City Changes Policy on Homeless Camps

A slap shot from HP Pavilion, through Guadalupe Park and into the neighboring creek bed, a rooster makes its home. He lives among shopping carts, deflated tire tubes and toilet paper rolls, empty beer cans and coolers, a Negro Modelo sign lodged in the fresh mud and a half-dozen people who spend their nights sleeping in tents.

Karen Ellfson is one of these people. She lives here with her husband. At 30 years old, a month shy of her next birthday, the Morgan Hill native knows that in two weeks she’ll need to find a new home. She’s one of several dozen homeless people with targets on their backs.

“Last summer, they did it for a month,” says Ellfson, talking about the city cleanup crews that go through San Jose’s more crowded homeless encampments and uproot tents and clear garbage and debris. “Every weekend they came through and swept out, like, three spots. But people kept packing up and moving to the next spot. And then they moved back to the spot. Eventually they stopped doing the sweeps. But I know they’re going to start back up. It’s summer time.”

The seasons mark a noticeable shift in the manner the city handles its homeless population, estimated to be a little more than 4,000 souls as of last year. Rather than displacing people when it’s coldest, the city’s Environmental Services Department (ESD) partners with the Santa Clara Valley Water District and concentrates efforts on creek bed and waterway encampment cleanups during the spring and summer months.

The city’s housing department estimates there are 60 encampments within San Jose, consisting of 600-900 residents in total. Last year, 11 cleanups resulted in 163 tons of possessions, debris and trash being removed—equal to the weight of 16 semi trucks—at a cost of $235,000.
“It has a significant impact to our watersheds,” says ESD spokesperson Jennifer Garnett.

“We have permit requirements to keep trash out of our waterways, and homeless encampments are definitely a source of trash in our waterways.”

But, over the years, an untold amount of property that should have been stored for the homeless to retrieve at a later date was illegally trashed.

Amazingly, this just came to the attention of city officials this spring. None of the items taken in cleanups were tagged and stored by police—which oversees the cleanups for safety—as mandated by law. A memo from former City Attorney Joan Gallo in 1990 notes that the city must hold encampment property for up to four months if a homeless person wants to collect them, in order to avoid lawsuits of unlawful property seizure.

“The question of where that stuff was stored—it wasn’t stored,” says Sgt. Jason Dwyer, of the San Jose Police Department. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. Nobody knows when it stopped or what was done.”

Lawsuits filed by homeless citizens deprived of their property have been filed in courts in Fresno, Laguna Beach, Sacramento and other areas of the country, after negligence similar to San Jose’s was found. Had Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell, whose office oversees complaints against SJPD, not received two grievances late last year from people evicted from encampments, the issue could have remained unaddressed.

Instead, Cordell says she and her staff personally followed up on the complaints by visiting encampments and documenting what they saw.

“I could have just ignored them and write them up (and forwarded complaints to Internal Affairs), do what we do,” Cordell says. “But I decided not to. I can’t tell you why. I just really needed to know what’s going on out there.”

Cordell, a retired judge, drafted a document called “The Cost of a Quick Fix: Kincaid v. City of Fresno,” to grab the attention of city officials. The document noted that inaction could result in a lengthy, costly court battle. It took the city of Fresno 18 months to settle its 2006 lawsuit at a cost of $2.25 million, not including its own attorney fees and costs, according to the document. A lack of follow-through in Fresno has once again brought the issue to the forefront in that city, and served as an additional warning to San Jose.

“Our police department was notified by the independent police auditor that we needed to revise the policies,” Garnett says. “We suspended cleanups in March and it took a lot of coordination with the water district and our own internal departments on deciding what we wanted to do as quick as possible.”

A growing number of neighborhood complaints about encampments, as well as a dangerous fire near the Water District headquarters, increased that urgency. Responders to the fire found flooring and furniture, showing that the sophistication of some encampments goes well beyond a few humble dwellings.

“A few years ago there was a place in North San Jose called Tent City,” Sgt. Dwyer recalls. “Unless you hiked down there under the bridge you never would have seen it. It was fascinating; they had their own little city government. They had an unofficial mayor. They had their own police force. They were a microcosm of the city. They had their troublemakers, and they had their good people who were just down on their luck.”

City officials believe the number of homeless in San Jose has dropped slightly since 2009, but the number of chronically homeless—more than a quarter of the total number—grew by 10 percent during that time. A new approach by the Water District and ESD to address encampments, called Phase I, began at the end of May, and two more cleanups are slated for this month. The last is set for June 21 at Guadalupe River by Julian Street.

Serving a notice 72 hours before crews begin the sweep, city officials are also putting homeless in touch with the nonprofit EHC Lifebuilders, which will oversee storage of tagged items in an effort to funnel homeless into shelters, housing, treatment centers and work programs. Several other organizations are also assisting. The SJPD, at the behest of Police Chief Chris Moore, will only be responsible for maintaining a safe environment during the process.

