SAN JOSE — As the Federal Aviation Administration’s deadline approaches for San Jose to clean up one of the largest and most entrenched homeless encampments in the Bay Area, nearly 100 people remain on the dusty, vacant lot near the city’s airport.
The city recently announced that it will begin removing people still living in the camp on September 1. The news sent a wave of anxiety among the remaining campers, many of whom still have nowhere to go., even though the city says it is working hard to find beds for everyone. Once the withdrawal process begins, San Jose will have a month to completely clear the camp or risk losing millions of dollars in FAA funding. That’s a tall order for a site with dozens of tents, RVs, cars and makeshift cabins – and heaps of personal belongings – strewn across the property.
The city and its nonprofit partners have moved 143 people from the camp to permanent housing or transitional shelters since September, said Omar Passons, the new deputy city manager of San Jose. A dozen service providers, including the nonprofit HomeFirst, held a resource fair at the camp on Thursday, inviting residents to stop by their booths for help with housing and other issues.
“We’re responding to an FAA directive,” Passons said, “and it’s frustrating for people, and we recognize that and try to work with people and find solutions that will meet their needs.”
Last summer, the FAA demanded that the city shut down the huge homeless camp near Mineta San Jose International Airport. The camp sits on a 40-acre parcel that San Jose purchased with federal funds to act as a buffer between the airport and the community in the event of a plane crash — and people aren’t allowed to live there. The original deadline to clear the camp was June 30, but the FAA agreed to let the city extend it until the end of September.
The city has already cleared two-thirds of the camp. The final third is a vacant lot bordered by Spring, West Hedding, and Asbury Streets on three sides and abutting the Guadalupe River Trail on the other. Once the site has been cleared, the city wants to transform the district with a dog park, a disc golf course and a public garden.
The city estimates that 90 people still live on the land, up from about 200 last year. It appears that everyone living there since March 31 of this year has either been logged into housing resources or is in the process of logging on, Passons said. While city officials believe they will have a bed to offer each of these people by the FAA’s Sept. 30 deadline, Passons wouldn’t go so far as to guarantee it. Some people have cases with extenuating circumstances that could make placements difficult, he said. For example, some people have RVs or vehicles that don’t work, but the person doesn’t want to part with them to move into a temporary shelter or tiny house.
“We have to understand some of these things in great detail,” he said.
To complicate matters, even as the city struggles to house people, more and more people are coming to the camp. Passons estimates that around 70 of the 90 people currently living there have arrived since March 31. The city will also do what it can to house them, he said.
Robert Campbell, who has been living in a trailer at the camp for a year, just contacted a social worker and was assessed for housing about a month ago. Campbell said his social worker went above and beyond, even pushing him to replace his Social Security card and go to the doctor for a physical exam.
On Thursday, the 45-year-old said he was about to fill out paperwork to get a housing voucher which would pay part of his rent once he found a flat. Campbell said his social worker told him he could stay in a prepaid hotel until his voucher was received – but he is still waiting for this to be approved.
Campbell is looking forward to having a home where he can receive his grandchildren, 4-year-old triplets. Once housed, he plans to get counseling to unlearn the unhealthy habits he picked up on the streets. And he plans to return to work as a mechanic – being homeless, it was too difficult to get to his shifts on time.
But waiting for that to happen makes him anxious, and he continues to worry that he won’t have a place to live before the city empties its camp.
“It’s like, do dreams come true, you know?” That’s where I’m at right now,” he said.
Those who the city cannot accommodate or who do not want to take advantage of the accommodation options provided may relocate to an area across Columbus Park that is outside of the FAA clearance area at this time. Let’s go said.
Despite what the city says to have housing plans for everyone, Gail Osmer, an activist who helps camp residents access resources, worries that many people will end up moving onto the streets on September 30. People will scatter into nearby neighborhoods — shattering the community they’ve built at the encampment — and neighbors will complain, she says.
“Everyone, all they want is to be safe and to come inside,” Osmer said. “They want to know where they can go.”