San Jose Dramatically Increases Sweeps of Homeless Camps

Tavia Jones narrows her eyes in suspicion at a white pickup pulling up to the stone landing beneath the Highway 87-Interstate 280 interchange in downtown San Jose. Tucker Construction. The same city-hired company that descended on the encampment a day prior along with two dump trucks and four vans of orange-vested cleanup crews.

“They already took everything,” says Jones, leaning her wiry frame against a metal fence while observing the interlopers. “What else do they want?”

One of the contractors hops out of the truck with a plastic canister of disinfectant and starts spraying around the concrete columns. The other guy collects stray wrappers and bottles with a litter picker-upper.

“Oh, right,” Jones mutters sarcastically. “They gotta do a little extra cleaning because we’re so gross and disgusting.”

On Thursday, 44-year-old Jones lost everything for the eighth time this year. Gone are her dishes, toiletries, blankets, shoes, clothes, toys for her months-old mutt Piglet, a new roll of garbage bags and yet another tent. This time, at least, she didn’t have to endure the familiar heartbreak of losing handmade gifts from friends, family photos or other personal keepsakes—those were all seized in past expulsions.

Since her release from jail in 2015, Jones says the frequency of such evictions soared from a few times a year to about once every month. “These happen a lot more now,” Jones says, pausing for a beat to fight back a sob. “Like, a lot, lot more.”

On the same day of the latest sweep, the city affirmed what Jones knew anecdotally for years: that San Jose has been ramping up homeless sweeps at a staggering rate.

According to a new report by City Auditor Sharon Erickson, San Jose cleared homeless people out of their illegal camps this year at more than 11 times the rate it had in 2013. The number of sweeps soared from 49 five years ago to 563 this fiscal year, which pushed annual abatement costs from $1.3 million to $2 million in that same timeframe.

It’s a dizzying uptick, and primarily driven by a legal settlement with the San Francisco Baykeepers. A consent decree approved in 2016 requires the city to clear out 80 percent of the trash in Coyote Creek by 2019. That’s just the city.

At a meeting in August, the Santa Clara Valley Water District reported that it dismantled 571 homeless tent settlements in the first eight months of this year alone—far surpassing the previous average of about 400 a year. It’s unclear how many more sweeps are conducted by Caltrans and marshals patrolling the Union Pacific Railroad.

The South Bay is hardly the only region escalating camp-clearing efforts as another 134,000 people joined California’s homeless population from 2016 to 2017. Faced with a burgeoning backlog of cleanup requests earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles asked to double its budget for sweeps.

But it appears that no other major city in California has upped the rate of camp cleanups as much as San Jose, where 74 percent of its 4,300-plus homeless people are unsheltered and where the death toll for the unhoused has been steadily increasing.

Incessant displacement wreaks a physical toll on the unsheltered, which may be what’s driving up mortality rates, says Shaunn Cartwright, a veteran advocate for the homeless. There’s also a relatively new legal case to be made against homeless camping bans.

A recent federal court ruling has prompted many jurisdictions to ease up on the sweeps because, the panel of judges argued, local ordinances that penalize homelessness are unconstitutional if the agency doesn’t otherwise provide adequate shelter. In Martin v. Boise, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that criminal prosecution for people sleeping outside in public violates the 8th Amendment’s proscription against cruel, unusual punishment.

San Jose Housing Department officials say that’s not much of an issue here because the city—in addition to giving campers anywhere from a one-week to 72-hour notice—sends outreach workers to the site at least three times before eviction day to offer people alternative places to stay. Nonprofit service providers PATH and HomeFirst typically make the first two contacts, officials say, and the city’s homeless response team follows up on the day of the sweep.

“There are three times at a minimum that we offer anyone in the encampment shelter,” says Ragan Henninger, the city’s deputy director of housing. “On the day we do the cleanup, our staff is there and anyone who wants shelter will be taken to shelter.”

