Every other Saturday, Todd Langton fills his 2004 Lexus with donated supplies—a mix of sleeping bags, canned goods, fruit, bottled water, hygiene kits and hundreds of hot meals. By 10am, he’s off-roading in his little four-door sedan through the walking trails around San Jose’s Guadalupe River Park.
Normally, cars wouldn’t be allowed along the paved walkways of the pastoral park in the middle of the city’s downtown. But for now, only a handful of walkers and bikers are around to be upset, and the unhoused residents camping there—many he considers friends—are waiting for his supply drop.
“I think it’s a shame that more families are not out enjoying what could be a beautiful trail and park, but then on the other hand, some of us outreach people will drive our cars on those trails so we can reach the unhoused easier,” says Langton, a volunteer with Agape Silicon Valley. “When [unhoused people] are looked down upon, that’s why a lot of them will go into areas like the Guadalupe Parkway: they don't have to encounter that scorn or snobbishness from the housed people.”
Hundreds of homeless residents have set up camp alongside chinook salmon, great blue heron and the California beaver on the riverbanks of San Jose’s Guadalupe River Park.
The tents winding through the city’s downtown have long fielded the blame for why many of San Jose’s walkers, joggers and cyclists avoid the three-mile public space. A 2019 survey by park stewards found only 23% of respondents felt welcome and safe using the park trail, while 43% reported concerns regarding unhoused people.
Jason Su, executive director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, estimates there are at least 200 unhoused residents in the core of the park, and as many as 700 if accounting for the entirety of the park, between Highways 880 and 280.
Residents, public officials, urban planning think tanks and homeless advocates have focused their attention on the park in recent months, in part because it may be a bellwether for all of San Jose, Su says.
“It’s a microcosm of all of the opportunities and challenges of our region,” he says. “So whatever happens in the River Park is almost a signal in the direction of the city.”
The park sits near the city’s central business district, a planned BART extension and multiple massive developments or towering development proposals. It’s also a mere mile or two away from the attractions of the city’s downtown that brought in $64 million in tourism revenue and $320 million in local taxes from visitors in 2019—activity downtown boosters hope will return soon. But the dichotomy between that kind of glamour and the realities along the riverbank can be unsettling.
Langton knows the tents and trash in the park can be off-putting. But he’s also heard many of those residents’ stories of lost jobs, divorce, addiction and hardship as he helps them file for stimulus checks or secure cell phones.
Hoping that the encampments will go away, he says, isn’t the solution. “People who say ‘Not in my backyard’ need to be reminded they're already in your backyard,” he says.
‘Proud of this Land’
One of those people is Eugene.
His morning routine includes a stretch before he sweeps outside his home and picks up any trash he sees—a relatable ritual, even if most people can’t picture themselves living alongside him in a homeless encampment at the Guadalupe River Park.
He’s also bothered by the state of the park. Since arriving in July, Eugene has taken on the responsibility of cleaning up the land as if it were his own.
“We want to be proud of this land,” he says. “Just because you’re homeless, doesn’t mean you have to live among the trash. We’re just trying to make ends meet and survive—you can’t blame us for that.”
Gail Osmer, a longtime advocate for the unhoused who visits Eugene and others at the park weekly, says unhoused residents are shouldering more blame for the problems here than they’ve earned. “I’ve seen people dump their garbage here,” she says. “Now people see our unhoused community cleaning up their own garbage, and then [community members] feel they have a right to go and dump.”
“Yes, there is garbage, but it’s not all the unhoused.”
But finding the right people to blame for making the mess is less important than the crossroads city officials and the park’s stewards face in addressing the problems, which have been made all the more visible by the pandemic.
“There’s this broad sense of universal under-investment of a lot of our services, which perpetuates the concerns and priorities we see,” Su says.
Of late, those concerns and priorities have been hand-in-hand: helping the unhoused park residents find shelter, picking up trash, revitalizing the park and assuaging the residents upset by the growing unhoused population.
Local politicians and activists say they are trying to lay groundwork to get homeless residents off the streets and out of the park, but those efforts come with layers of legislative hurdles, funding shortfalls and a tight timeline.
“Any of this should be viewed not as the new normal, not as the status quo—the park itself is not a place that is suited for anyone to live,” downtown Councilman Raul Peralez says. “There’s frustrations all around, from local residents, workers coming to downtown, even the unhoused, because this is not an ideal situation for anybody.”
Jim Salata has helped build, preserve and retrofit Downtown San Jose since 1988, when he and his wife Suzanne founded Garden City Construction.
For years, he’s implored government officials to adopt more housing resources, and helped organize hundreds-strong cleanup efforts, but he reached an emotional peak after seeing how run-down Arena Green has gotten in recent weeks—from smashed art and untrimmed trees to the burning of a ranger station he helped build in the 1990s.
“That’s really what kicked off my being fried,” Salata said. “It’s like a cancer—once you let it go, it compounds itself. You have to take care of things now, you can’t wait. Arena Green’s beautiful, but it's been completely neglected.”
Salata knows this is a multi-pronged issue with no sole person to blame, but the years-long San Jose booster doesn’t think allowing folks to camp by the river is a good solution in the meantime, especially since volunteerism can only go so far without long term solutions. “If we want to be a world class city, we need to fix this,” Salata said.
“What kind of image do we want to portray to the world? There’s a lot of investment happening in town, but what scares me is if some of these investors decide they’re fed up because we can’t clean this place up.”
