On a rainy morning last December, hundreds of people emerged from a muddy gully in San Jose, California, hauling their possessions in garbage bags and shopping carts after the city’s largest homeless encampment, known as “The Jungle,” was closed. Over the following weeks, workers in biohazard suits removed more than 600 tons of garbage – including nearly a ton of human waste, much of it deposited directly into a beleaguered local waterway called Coyote Creek.
Media reports on the eviction focused on the grim aesthetics of the 68-acre camp, which, at its height, was choked with makeshift wooden structures and home to roughly 250 residents. The symbolism was stark and, for city leaders, deeply troubling: One of the country’s largest homeless camps lay in the heart of Silicon Valley, the nation’s wealthiest region.
Back in March 2014, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife game warden filed a formal complaint to regional water authorities, citing heaps of garbage and human waste as a hazard to public health and the local environment. The environmental group Baykeeper announced a similar lawsuit against the city later that year, over the hazards that large “rafts” of trash and fecal bacteria posed to public health and the creek’s flagging runs of steelhead and chinook salmon. For the first time, homelessness in Santa Clara County was no longer framed as just an intractable social problem; it had become a clear environmental threat.
Oxnard, California, and several other Western cities with growing homeless populations, including Portland, Denver and Honolulu, have followed Silicon Valley’s lead, embarking on “sweeps” of large local homeless camps. Elected officials urged to do something about homelessness tend to see evictions as the quickest – and most politically expedient – way of dealing with the problem.
But leaders looking for a quick fix would do well to consider the aftermath in San Jose. Nearly a year after the Jungle’s closure, thousands remain homeless, wandering city streets and streambeds. Many residents wonder whether Santa Clara County’s environmental and civic leaders had jumped the gun, forcing residents out of Coyote Creek before there were suitable alternatives. “Where did the homeless go after the closure? They moved up and down the creeks and rivers and into public parks,” said Michael Fallon, director of the Center for Community Learning and Leadership at San Jose State University.
San Jose and Santa Clara County have since embarked on a sweeping five-year community plan to create housing for homeless residents. Though ambitious, the plan is vague, say critics, and doesn’t address the urgent threats to public health and safety and water quality. “The housing it calls for won’t be affordable or available anytime soon,” Fallon said; he’s suggested establishing legal campsites away from the creeks as an interim solution. “If the county can organize a Super Bowl in a year, you’d think we could do something for the homeless in the same amount of time.”
San Jose’s homeless problem is daunting, but it is far from unique in the West today. Four hundred miles south of San Jose, in Los Angeles, shantytowns and camps have appeared on medians, under overpasses and in parks and open space. The city and county of Los Angeles, has the West’s largest homeless population, estimated at around 44,000, and it’s seen a 12 percent rise in the last two years, thanks to gentrification, the rising cost of living and stagnant wages. At the end of September, Los Angeles announced a “state of emergency” on homelessness along with plans to allocate up to $100 million to address it. The same week, Portland officials laid out a program that would devote $30 million to assist the city’s homeless, an estimated 1,800 of whom are unsheltered. Seattle and surrounding Kings County, which has the country’s fourth-largest homeless population, has also seen a rapid uptick in homelessness, 21 percent since 2014. Between 2013 and 2014, Nevada experienced a 25 percent increase in homelessness, the greatest increase of any state in the country. And homeless people seek refuge where they can find it – often in public parks, open spaces and greenbelts, like Coyote Creek.
In 2014, after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife complaint, the regional water board filed an order against the city of San Jose, requiring it to develop a plan within six months to curb pollution from homeless encampments. That October, San Jose responded with a proposal to install portable toilets for homeless residents, along with a chain-link fence around the site’s perimeter, and to post notices warning that the water in the creek could be harmful if drunk. The city also announced its decision to close the Jungle.
Though the December evictions made national headlines, this was not the first time that Coyote Creek and its homeless camps caught the attention of local environmental authorities. For years, Coyote Creek had been listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an impaired “303(d)” waterway due to overwhelming volumes of trash and the presence of fecal coliform bacteria. In 2005, a local conservation group filed a petition with the city and Santa Clara County Water District, describing a familiar scene: “The homeless residents build encampments out of discarded sheet metal, cardboard boxes, stolen construction site materials, tents, and other materials. One (camp) even had an electricity supply.”
