Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, your home and all your belongings irretrievably damaged. Imagine that the mayor and other officials went around knocking on doors, alerting folks to potential flooding, but not in your neighborhood. And that the mayor was doing publicity about his great flood “strategery.”
This is what happened to numerous unhoused people along the creek the night of Feb. 13. They awoke to flooded tents and belongings, salvaging whatever they could, with no help from the city or county. Ironically, the night of the flood was preceded by a “memorial service” for the 157 people that died on the streets last year. The youngest two being one month and five months old and the eldest being 88 and 94.
There were no unhoused people at the memorial. HomeFirst didn’t pass out flyers at their other location, so they didn’t know about the memorial to their brethren. And for those staying at Little Orchard (aka Little Torture), lunch was served when the memorial began. It was obviously not a memorial for unhoused people, it was a PR stunt with elected officials and HomeFirst board members reading the names of the fallen.
One would think, after a memorial, that our most fragile neighbors would be foremost in the minds of officials—particularly on a day with torrential rain and flood warnings.
This clearly wasn’t the case. Nobody came to warn them the night of the flood. Nobody planned ahead and evacuated them during the day. Nobody opened the Overnight Warming Locations (OWLs), one location being right next to the folks who got flooded.
Who is responsible for this failure? Is it Santa Clara County, which issues weather alerts that trigger the opening of the OWLs? Is it the county, which issued a press release declaring the fifth inclement weather episode of the year on Feb. 13 but didn’t trigger the opening of the OWLs until two days later? Was it HomeFirst, which currently run the OWLs? Was it the city of San Jose, which is responsible for warning and evacuating people? I’ve reached out to folks from all these agencies and none have stepped forward to accept the responsibility. Nobody is being held accountable.
Yet many folks lost everything they had—tents, blankets, clothing, you name it, that are now full of river water—or are in the river. They have no way to clean the items they retrieved, so many are huddled under wet blankets in wet tents, wearing wet clothes, sitting through another day of downpours and waiting for the OWL to open for the night. The city is only opening OWLs at three locations, not the four they usually do and one of them, Leininger Community Center, is not being utilized—probably because it’s so hard to find. It should be moved back to Tully Road.
Adding insult to injury, in the press release sent out by the county, the hotline they list for needy families says there is not an inclement weather episode and the OWLs aren’t open. I wonder how many families have called and ended up in the street or car, not knowing OWLs were indeed open.
Who is going to provide compensation for their loss? Why shouldn’t they be compensated like the unhoused victims of the last flood? How can we prevent pneumonia, a leading cause of unhoused deaths last year, if we can’t even keep our citizens out of a flood? Who is responsible for this failure? And, more importantly, how do we prevent this from happening ever again?
If the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has their way, they will cut the 22 line, the only 24-hour line in the city, a vital lifeline for residents of “Hotel 22.” This will take away the overnight safe haven for seniors, parents with children, and women who ride the bus all night to stay safe and warm.
Should Route 22 be a rolling overnight shelter in the first place? No, not at all. Because there isn’t adequate shelter space for the over 5,000 unhoused people in the county, that’s what it’s become. The city and county aren’t creating any new shelters or navigation centers, regardless of how desperately they’re needed, so people are forced to pay nightly for a spot on Hotel 22.
There are very few shelters where people feel safe. There are even less shelters for families to feel safe. There are very few shelters that accommodate a non-9-to-5 work schedule. There is one LGBTQ shelter, but it only sleeps 15 people. Over 50 percent of all unhoused women are raped at least once, so many have dogs to protect them—dogs that aren’t allowed at many shelters. In inclement weather, most shelters are over capacity.
If the VTA cuts the 22 from 1 to 4am, there will be more vulnerable people in our creeks. More people will succumb to the wet and cold, adding to an unhoused death rate that rises each year. Route 22 saves lives.
Speaking of saving lives, local law enforcement agencies have taken to doing “warrant checks” in encampments. They say it allows them to get to know folks in the encampments and remove only folks with warrants.
But it doesn’t create a sense of goodwill in the camps, it just ratchets up the fear and distrust. It also destabilizes camps and makes them less safe, particularly for women, if the head of the camp, the person who maintains order, or male protector are removed for a warrant. Oftentimes, a warrant that’s for being unhoused—trespass, petty theft, unpaid tickets, drug use, etcetera.
Dangerous people should be removed from camps, but with law enforcement continuously criminalizing homelessness by charging folks for unhoused crimes, more and more folks become “criminals” with warrants. Criminalizing homelessness ensures continued homelessness as people with a record have a much harder time finding employment and housing.
It’s seems to me that the city, county, VTA and others have little regard for human life. If they did, the 22 wouldn’t be under attack, unhoused folks wouldn’t be subject to random raids by law enforcement and someone would’ve figured out that creek dwelling folks needed to be evacuated to an OWL before the flood.
Any of us can become unhoused after a medical issue, job loss, the loss of a relationship, a catastrophic fire or some other unforeseen disaster. We need to show our unhoused neighbors compassion and protect them when the city, county and others fail to do so. We need to demand accountability for these repeated assaults on unhoused people. We need to demand accountability when unhoused people are left to fend for themselves in a flood. We need to demand and show more empathy and less apathy.
Shaunn Cartwright is an activist, housing rights advocate and co-founder of South Bay Tenants Union. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].