But there is some concern that homeless individuals without consistent means of communication, such as cell phones or a stable address, are simply being shuffled around in an out of sight, out of mind shell game.

“From our standpoint, that’s the balancing act,” Garnett says. “We have to balance the rights of the homeless with the environmental and neighborhood impact. That’s the crux of it.”

Ellfson understands the city’s arguments, noting all the debris that surrounds her tent, and she says she’ll have a bag with her more valuable information ready when the movers come.

“I think it’s going to be hell, because I’ve seen people have to try and get their stuff packed up real quick,” she says. “But I’m not really trying to stay here much longer. That’s why I’m not trying to make it totally like home.”

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.


  1. I think it is a shame that the richest country in the world has homeless people living in the streets, under overpasses, sleeping at bus stops, in parks, etc. It is time to do some community outreach and assist these folks with resources.

    Having said that, if homeless people want their possessions saved, then either they need to take responsibility for them, or stop leaving them unattended. If the City has to store their belongings, then they should be charged for storage just like everyone else would.

    The bottom line is that we need to address homelessness and stop turning a blind eye to it. These people need help.

    • “These people” don’t want the help that our society provides; unless it involves free housing with no rules… they’ll live how and where they want.  Addiction along with mental health issues are the dominant obstacles, so don’t be fooled into thinking that “these people” just need a home because they’re down on their luck.  Their inability to interact with, work in and follow the laws of our society have relegated them to encampments.

      Folks like Cordell, whose heart grows 3 sizes when there’s media in the room are the opportunistic saviors of the downtrodden only when controversy suits them.  Shame on her, once again championing her efforts to create obscene cost, red tape and media attention to a group that creates and obfuscates their own problems.

      Abandoned property is considered exactly that and can be destroyed as such.  The simplest fix was to rescind the original memo and get back to fixing the problem- enforcement of trespassing and littering laws along with Water District ordinances.  Just because a memo was created 22 years ago doesn’t mean a double-dipping ex-judge needs a cause.

      • Anonymously,
        You make a very valid argument. I know much of what you have said about the homeless is true. Addiction, and mental issues are a highly prevalent issue when it comes to the homeless. I just wish there was a way to help these people.

        As to Judge Cordell, I would have to disagree with you on her motives. She is a former Judge who has fought long and hard for people’s Civil Rights, and I commend her for doing so. She is doing her job by ensuring the rights of others, and sometimes that is not a popular stand to take.

        The City has ignored the homeless problem for way too long, and needs to address it in a way that conforms to the law. If the law says they have to store the items then that is what they have to do. But nowhere in the law do I see them having to do it for free. If you look at the law on “Abandonment of Property,” it is pretty clear that they can be charged for storage, and if they don’t reclaim their items by a certain time, it can be sold, or destroyed.

        • Kathleen, I usually appreciate your common sense based observations, however I agree with Anonymously on this one.  However, you were correct when you said she should be doing her job by ensuring the rights of others! She should be ensuring the rights of the tax payers by ensuring the police aggressively pursue and arrest all these people who commit grave felonies against our waters and wild life by poisoning the environment with hundreds of car batteries, feces, urine, detergents, trash, and oils.

          Homeless is a real issue that needs to be dealt with. But again the city management fails to implement any reasonable solution.  I read somewhere that the cost of these cleanups were in excess of 500k annually. And that was without “storage”

          As it is now, it would make more sense for the city to house all the creek dwellers and their “belongings” in the new vacant Police Sub Station since the city is never going to have enough cops to justify its opening.

        • Plain Truth,

          I really like your suggestion of housing the homeless and their belongings in the vacant Police Sub Station. It makes good sense both financially, and morally! Volunteers could run it.

          Unfortunately, I don’t think the City will do it. They won’t want to take on the liability, or the cost. Even though it would be the right thing to do, and probably would save them money in the end.

          Speaking to the issue of legal liability, in my view, Judge Cordell was simply pointing out the legal liability the City faces if they don’t start following the law. By doing this, she is in essence saving the City, and yes tax payers, from being sued for millions of dollars! 

          Also, as both Anonymously and Blair point out, the majority of homeless people either won’t accept help, or fear change. Their mental health issues, and addictions add another whole set of problems to the equation. 

          Having said that, I think now is the time to start addressing the homeless problem before it gets even more out of hand. I seriously don’t know what the answer is, but I agree with you 100%, we need to do something about it in a way that is fair to everyone, tax payers included.

  2. What kind of a world do we live in where we will take away an employee’s private property (pensions under vested rights doctrine) but store someone’s garbage for them until they can come and pick it up?

  3. I could have just ignored them and write them up (and forwarded complaints to Internal Affairs), do what we do,” Cordell says. “But I decided not to. I can’t tell you why. I just really needed to know what’s going on out there.”

