This morning, the city of San Jose conducted another unnecessary sweep of a homeless camp, this one at Olinder Park, a 13-acre expanse of fields, picnic sites and dog runs along the Guadalupe River and Woodborough Drive. Officials say it’s for a trail renovation—the same reasoning they cited for a November sweep at Roberts Camp, where roughly 40 to 50 people were evicted from the only home they knew.
These sweeps further traumatize our most fragile residents, the same people who are at greater risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a recent University of Pennsylvania study, unhoused people who get Covid-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require intensive care, and two to three times as likely to die than the housed population.
In response to “should homeless encampments be cleared?” the February 2021 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines state: “Connecting people to stable housing should continue to be a priority. However, if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living in encampments to remain where they are."
There’s no equivocation in that, no allowances for trail renovations. Clearly, the CDC values human life. If only the city of San Jose did.
Even though the city set forth a policy that sweeps would cease during the pandemic to reduce the spread of Covid-19 by allowing unhoused residents to shelter in place and help save lives, they have continued to conduct the systematic displacements.
Everyone loves nature’s beauty and trails are a good thing so people aren’t trampling all over tender plants and animal habitats. Just like it’s important to find a balance in the natural work, it’s important for the city of San Jose to find a balance between our unhoused neighbors and nature.
Councilman Raul Peralez, under pressure from downtown property owners, is exacerbating the problem by calling for a resumption of “encampment abatements.” Camp sweeps without providing safe alternative locations are not only oppressive and traumatic, they solve absolutely nothing.
And if we have learned anything at all from the Black Lives Matter movement, it is that we have to STOP using police actions to solve social problems.
We’d like to offer an alternative plan, one that actually focuses on the lives of unhoused people rather than big business, trail improvements or other concerns.
We also offer this to aid city and county staff who are already overworked, under-appreciated and often unheard.
- Santa Clara County must agree to conduct the Point In Time (PIT) count to accurately assess how many of our neighbors are unhoused. Each week we go out to serve unhoused neighbors in camps, we see more and more folks unsheltered, in tents, RVs and cars than the week before. With no way to properly capture the numbers, we would be relying on the U.S. Census Bureau numbers which were, at best, inadequate .
- Unhoused advocates and volunteers, including those who do the post-PIT survey, must be recognized as the frontline workers they are and be vaccinated immediately, preferably with the Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Covid-19 vaccine.
- Unhoused people must be prioritized for vaccination with the Johnson & Johnson’s Jassen Covid-19 vaccine, through a program of in-camp vaccinations. It is unreasonable to demand vulnerable, unhoused people to schedule online appointments and travel to vaccination sites .
- The county must then conduct the PIT count and post-PIT survey.
- San Jose should create a Sanctioned Camp Task Force composed of four equal groups: San Jose city representatives, service providers, advocates, unhoused and formerly unhoused residents. The task force would first assess the de facto sanctioned camps that have been created during Covid.
- Once all the de facto sanctioned camps have been evaluated, the task force will determine which camps will remain as official sanctioned camps, which would receive help via Beautify San Jose, and which will need other remedies. No camps would be relocated without all residents who wish to, being vaccinated first. Additionally, the alternative location must be sanctioned and open to all residents who wish to move there.
- After the de facto sanctioned camps have been sorted out, then the task force would address the remaining camps to see which might become sanctioned camps.
This plan will take a while, but the clear benefit is that it is focused on our most fragile and vulnerable residents, and ensuring they are counted, vaccinated, and served. If we don’t even know how many unhoused people live in our communities, the county will not get the necessary funds without which, folks will remain outside and unsheltered to die.
It goes without saying that there isn’t a homeless problem, there’s a “lack of affordable housing in Santa Clara County” problem.
The county keeps lauding its work with utilizing Measure A funds to build housing, but the amount of housing they open each year doesn’t even keep pace with the annual unhoused death rate (198 people in 2020), while it takes years for each building to open.
San Jose, meanwhile, keeps patting its own back over these tiny/modular homes, but again, all the sites combined don’t keep pace with the death rate.
In our work in the camps, creeks, sanctioned and unsanctioned safe parking areas, shelters, etc., the number of unhoused folks has exploded during this pandemic year.
In addition to the 2019 lowball estimate of 10,000 unhoused people, the increasing number of newly unhoused people due to loss of jobs during the pandemic are spelling a disaster for our communities.
This dramatic increase in the camps means we have many more newly unhoused neighbors. They’re our restaurant workers, our frontline workers who got Covid, our retail workers, folks who were illegally evicted, etc. Many of the same people who represent the existing 10,000.
In 2014, the city shut down The Jungle, said to be one of the largest homeless encampments in the country, with nearly 300 people at the time.
When it was shut down, the residents were scattered through the area and lost community, belongings and support. At the same time, neighborhoods that had not experienced camps before, were suddenly inundated by them as people sought refuge anywhere they could find a place they felt safe.
With today’s camp sweep, you have to wonder what San Jose considers progress.
The Jungle is already rumored to have over 100 people trying to shelter and survive there and the unhoused people being swept from up and down the creek will surely just move back to The New Jungle. And it only took San Jose six years to get back to the beginning.