In 2011, the EPA partnered with local agencies under the “Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities” program. But even with close to $1 million in funds and increased manpower, change was slow to materialize. The following year, the environmental group Save the Bay called Coyote Creek the most polluted waterway in the Bay Area.
To understand the persistent ecological problems created by homeless camps along local waterways, one must first consider Silicon Valley’s economic backdrop, says Ray Bramson, San Jose’s homelessness response manager. Low vacancy rates, the rapidly rising cost of living and growing poverty all have contributed mightily to the region’s growing homelessness crisis, he says. Just over 10 percent of Santa Clara County residents live under the federal poverty line, but when factors such as housing and medical costs are accounted for, it’s more like 20 percent, according to a 2013 study from the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality and the Public Policy Institute of California.
Today, the San Jose metro area has the seventh-largest homeless population in the country, about 6,500 individuals, most of them considered “chronically homeless.” Add in those who experience a short-term bout of homelessness in any given year, and the total leaps to around 12,000.
And San Jose, like many urban areas in California, lacks the resources to deal adequately with its homeless population, with three out of four living outdoors rather than in shelters. By comparison, 95 percent of New York City’s homeless population is housed in city-run shelters. What the Bay Area city lacks in housing infrastructure for the poor and homeless, Bramson explained, it makes up for in a mild climate and miles of secluded riparian corridors. Last year’s count found more than 1,200 people living along the city’s two largest waterways – Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River – alone. “It’s easier to stay outside in San Jose than it is in New York,” said Bramson. “But it’s much harder to get inside.”
On a chilly March morning, Deb Kramer, then project manager for Restore Coyote Creek, and Steve Holmes, director of Friends of Los Gatos Creek, met to survey one area frequented by the homeless, known as Yerba Buena. That half-mile stretch of Coyote Creek has long had encampments, but like numerous other sections of local creeks, it saw a large influx after the Jungle evictions.
Because local agencies lack manpower, cleanup efforts fall largely to a handful of volunteer groups like these. Liz Neves, an environmental services specialist with the city of San Jose, coordinates with these groups a few times a year to conduct cleanups of 32 “hot spots.” “Many people who volunteer to work in the creeks have never been in them, and they’re surprised to see how much garbage there is,” said Neves.
At Yerba Buena, piles of trash are everywhere, under snags of branches, beneath earthen ledges, mixed into piles of leaves and clusters of poison oak. Kramer poked through one midden, dredging up a red toothbrush, a small braided bracelet, a pair of children’s sandals, a muddy teddy bear. Nonetheless, she said the area looked better than it did in November and December, when she and 120 volunteers removed several makeshift structures and at least four tons of trash and debris.
Past a crude log bridge, a few mallard ducks paddled in a pond filled with strollers, tires and large chunks of metal. “You can see what a great place this could be for fish,” said Holmes, pointing out that San Jose’s creeks – like those across the Bay Area – once provided rich spawning grounds for the Bay’s native and now federally listed chinook salmon and steelhead. Each year, a few intrepid fish still manage to journey from the bay into higher reaches of Santa Clara County’s watersheds. A YouTube video from 2011 shows two large salmon swimming against the current of the Guadalupe River under a downtown overpass near several encampments. As the fish wheels under the water, excavating the gravel to lay eggs, bright blocks of graffiti reflect on the water’s surface.
Such scenes hint at nature’s resilience and offer hope of restoration. But San Jose’s creeks, as well as many other waterways in the Bay Area, are still lined with homeless camps, and human waste and other debris are still flowing into San Francisco Bay. And even if all of that waste could somehow be removed, other major impediments exist, including illegal dumping, discharges from various industrial facilities, diversions and alterations such as culverts and dams that create impenetrable barriers for spawning salmon. The greatest obstacle of all may prove to be the four-year drought that has gripped California, reducing the midsummer flows of these coastal creeks to virtually nothing.
The same morning, just north of the Yerba Buena section near where Coyote Creek flows under Tully Avenue, about a dozen people gathered. They’d been evicted earlier that day from a makeshift creek-side encampment.
Richard Mendoza sat on a concrete bench beside two bicycles and a shopping cart piled with his belongings. Mendoza, who looks younger than his 61 years, has been homeless since he lost his job at the San Jose airport 12 years ago. Life on Coyote Creek is “damp and cold, but it is quiet,” he said. Mendoza said he’d managed to secure housing in a shelter for seniors but was awaiting approval for his girlfriend, Pamela, who is more than 15 years his junior.
