“Honestly, I’m scared,” Veronica Mackenzie says, her eyes darting around to take in the commotion: police, protesters, photographers, TV news trucks and barricades. “I knew this was coming, but it came too soon. We’re still trying to figure out where to go.”
Just before 6am Thursday, San Jose police put up barricades along the sidewalk to prevent anyone from going in after they clear out The Jungle, a 68-acre shantytown at Story and Keyes roads. It’s been called the largest homeless camp in the nation. Beyond the barricades, dozens of reporters, local and international, watch while the sun rises. Protesters with signs face the street.
“Housing For All.”
“Stand with The Jungle.”
“Homeless People Matter.”
The city has spent $4 million housing the homeless over the past 18 months, according to San Jose officials. Almost as quickly as people move out from The Jungle, more move back. Estimates before today put the population at close to 300. Dozens of cops on Thursday patrolled the sweep, keeping traffic at bay while guiding evicted homeless residents up from The Jungle and out to the streets.
The city says 144 of The Jungle's residents have found housing, but 50 with rental vouchers haven't found anywhere to go. The rest, scores of them, are on their own. Even with the encampment closed, Santa Clara County is home to more than 7,500 unsheltered people on a given night.
San Jose has struggled to keep its hundreds of homeless camps under control. As a result, The Jungle has become the most populated location in recent memory. It's strewn with festering trash, human waste and so much pollution that the steelhead trout have all died off in Coyote Creek.
For some residents, especially young women like Mackenzie, The Jungle is considered safer than sleeping on a sidewalk. Life on the streets can be dangerous. She keeps an eye on her belongings, positioned at the top of the mud-slicked slope that leads to the sopping creek-side village she’s called home for most of this year.
“My dad basically disowned me, so I moved in here,” Mackenzie explains. “I grew up in San Jose, born and raised, but don’t have anyone else to stay with.”
For the last eight months, she says, she and her boyfriend, aunt and uncle have lived at The Jungle. At sunrise Thursday, Mackenzie helped them haul up seven cargo-laden shopping carts, a plastic hamper and a frayed burgundy suitcase stuffed with clothes and other belongings. She’s wearing cropped jeans and a black zip-up hoodie. On her clavicles, a tattoo reads “most hated” in cursive. It’s not too cold today, she says, but she worries about more winter nights. She needs warmer shoes and a thicker coat.
Her pit bulls, a brindle named D.O.G. and a white one called Solo, are tied to a pole while the family decamps.
“Some people were scared about animal control coming in here and taking them away,” she says, crouching down to pet them. “These two are definitely coming with me, wherever that is.”
Earlier in the morning, a man on crutches hobbles onto the flooded street-level parking lot. Police are finishing up placing metal barricades, ordering all TV news vans to relocate across the street. Time to clear out, time to clean up.
“Give us one more day!” the man on crutches shouts. “All we need is another day! You going to arrest me for trespassing? I’ve been trespassing for five years!”
For more photos of the exodus, take a look at this gallery from Silicon Valley De-Bug.