On a recent Saturday, cyclists, joggers and South Bay residents trying to shake off cabin fever weaved along the 63.6 miles of the Coyote Creek Trail, between Morgan Hill and the San Francisco Bay, surrounded by the quiet rustling of native grasses and wildflowers.
It’s a pastoral sight, a calming thoroughfare amidst San Jose’s urban sprawl, until they happen upon dozens of volunteers in neon green vests, heavy-duty hiking boots, work gloves and masks pulling out a full-size mattress, setting it alongside car batteries and more than 70 bags of trash retrieved from the riverbed that morning.
The volunteers were organized by Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping its namesake vibrant and clean. Over the last few years—and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic—this area has become an inflection point for how the South Bay must address issues surrounding its homelessness crisis and the environmental impacts of encampments.
Deb Kramer, executive director of Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, launched the organization in 2015 with a vision of providing the public a welcome and natural respite from the city’s urban landscape. However, over the last few years, Kramer and her team—now just two full-time employees—have struggled with the sharp uptick in San Jose’s unhoused population.
“Before the pandemic, there was already a lot of resistance from the unhoused to the services being offered to them. With the pandemic, it’s certainly exacerbated the situation,” she said. “People that I’ve encountered seem to be quite emboldened to continue to live where they’re living instead of taking a housing opportunity.”
Steve Holmes, founder and executive director of the South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, shared similar concerns, noting the changes in Coyote Creek’s wildlife habitats. In the past few years, he and his team have noticed approximately 100 to 200 fish in Coyote Creek; less than 20 years prior, they counted as many as 1,500 to 2,000 fish in the waterway. This stark decline is, by Holmes’s assessment, the result of both unhoused people catching fish for food and trash accumulating throughout the waterway.
“What we’ve been finding in a lot of these areas is, if you stepped in the water, you’re basically walking over trash,” Holmes said. He agreed with Santa Clara Valley Water District data that reported 75% of the trash along the waterways is coming directly from the encampments.
Holmes said his team and volunteers have removed over 96 tons of trash along Coyote Creek since March 2020, and there’s more to pick up.
Earlier this month, volunteers pounded away at the dirt hills near the trail near the back end of Olinder Park, digging up pieces of plastic milk jugs, car batteries, truck tires and plastic wrap.
These instances have led some environmental activists to be discouraged by the city’s efforts, or lack thereof. Alie Victorine, the coalition lead for the Coyote Meadows Coalition, cited the Mabury Road tiny homes community and Renascent Place as examples of what the city could do more of to house those who are living along the creek. Once the city takes those solutions into account, Victorine believes the creek can return to its natural state.
“If you can create sanctioned encampments with services for human waste and garbage, I’m not opposed to that,” she said, “but I also want my trails to be clean and to be able to feel safe.”
In San Jose’s 2019 Homeless Census and Survey, the city counted 6,097 unhoused individuals, 84% of whom were without shelter. In the county, the survey tallied 9,706 individuals. These findings mark a 40% increase from the 2017 count.
With the pandemic, these numbers likely have risen. Unhoused advocate Shaunn Cartwright believes that what's needed is more public discussion first, before any focus on the river.
“I love to go camping all the time—nature is like my church, it means a lot to me,” Cartwright said. “However, the people who only focus on nature and ignore that there are people dying on the streets, with no place to go, being abused and discarded—that is ridiculous. You have to address the people before you can just prioritize the flora and fauna.”
Cartwright is frustrated that environmental activists have seemingly ignored statistics on deaths among the unhoused. From December 2019 through November 2020, San Jose estimated 196 unhoused individuals died on the streets. That number could rise, as Cartwright notes a 10% increase in homelessness in Santa Clara County during the pandemic.
Sandy Perry, an advocate for unhoused people and president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, says environmental activists need to understand just how much misery those living without shelter endure.
“The suffering which is out there—the cold, the wet, the illness, the difficulty finding places to go to the bathroom, finding medical care and services—we feel this is an effort by the city to blame the homeless instead of looking at themselves,” Perry said.
After losing her Japantown apartment after 14 years, Geneva Strickland was left with nowhere to go, and ended up homeless for six years. She lived along Coyote Creek for about five months, which wasn’t ideal.
“A lot of these people have worked and are not just bums. I worked my whole life before I became disabled, and I was being treated like a bum,” she said.
Strickland, who’s been housed since Feb. 2020, says many of the people she delivers hot meals to living along Coyote Creek are disabled, elderly or under 21 years old. These newer and older residents along the creek, Strickland believes, have felt an underlying sense of anger, discouragement and disappointment during the prolonged pandemic.
“I think people are so angry and hopeless,” she said. “Once you become hopeless, what else is left?”
In the crosshairs of these camps is the city of San Jose. According to the City Manager’s Office of Communications, Coyote Creek’s water quality data collected by the Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff Pollution Prevention Program complies with the State’s Regional Water Quality Control Board Municipal Regional Stormwater NPDES permit.
But for Kramer, Victorine and Holmes, that data misses the disaster unfolding in the area’s waterways.
Victorine, an avid backpacker, is mindful of a rule of limiting camping to more than 100 feet away from water in order to keep river flows clean. That has not been the case along Coyote Creek, she said.
“These people are sometimes right on the banks, building bridges across the creek, stopping water flow,” she said. “The creek has become diseased—it’s not as clean as it used to be; it’s changing our environment.”
Cartwright understands those concerns, but is frustrated by the continued focus on nature over people. “Is really doing a trail and throwing all of these people out the highest priority?” she asks.
Perry believes the two objectives can go hand-in-hand: “There is a way to have a healthy environment and a healthy, happy population—if we as a society take care of people’s basic human needs and don’t force people to live outside.”