    Knee slapping funny. She basically admits to being inept. That’s very funny. We should give her a raise and increase her staff of people who ” ignore and write up”
    Good job Cordell. You make us taxpayers proud! Hahahahahhahahah

  4. I lived underneath the Hamilton Av bridge going over Los Gatos creek for a few months in my teens. 

    I built a nice little bridge house out of materials gained from the Apple building going up next door.  I revisited it a few years later, and friends that knew me from that time commented on it a bit.
    For the most part, my camp was clean.  I’d urinate in the creek, pack my trash out to the dumpster at the tire shop, and if I had to go #2, the delta queen car wash left its bathroom unlocked at night.

    Why would I live under a bridge?

    My mother kicked me out of the house on my 16th birthday, and tried to have me committed.  She successfully pulled the same tactic when I was 12, but after years of court battles, my father and grandmother got me out of the system.  She was trying to put me right back in.

    I wound up at the Children’s Shelter.  My last stay at the place wasn’t a pleasant experience, and after a 4 year absence I noticed that the same kids were still there.  Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, I decided my chances were better on the streets, than being dragged down into the pits of the juvenile court system.

    2 months of living there before a relative took me in VS 2 years of going through the system again.

    Here’s a facebook album I made of the spot.

    I have to really thank the Bill Wilson house, they fed me, gave me a clean set of clothes, and bus passes. 

    What I found of the other homeless shelter systems is repeated often.  They are inconvenient, and nearly unlivable.  I tried staying at the armory a few times, and was scared for my life.  Just a large auditorium with cot after cot of some of the most deranged people you ever met.  They’d lock us all in at 7pm, wake us at 4am to feed us, and kick us out at 5am. 

    In order for people to get off the streets they need stability and safety.  My experience with the homeless shelters is they provide neither, which is why so many people feel so much safer taking their chances in the creek. 

    Institutionalize yourself in what amounts to “night jail” at the armory?  Or give yourself a bit of freedom living in a creek?  I don’t think anyone here (but me) can make that determination without having lived through it.

  5. Good to see Chief Moore speak up over the homeless inventory issue.  I wonder why he hasn’t PUBLICY talked about his sinking ship issue?

  6. Are the police responsible for the personal property surrounding an arrested creek trespasser? Bleeding hearts want to say yes; disaffected judges find it easy to say yes; and cowardly city leaders, who care more about their good standing with the homeless community than they do with the employees who must deal with the deranged and disgusting, prefer to play dodge the question.

    But consider this: when police arrest the driver of a pickup truck they do not become responsible for the contents of his truck bed—be it furnishings, work tools, or a load destined for the dump. Cops are obligated to offer the services of a tow truck (with secure storage yard), but unless the arrested party is willing to contract for that service, the truck and its load will be left on the street, legally parked but unguarded. Clearly, the protection of such property is the owner’s responsibility.

    Why should the belongings surrounding the creek trespasser be granted a legal status above that of a truck load? In an encampment environment the police are unlikely to establish, to any degree of certainty, the value or ownership of such property, nor is there any reason for them to exert the effort. Homeless people squat on abandoned campsites and confiscate unattended objects all the time. What is ownership in such an unregulated, chaotic environment? Besides, that couch or mattress or camp stove are, just as are the human dwellers, there without permission, in violation of the law. In other words, the property around the encampment is, like the fruit from your tree that hangs on your neighbor’s side of the fence, at the disposal of the land owner.

    There will always be a liberal judge somewhere to issue an asinine order but that is one of the reasons we staff a city attorney’s office. We can’t have feel good, counterproductive policies and protected creeks and safe neighborhoods. What good is it to deprive responsible citizens of plastic bags and styrofoam only to grant the drunk and deranged the right to spoil our waterways with car batteries, syringes, trash, and human filth? Get the attorneys working, find a more responsible judge, and get us a ruling that will actually protect the public. Isn’t that what government is supposed to do?

  7. This is a hard one.  Back in the day when I did social work I walked the creeks and found many in dire need (one guy was hiding in his tent and said he had a broken hip) but when offered a trip to a medical center and a path to a better life his response was “I can’t leave my stuff, folks around here will steal it if I leave it behind.”

    His “stuff was a bunch of old tools from Sears and Kragen’s that probably only amounted to $100 in value, but his mental health issues made guarding his “possessions” more important than taking care of his health.

    Some live large with tent taj mahal palaces, others fly under the radar and avoid child support and immigration.  There’s a lot of problems on the creeks and waterways where the homeless hang out. 

    And at the end of the day, there’s a lot of trash left behind that litters the creek and makes everyone feel unsafe going anywhere near this section of town.  Police and the water district do what they can with periodic sweeps and clean-ups, but two days after, most of the same folks are back in place.

    We’ve always had homeless in America.  Sometimes its a crime and “blight” for home owners nearby, and sometimes its just a hard phase in life people are passing through on their way to a better life. 

    Sometimes, also, its the last stop on a downward spiral where mental health issues have gotten the better of folks minds and they can’t accept any help from anyone.

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