Once commercial jet noise rendered San Jose neighborhoods uninhabitable by the 1980s, city leaders deemed the land directly underneath flight paths just south of the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport incompatible with homes. Agencies bought the parcels in hopes of establishing a showcase urban park that has never been finished.
Now after decades of neglect, the previously barren 40-acre area south of Interstate 880 between West Hedding Street, Coleman Avenue, Asbury Street and the Guadalupe River is now arguably the South Bay’s largest encampment of unsheltered people—a repository for countless RVs, gutted cars, tarps, jury-rigged wooden structures and anywhere from 250 to 600 people over the past 18 months.
Without an official name, what’s now known as the "Crash Zone” became a landing pad for single mothers who lost jobs due to Covid, disabled folks priced out of homes while living on Social Security payments and domestic abuse survivors fleeing dangerous environments. Residents dispersed from other encampments have also steadily trickled in, alongside people released on $0 bail from the Santa Clara County Jail or the San Jose Police Department, less than a mile down the road.
A new city cleanup of the Crash Zone June 24 blindsided housing advocates and the unhoused residents, raising questions of what's next.
According to San Jose State University's Pain Index, the city’s homeless population exploded by at least 11,515 people during 2020. The 197 deaths of unhoused people marks an increase of 22% from 2019, and 31% of the jobs lost in the last year impacted people who made less than $60,000.
Scott Largent has called the Crash Zone home for the past eight months, hunkering down in his RV and van to sleep and attend Zoom visitations with his daughter, when he’s not working odd jobs in Willow Glen or being a human megaphone for housing advocacy at government meetings and press conferences.
The San Jose City Council voted to officially resume sweeps of the encampments in March and city agencies have participated in nearly 100 sweeps since October 2020—against public health recommendations—but new attention from federal agencies in June to clean and clear the field has Largent concerned.
“They're going to bring in tow trucks, they're going to start pulling stuff out,” Largent said in an interview, “but when are we going to pull people out of their situations?”
While any City of San Jose garbage truck rumbling into the center of an encampment is an unwelcome sight, one driven by “George” with a skull visible on its dash is an even more foreboding symbol of looming sweeps and relocations, captured on Largent’s ever-rolling Go-Pro.
On June 24, Tucker Construction employees distributed flyers in the Crash Zone from the City of San Jose, complete with city seal, bold typed font and yellow highlights. The flyers declared people living on the property as “TRESPASSING” who would be “subject to CRIMINAL PROSECUTION.” Somewhat ironically, the general contractor advertises his business online as a home builder, in addition to boasting of “municipal” and “public works” contracts with several South Bay cities, the Airport and the SJPD.
City staff and some housing advocates tried to reassure homeless folks that the flyers were old notices and not indicating any new sweeps, but others say the flyers’ unclear instructions and tone caused many to worry, especially new neighbors.
“The posting is horribly fearful, it induces more trauma on people,” veteran housing advocate Shaunn Cartwright says, adding that continuous anticipation of having to relocate exacerbates mental and physical disabilities, from complex PTSD and mobility restrictions to addiction, depression and psychosis. “(That flyer) doesn't imply, ‘We’re going to be here to clean up, be your friend and help you with some trash.’ It says, ‘We’re here to be your enemy.’”
The controversy began nearly a month after the Federal Aviation Administration sent a letter May 17 to John Aitken, the airport’s director of aviation, saying that while San Jose owns the property—purchased for “approach protection” using federal funds—the FAA is now pressuring city leaders to get rid of the encampments.
“Please understand, it is not FAA’s intent to show disregard for the homelessness crisis, only to ensure that use of Airport property does not become the solution to the crises,” wrote Mark McClardy, airports division director. The FAA proposed benchmarks for the city to remove its homeless population off airport property by 30% in October, 60% in December and 100% by April 2022.
As Silicon Valley reopens for Googlers, angel investors, realtors and Earthquakes fans, Largent said messaging from local leaders feels more like closing a business than helping unhoused residents: “You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.”
“That's the problem: it’s coming, it’s just the anticipation of not knowing when I won't have a place to park my RV,” Largent said. “Why can't somebody just tell me what's going on? I feel like I'm being thrown out by the city I love.”
It seems as if a game of telephone within San Jose City Hall obfuscated why a green light was given to clean up one of the city’s protected “SOAR sights,” which are vulnerable encampments where the San Jose City Council voted to provide 30 days to 60 days notice before any sweeps.
Advocates say a heads up is all they are seeking: giving them an opportunity to engage in community dialogue, organize and prepare people for what happens next before crews show up to the Crash Zone.
“We want to ask the city why the residents were blindsided and why the advocates were blindsided,” Cartwright said, suggesting even a basic color-coded system, which gleaned support from Raul Peralez, the lot’s District 3 San Jose Councilmember and candidate for mayor. “There was no communication with anybody. This came completely out of the blue," said Cartwright.
Daniel Lazo, interim spokesperson for San Jose’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, said last week's cleanup was led by Beautify SJ, a newly consolidated PRNS program allocated $13.8 million in the city’s May budget to tackle encampments, graffiti and illegal dumping around town. Lazo said this was the 10th enhanced cleanup of the Crash Zone since the pandemic began, estimated to take place over the next three weeks because “safety and maintenance of a cleaner space is the overall goal.”
According to Lazo, more than half of an estimated 150 vehicles on the property are inoperable because they were burned or gutted. He said city contractors’ presence Friday was prompted by complaints people are unable to leave the field because they are “locked in” by debris.
But Cartwright questions where anyone expects the unhoused to go once they’re “unlocked,” as new affordable housing construction lags and shelters opened during the pandemic begin to close—a predicament she finds more embarrassing than having airplane passengers see tents and RVs upon arrival in Silicon Valley.
“You're just pushing people from one place to another to another, and causing more and more trauma,” Cartwright said. “There is no plan.”