Stay or Go
Local health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that unless permanent or temporary shelter can be offered, encampments shouldn’t be dispersed during the pandemic because it could lead to more Covid-19 spread.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has pushed San Jose officials to find another option for the Guadalupe River Park campers because the noise from the planes flying overhead also creates a health risk, stress and suffering, says Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Indeed, the park was filled with residences until the mid-’70s, when the city demolished 630 homes in the 240 acres in and around the park, per FAA recommendations. The noise and other safety concerns had mounted in the decade after the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport expanded to accommodate passenger projections of 500,000 annual travelers.
“You can still see the outlines of the city blocks,” Su says, as he walks through the park flanked by the Heritage Rose Garden on one side and an encampment on the other.
More than a half-century later, the sound of the planes taking off and landing nearby reverberates loudly through the park.
“We are facing a mandate to ensure that we move people out of the area, so we have to do so, sensitively and carefully, and recognize that communities have developed among the unhoused,” Liccardo says. “It’s important that we can keep communities intact to provide support in times of crisis.”
But in a region where a single home typically takes years to develop and is about $700,000 per unit, finding alternate options for homeless residents is a lofty task while approximately 10,000 people remain unhoused in Santa Clara County as of 2019.
San Jose has worked with Gov. Gavin Newsom to wrangle funding to build shelters, including three prefabricated modular tiny home developments, where more than 300 formerly homeless people have taken up residence. A future location near the Guadalupe River Park and San Jose Police Department is also on the table.
The projects done so far, fast-tracked by emergency state policies during the pandemic, took just four months and cost $95,000 per unit—14 percent of a typical affordable home. Still, the task of housing everyone is monumental in Silicon Valley. Looking statewide, it would cost $2.4 billion per year to help the 129,972 people sleeping on the streets on any given night, Liccardo says.
“Emergency dollars and emergency orders have helped us to move more quickly, but has not solved the funding issues of getting more affordable housing built,” he says. “As long as the Bay Area is a place where it costs $700,000 to build an apartment ..., we’re not going to see a market-based solution for affordable housing.”
That’s where Michelle Huttenhoff’s visions begin. While housing homeless residents is the long-term goal, the planning policy director for urban planning nonprofit SPUR sees a more near-term future where the Guadalupe River Park and other public spaces across the country could be shared between the homeless and housed residents in harmony.
She used the Guadalupe River Park as her case study in a newly released “Coexistence Toolkit,” but said the report is for any organization that wants to shift public perception of the homeless and rethink public space design to work for everyone.
With some changes, the River Park could be useful for everyone, Huttenhoff says—but the biggest challenges are public perception, city support and committed funding.
“There’s this notion that the future and success of Guadalupe River Park is tied to a presence of homelessness there,” Huttenhoff says. “That has never resonated well with me, and I felt that we needed to take a pause and really unpack that.”
Her approach isn’t trying to eradicate homelessness, like so many reports and visions in the region. Instead, her recommendations focus on infrastructure and safety in public spaces—some of the few places people without homes are allowed to settle.
Such changes could look like the “living room parklets,” in Seattle, flush with magazines and music; or pairing social workers armed with board games to talk with homeless residents, as is done in Atlanta’s Woodruff Park.
Another option might be installing “zoned lighting” to keep walking paths bright without waking homeless residents, similar to Folkets Park in Copenhagen. A simpler, and cheaper, solution could be creating rules that accommodate the homeless and agreeing on who will enforce them, the report suggests.
The recommendations come as the pandemic’s entrance into Santa Clara County stretches past its one-year anniversary and some residents remain housed only by the grace of a ban on evictions, while landlords say they’re struggling under the moratorium.
On top of the emergency tiny homes, San Jose officials have approved a list of short-term solutions to ease the homelessness crisis during the pandemic. Among them: sanctioning a now-defunct encampment program, expanding job opportunities for unhoused people and building emergency interim tiny house communities.
But the recommendations to re-think the park itself, as proposed by SPUR, aren’t currently on the to-do list, officials say.
Whether such changes will make the cut as cities stare down staggering budget shortfalls due to declining revenues during the pandemic, remains to be seen.
SPUR is trying to translate its new toolkit into concrete policies and projects.
But in the meantime, Huttenhoff says the ideas have started to get reactions from locals, which is a good first step for an issue that starts with negative perceptions of homeless residents and often ends in frustrated finger-pointing. “I really do believe that we don't spend enough time really unpacking some of the challenges we have when it comes to safety—or our perception of safety—and these other elements,” she says.
Indeed, the conversations about homelessness in the park can be one of the hardest parts of addressing the issue, Su says.
A peek at NextDoor in many Bay Area neighborhoods makes the frustration over the growing homeless population in the region apparent, including in San Jose, where the park has been dubbed the “Homeless Mansion” by some NextDoor users.
Those kinds of posts also frustrate Eugene, who says he wishes people understood that he doesn’t want to be homeless or sleeping in the park.
“I wish that person would come and spend one night here,” he says. “How dare you—it’s your worst nightmare. God forbid you ever have to live like this.”
At this point, anything that helps temper antagonism toward the unhoused people who have made the park home would be progress, Su says.
“We are willing to try anything to help facilitate this, because right now, we’re not feeling that the conversations are productive,” Su says. “If we could use little bits of that momentum to get people to either do more, think harder or advocate stronger, that could snowball into something more.
Langton, the volunteer who visits every other week with supplies, wants to see some of SPUR’s recommendations put into action.
But he’s clear that more than new lighting, parklets or social workers, he wants shelters, like tiny homes or pallet structures, alongside the river.
Then, the people he delivers good to every other week can finally call themselves “formerly homeless,” he says. “Let’s provide a better situation for them to live if we’re going to let them coexist in the Guadalupe Parkway.”