Jones' puppy, Piglet, by her owner's tent. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

If only that were the case, Jones laments. She says that not once in the nine times she was swept this year was she extended an offer for services. And not once has she seen one of the paper notices of an upcoming sweep. Her friend Thomas Martinez, 34—another holdout from Thursday’s cleanup—says the same has held true for him.

“That would be nice if they did,” he says. “But most of the time it’s just the cleanup crew and the cops and a lot of yelling.”

It’s a common claim among the city’s homeless: that there’s a disconnect between city policy and practice. Erickson’s audit offers a possible explanation for the discrepancy.

Her staff’s new report notes that the city’s housing division has struggled to monitor its contracts with nonprofit homeless service providers, including the outreach teams from PATH and HomeFirst. Some of the city’s deals with nonprofits do not require them to submit a breakdown on services offered during the cleanups, according to the audit.

“For example,” Erickson’s report explains, “the city’s agreement with one grantee requires the grantee to provide outreach services to homeless individuals in San Jose to connect them with resources and services but does not require any reporting by location of encampment or results of those outreach contacts. Without this information, it is difficult to determine the overall extent of outreach performed in conjunction with an abatement action. It makes it equally difficult to track the effectiveness of abatement actions. Specifically, whether homeless residents were helped into housing, or whether the abatement action simply forced the problem to a different part of the city.”

Henninger assures that shelter placement, case management and other services are being offered, but that wasn’t apparent in the data Erickson reviewed because she happened to look at a year when the Housing Department was shifting its grant contracts from one set of agreed-upon outcomes to another. “So we knew there would be a year of transition where we weren’t going to meet the expectations, at least on paper,” Henninger explains. “It’s just unfortunate, because that’s the year that was reviewed for this audit.”

Erickson’s team handed down 14 recommendations, three relating to camp sweeps and the rest addressing ways to improve inter-departmental coordination and bolster grant oversight. Henninger says the housing staff welcomed the scrutiny.

“I think it really highlighted some improvements we can make,” she says.

Until then, a coalition of grassroots activists are going to start passing out cellphone chargers so people living at the camps can document the sweeps. And they say will continue to fill in the gaps, in part by replacing the blankets, tarps and other necessities that tend to disappear in the relentless sweeps.

“That’s how I got this,” Jones says, motioning toward an orange tent someone donated to replace the one she just lost. “Maybe I can keep it a little longer than the last one.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

20 Comments

  1. This “dizzying uptick” of sweeps is only a reality because our various government agencies are so inept and irresponsible at managing the public properties with which we entrust them. A compassionate government would never allow these encampments to become established in the first place.

    • A compassionate government would never allow THE NEED for these encampments to become established in the first place.

  2. I’m also homeless in the same general area mentioned in the article and I am offended by the housing official’s claim that various organizations reach out to camps and offer us shelter etc before a sweep! I have been out here three years and no one has offered me shelter of any kind at any time, unless you count cops threatening to arrest us. To me that statement is either a low blow attempt to say it’s our fault or it illustrates how nonexistent the communication between the different departments and organizations is. Seriously, for the last three years all I’ve heard is how The Homeless Problem is this big priority thing, something must be done! And in that time they have done NOTHING but talk, talk, talk, usually getting hung up on ridiculous issues (“OUR homeless deserve something better than Tough Sheds, because we’re better than Oakland” etc) So they wasted 3 years debating about tiny homes that would have housed 20 people, in that time over 200 of us have DIED!! These aren’t just numbers to me, some of these are people I knew, people I cared about! If you want to help us, do SOMETHING! Just about anything is helpful. If there are these magical organizations handing out places to live, give us their info because I assure you we’re not out here having fun.

