Crews break up homeless camp in Silicon Valley

AP News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2014 5:46 PM
Crews break up homeless camp in Silicon Valley

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — About 50 muddy souls dragged their meager belongings out of a trash-strewn California creek bed Thursday as police and social-service workers began clearing away one of the nation's largest homeless encampments, a collection of flimsy tents and plywood shelters in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The people forced out of the camp known as the Jungle ended up alongside a busy San Jose road, startling passers-by who slowed down to watch.

"People drive by and look at us like we're circus animals," said a sobbing Nancy Ortega.

More than 30 police officers and dozens of construction workers in white hazmat suits joined about 15 social-service workers in the effort to take apart the treacherous community that at its peak housed as many as 350 people living in squalor just a short drive from tech giants Google, Apple, Yahoo and eBay.

Ortega shuddered and clutched her fleece blanket while watching tractors cram couches, tents, blankets, rotten food and pails of excrement into roaring garbage trucks.

"It's just junk to everyone else but to us, that's home. That's our stuff," she said.

On a nearby sidewalk, Al Palaces, a former truck driver who settled into the encampment about eight months ago, said he was trying to think of a plan.

"I just grabbed whatever I could because I don't want to go to jail," he said, standing next to an overloaded shopping cart stuffed with dirty plastic bags.

For months, social workers have been trying to house camp residents. And four days earlier, they were warned they had until dawn Thursday to leave or face arrest for trespassing. Still, city officials estimated about 60 people remained at the filthy site when cleanout day came.

After a rainy night, skies cleared Thursday, and one person after another in varying states of mental clarity and sobriety dragged their belongings in suitcases, shopping carts and on bicycles out of the camp through ankle-deep sludge. By midmorning, dozens had reached the sidewalk, abandoning most of their possessions.

But some remained in the slum.

Valentine Cortes, who said he was a journeyman construction worker, said he had no plans to leave his makeshift shelter built into a steep, muddy slope.

"I don't know why people got all chaotic today," he said. "We don't have to go."

Asked about the warning that he could be jailed, Cortes shrugged, pet a 6-week old puppy in his palm and said, "Then I guess I'll be arrested."

Dogs and cats still roamed the square-mile camp, some of them pets, others wild. Rats hopped through the muck.

A few dozen protesters gathered at the site holding signs reading "Homeless people matter" and "Stand with The Jungle."

The encampment stands in stark contrast to the surrounding valley, a region that leads the country in job growth, income and venture capital.

Palaces said he liked the Jungle better than the streets because people would bring food and police didn't bother the residents.

"Even a job wouldn't give me a house" because housing prices are so high, he said.

Officials found shelter for about 10 residents Thursday, said San Jose homelessness response manager Ray Bramson. Many more refused the city's offers, citing concerns about safety at homeless shelters, their need to stay with pets and their dislike of sobriety rules.

Several homeless-assistance groups also stepped in to help. HomeFirst, the largest provider to homeless people in Santa Clara County, set aside 27 beds at a nearby shelter. Another 50 beds are open in a separate cold-weather shelter.

"This feels terrible," said Jenny Niklaus, HomeFirst's chief executive officer, her voice breaking. "People are up to their calves in the mud dragging their stuff into the street."

San Jose has spent more than $4 million over the last year and a half to solve problems at the encampment and has housed some 135 people from the site. But it's become increasingly polluted and dangerous.

In the last month, one camp resident tried to strangle someone with a cord of wire. Another was nearly beaten to death with a hammer. And state water regulators are demanding that polluted Coyote Creek, which cuts through the middle, get cleaned out.

Personal property confiscated Thursday was to be stored for 90 days before being disposed of in March.

The last time officials cleared out the camp was in May 2012, when about 150 people were sent away. But this time Bramson said they will conduct regular patrol to keep anyone from returning.

Dismantling the Jungle is a massive job. It will take several days to haul out tons of waste and debris. Heavy machinery will be used to fill in excavated areas where people had been living underground.

For some, the sudden abandonment of so many improvised homes was a bonanza.

Dau Nguyen muttered to himself as he picked through a trash heap, pausing to wash some of the items in an aluminum-foil bin.

"I wait for somebody to leave," Nguyen said, "and then everything is mine."