police Chief Chris Moore, will only be responsible for maintaining a safe environment during the process.
But there is some concern that homeless individuals without consistent means of communication, such as cell phones or a stable address, are simply being shuffled around in an out of sight, out of mind shell game.
“From our standpoint, that’s the balancing act,” Garnett says. “We have to balance the rights of the homeless with the environmental and neighborhood impact. That’s the crux of it.”
Ellfson understands the city’s arguments, noting all the debris that surrounds her tent, and she says she’ll have a bag with her more valuable information ready when the movers come.
“I think it’s going to be hell, because I’ve seen people have to try and get their stuff packed up real quick,” she says. “But I’m not really trying to stay here much longer. That’s why I’m not trying to make it totally like home.”