    • Robin,

      I’m curious. How were you able to post this? Are there homeless encampments with free wi-fi? Is someone giving away free laptops? If so, who are these people, I need a new one. I am one paycheck from homelessness myself, as are many people. That’s why people work. I have 2 jobs at the moment, for which I am completely over-qualified. I have to commute from 70 miles away. I take a train, to a bus, then onto a bike, and sometimes the light rail. It takes about 3-4 hours to get to work, one way, more if it’s raining.

      Tough sheds are no good? What kind of a house were you looking for? The house I grew up in, which my parents bought for $28,000 many years ago, in the Berryessa area, is a tract home which is now worth over a million dollars. My guess is I wouldn’t be able to afford a tough shed, or a quonset hut either. Hell, there are cops living in RV’s in the city parking lot because they can’t afford to live in the Bay Area either, and they’re working full time.

      Where are your friends, family and relatives? Can you room with them? If not, why not, what happened? If you don’t have an addiction or mental health issue, have you considered joining the military? If not, why not?

      As to homeless people dying, all life is precious but homeless people don’t have a monopoly on mortality. Everybody dies. Job induced stress related illnesses undoubtedly kill more working people than drug addiction and alcoholism kills homeless people.

      You seem articulate. Why wait for others to solve your problems for you? Move to an area where you can afford to live. Homeless people don’t need free shelters, they need luggage.

      • And he is able to plug in his computer…… where? He also speaks pretty well for someone living in the street. Wake up call 101……get a job. How about we give him a job picking up after himself, what a concept. This guy doesn’t sound like he’s on drugs so he can find some menial job somewhere. He’s getting food somewhere and somehow surviving. But and this is a big but, he’s pilfering off of the land, not paying taxes and a burden to us that are.

        • Which guy are you speaking of? I know Robin is a female because she is part of my family out here. Some of us out here that are without somewhere indoors to live can not work. Regardless of how educated we are ,number of degrees we have or amount of experience we hold. Some of us are on SSI for a disability that the government has concurred
          with a Md or PhD educated doctor agreeing our condition sets such limitations on us like not being able to work or complete certain tasks however the federal government still feels we need some financial means of survival. Which in today’s market one person on SSI is lucky to be able to find an affordable room they can rent. We don’t get food stamps so all the money they government gives us a month must cover food, hygiene, transportation, and medical related expenses, feeding our animals if we gave them, fuel for cooking and getting, seasonal clothes, cleaning and laundering supplies and the cost if washing. So if you really add all that up minus the amount paid for rent we are pretty much left with two options. Option #1)live in the room we could find and possibly buy a little food and hygiene and be unable to do ANYTHING the rest of the month option #2) find someone who is willing to support us, who also has a career where they are paid well or option #3) get what we need to survive for the month,. Living out on the streets or in tent or vehicle, on a bench ect. SHELTERS ARE NOT AN OPTION! PERIOD! NOT FOR A SINGLE PERSON OUT HERE WITH NO CHILDREN WITH THEM! EVEN WITH CHIKDREN I BELIEVE IT IS ALMOST IN POSSIBLE TO GET INTO A SHELTER WITHOUT GAVING TO WAIT DAYS, WEEKS OR MONTHS FOR A BED OPENING AND OUR NAME TO COME TO THE TOP OF THE WAIT LIST TO GET A BED. TRUTH BE TOLD EVEN IF IUR SIGNIFICANT OTHERS WHERE TO BEAT US TO A BLOODY PULP WE STILL WOULD MOST LIKELY HAVE TO LEAVE THE COUNTY, CITY AND POSSIBLY OUR FAMILIES TO RECEIVE A BED AND SHELTER AT A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SHELTER. UNTIL RECENTLY TGERE WHERE ONLY 2 SHELTERS IN THE COUNTY TGAT OFFERED EMERGENCY BEDS. THEN LIJE A BAT OUT IF ALL ALL OF A SUDDEN ONE DAY A FEW MONTHS AGO IT DWINDLED YET AGAIN DOWN TO A SINGLE SHELTER.. RUMOR HAS IT BY THE END OF 2018 IF NOT SOONER WE WILL NO LONGER HAVE ANY EMERGENCY SHELTERS AVAILABLE TO US. SO WWYD? IF YOU WERE FACED WITH ALL THESE PITFALLS WHAT TGE HELL WOULD U DO?

