San Jose Shuts Down the Place the Homeless Called Home
By Mark Emmons
A caravan of misery lined the sidewalk along Story Road. Evicted homeless people stood beside a seemingly endless row of shopping carts filled with their meager possessions as they watched city workers descend into "the Jungle" Thursday and begin dismantling the infamous encampment.
The homeless, some of them weeping uncontrollably, asked each other: Where will we go now?
"I don't know," answered Toi Larks-Scott, 37, who stood barefoot in a muddy parking lot, holding the leash of one of her two dogs. Nearby, eight carts were laden with her belongings. "I don't understand this. It's not illegal to be homeless. This isn't right."
It was an often heartbreaking scene as social workers, protesters and the national media gathered to witness the end of a desperate place that has come to symbolize the growing gulf between haves and have-nots in wealthy Silicon Valley _ one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.
Public officials have been under enormous pressure from frustrated neighbors and regional water quality regulators to shut down the Jungle, a shantytown that stretches over 68 acres through central San Jose along the Coyote Creek. And for months people living there had known that this day was coming as the city spent $4 million working with nonprofit partners to house as many homeless as possible.
That was the carrot. The stick arrived at 8 a.m. as bulldozers and trash compactors rolled in and workers wearing protective white suits began breaking down camp sites and makeshift structures as well as collecting an untold amount of garbage that has been fouling the creek.
Two close friends who both have health problems, Eva Martinez, 63, and Grace Hilliard, 59, tearfully discussed offers they had received for temporary shelter. They especially were upset because it appeared they were going to be separated.
"This is very devastating," said Hilliard, who has lived on and off at the Jungle for 16 years.
Martinez could barely speak.
"This is my home," she said quietly. "Now I'll have to lay down on the street, somewhere outside. I couldn't bring out all of my stuff. The rest will end up in the dumpsters, I guess. It's terrible. It's terrible for all of us."
The Jungle's population had been growing in the last year, with estimates of between 200 and 300 people living there in unsanitary conditions. But Ray Bramson, the city's homeless response manager, said there were only about 50 to 60 stragglers left by Thursday.
"This site is no longer open for any individuals," Bramson said. "The fact that anyone has to live in conditions like this is horrible. This shouldn't be a viable alternative for anyone. We need to make sure that people never have to live in a place like this."
Bramson said the city is doing everything it can to ease the crisis: 144 people had been placed in housing and another 55 have housing subsidy vouchers and are looking for homes through this pilot program. An additional 70 to 80 temporary shelter beds also had been arranged. Officials hope the cleanup of the Jungle will show that local government can help get the homeless into housing as well as clean up polluted creeks.
The city had been trying to avoid the sight that unfolded Thursday. But the stark reality is Santa Clara County has one of the country's most acute homeless problems. About 5,000 people are on San Jose streets on any given night. And that was the message protesters were trying to deliver Thursday as they held signs such as "This is no solution" and chanted "Housing, not dumpsters!"
Meanwhile, outreach workers fanned out as they encouraged the homeless campers to accept their offers of temporary shelter.
"I've been crying since I got here because this is such an emotional day for everyone involved," said Jenny Niklaus, the CEO of the nonprofit HomeFirst. "I've been watching people drag their possessions through the mud, and it's so sad because it's all they have. It's just mortifying. I understand the city has to do this, but it's so painful."
Helping one man pull a cart up the steep hill from the creek was Mayor-Elect Sam Liccardo.
About 30 San Jose police officers were present to supervise, but Thursday's cleanup was peaceful with no reports of disturbances. Neighbors had greeted the pending cleanup with mixed emotions, relieved the city finally was clearing out the filthy, odorous and at times violent encampment, but heartsick over the plight of its inhabitants, many of whom suffer from addiction and mental illness that make it harder for them to secure housing. So, there were no cheers as the cleanup crews moved in.
The city's Bramson said that while everybody had to be out of the Jungle on Thursday, workers will be cleaning up the site through Dec. 19 at a cost of between $400,000 and $500,000, which is being shared by the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. When completed, park rangers and San Jose police working overtime will patrol the site to prevent re-encampment, which is exactly what has happened after past cleanups.
By midmorning, it was mostly a ghost town throughout the encampment, which also includes elaborate bunkers dug into the earth. An abandoned tree house had a "for sale" sign on it. A scared Chihuahua wandered around aimlessly, apparently looking for its owner. Nearby, a frantic man was yelling in his tent for his lost pet cat.
Further down Story Road, a woman leaving the encampment wailed angrily.
"Somebody help me," she shouted.
No one responded to her request.
(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)