Nearby, Lavella Perry, an articulate 29-year-old, said she has been intermittently homeless for the last few years. In that time, she’d held a variety of jobs, most recently working as a security guard. She’s even pooled resources with her sister, also homeless, in an attempt to secure housing. But they have been unable to find an affordable rental. “Most of the jobs are part time,” said Perry. “It’s hard to get 40 hours a week. And if you’re only making minimum wage – even 10 bucks an hour – you’re pretty much out of luck.” A person in Santa Clara County must make about $32 per hour – or $5,673 per month – to afford “fair market” rent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
To aid in homeless outreach, San Jose and Santa Clara County have enlisted numerous non-governmental organizations. One nonprofit, Downtown Streets Team, uses a “work experience” model to give people a pathway toward jobs and housing. Those in the program must commit to volunteer work, much of it centered on the cleanup of streamside camps. According to director Chris Richardson, as of the first of June, Downtown Streets has helped more than 150 homeless individuals – including 84 former Jungle residents – find a place to live. Another county program, Housing 1000, placed more than 800 chronically homeless residents in Silicon Valley in housing between 2011 and 2014.
Michael Fallon of San Jose State University has proposed a more immediate and controversial response to the crisis: temporary camps similar to those built during natural disasters and wars. “The United Nations went into Jordan and set up a refugee camp for something like a million or more individuals,” says Fallon, laying out a vision for organized camps complete with portable toilets, showers and a facility with social service workers. “They had it up and running in a week.”
Fallon also points to Dignity Village, in Portland, Oregon. Once the site of a squatters’ camp, the site received official “campsite” designation from the Portland City Council in 2004. As of last year, around 60 residents were living in small but tidy wood structures complete with running water, gas and electricity, while they seek permanent housing.
To date, the city has expressed little interest in interim models like these. The most realistic solution, according to Ray Bramson and a host of other civic leaders, lies in Santa Clara County’s five-year “Community Plan to End Homelessness.” Released in February, the blueprint was devised by a public-private partnership of dozens of local agencies and groups. It seeks to provide health and job counseling as well as create 6,000 “housing opportunities” by converting motels and building new affordable apartments and micro-housing units – small living spaces of typically less than 300 or 400 square feet. Of course, people take to living on the streets for many reasons, some of them complex and hard to resolve – from job loss and eviction, to drug abuse and mental illness. Simply providing more shelter beds and affordable housing units will by no means “end” homelessness in San Jose. But there is little doubt that it will help, Bramson said.
As the city awaits the housing outlined under the new county plan – to be funded through a combination of public and private investment – the task of preventing new encampments in the creeks falls to a small group of local law enforcement agents. On Los Gatos Creek in early April, California Department of Fish and Wildlife game wardens Max Schad and Michael Hampton patrolled a section near downtown’s glassy façades, picking their way down a dirt path leading under the Santa Clara Street overpass.
Below the roadway, Los Gatos Creek, now severely diminished by the drought, trickles through a rocky bed and a dark concrete tunnel. There, Schad encountered a dark-haired woman, probably in her early 30s, whom he called “Denise.” Her home was an abstract sculpture of wood and plastic built in the stream channel. On the wall of the tunnel, against scrawls of graffiti, hung a bright blue formal gown. “If I come back tomorrow and you’re still here, I’m going to take you to jail,” Schad told her. He has arrested Denise at this location several times – and yet she always returns.
That’s not surprising, said Downtown Streets director Chris Richardson: “You can do sweeps all you want, but people will just keep moving back unless they have a place to go.” With the city’s depleted police force and mere handful of wardens, however, those who camp along more remote sections of the creeks have a good chance of not being found. Rather than a purely punitive approach, Schad explained, the city needs more models that connect disparate agencies and groups to help homeless residents find housing and counseling, and become more effective advocates for themselves. “I come with consequences,” said Schad. “We need more people who come with alternatives.”
The sentiment is shared by Bramson, who says that the health of the city’s waterways is inextricably linked with the resources available to its thousands of displaced residents. “We need to get people out of the creeks and these unsafe living environments,” said Bramson. “But we’ve also got to provide stable housing meant for long-term health and self-sufficiency. These are two parts of the same solution.”
Jeremy Miller is a regular contributor to High Country News. He writes from Richmond, California.