          • > option #2) find someone who is willing to support us,

            TAVIA:

            I have found someone willing to support you: the taxpayers and businesses of San Francisco.

            Recent reports state that San Francisco spends a hundred thousand dollars a year per homeless person for support and services.

            Can we get you a ticket on the CalTrain for a ride to SF?

            If San Francisco is not an acceptable option for you, please explain why not.

      • J.S.Robillard,

        It sounds like you have not kept up with this issue.
        Homelessness in this area, is probably the number one concern we should be dealing with….and by expressing your ignorance, and by insulting people who are ‘down and out’, you are not contributing to what needs to be a serious, and informed dialogue.

        I am surprised you are not aware, that a very high percentage of people living in homeless camps…like you….often have 1 or 2 jobs…..but, still cannot afford rent. Anyone who reads the newspaper, regularly, knows this fact. So your overall ignorance, suggests you have been very slothful, in keeping up with the news.

        Your condescending attitude, diverts people away from constructively addressing this problem. And, your caustic remarks, about “everyone dying” are downright demented. They suggests that you may be the one with a ‘mental health issue’….and may very well be heading to a homeless camp.

        Who is going to help you…when you go down that path?

  3. Could the mayor have these person labeled “refugees” and then provide for them as part of our “sanctuary city” status? Could this allow them shelter, food, medical services? It seems we take better care of others than we do our own.

  4. PATH is mentioned at coming out and providing services, and/or shelter…. They did come to the encampment the day after we were posted, I was able to sign up. My sister was asleep and the case manager signed up our neighbor. My sister being Tavia Jones, and I texted my case manager who said she would be by the next day, asking her when she was coming , if she could call/text when she would be available to come or if it were possible to go there office on
    N 2nd St. We also requested food for the weekend to hold us over We left both our numbers and it’s been over a week and we have yet to hear back. After I was told to call ANYTIME . And I was told I could get a copy of my entry and it’s strange how I have no documentation of my application into their program. So yeah everything is a paper process from one level to the next and meanwhile homeless funds r being spent on case managers riding scooters and lunces for themselves and maybe 2 homeless individuals. They need to be out there everyday encouraging , motivating, cuz some of the homeless community are beginning to lose hope.

  5. I have yet to get a call from PATH! Since the sweep I have been assulted by a man I hardly known. Chased and forced to move out of fear of this man coming back for a third time. I’m still in pain and unable to do a lot of much needed every day tasks out here due to the injuries I sustained from being hit. My puppy had a bike diiberately dropped on him then after the guy beat someone who tried to come to my aid with a huge stick braking it over his body during the blows he came back to threaten my puppy and myself then came the next day and chased me out because people inquired as to why he would act in such a manner. As I recover I await the person from PATH’s call. Maybe I will be one of the lucky ones soon

  6. #NoGOOGLE

    LICCARDO ARE YOU LISTENING? ARE YOU NOT AWARE OF THE PAIN YOU WILL CAUSE BY BRINING GOOGLE?

  7. No need to rent the movie “Godzilla Eats Tokyo,” we have our own monster scenario here in town, “Google, the Monster That Eats San Hoser!”

  8. Is ICE helping?
    It would be a double whammy – remove immigrants and homeless people!
    They , ICE agents, have arrested people outside court in San Jose.

  9. In other countries these people tend to just disappear at the hands of the government. A Soylent Green factory might be appropriate. All that would be needed is a constitutional convention to change the right to life so it applies only to those with housing.

    • > In other countries these people tend to just disappear at the hands of the government.

      In other countries, they would get jobs that they now consider too hard, too menial, too underpaid, or just not enough fun for them.

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