NOTES BY NORSE: San Jose Jungle Survivor and Santa Cruz Freedom Sleeper Robert Aguirre isn’t the only sensible voice in this latest snapshot report from the San Jose area Water Distrct Jaw-a-Thon. The obvious solution of providing trash pick-up services rather than destructive camp dismantling actions is hard for the NIMBY (Not-in-my-back-yard) mentality to grok. The even more obvious financial assessment that would likely show the economic futility and stupidity of these raids is hopefully on the horizon. This kind of assessment in cities regarding police and emergency services for “disappearing” the homeless, had led–on paper at least–to Smart Solutions, 220-220, Housing First!, and Downtown Accountability projects.
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New take on creekside encampments
Water district to explore housing homeless, rather than rousting them
by Kevin Forestieri / Mountain View Voice
Santa Clara Valley Water District board members agreed to sign onto a county-wide effort to reduce homelessness in Santa Clara County, which could include housing homeless people on district-owned land.
The regional water district may seem like an unlikely ally in the effort to shore up housing for the roughly 6,500 homeless people in the county. But encampments and trash pile-ups along several creeks and waterways have posed a chronic health and safety problem that drains the water district’s resources, officials say.
Over the last four years, the water district has cranked up efforts to dismantle homeless camps along waterways through its cleanup program. In the 2015 fiscal year, water district staff collected 1,209 tons of trash from encampments, more than the last two years combined. Costs for cleanup over the last three years has totaled nearly $2.7 million, which has been funded by the district’s 2012 Measure B parcel tax.
The decision by board members to work with county officials and housing agencies like Destination: Home could mark a big change of pace for the district, which has been focused on tearing down creekside encampments rather than on providing homeless services. This has resulted in an adversarial relationship between district staff and the homeless people living on water district property.
At the Jan. 26 board meeting, Liz Bettencourt, president of one of the district’s three employee associations, said conditions along the creeks have “deteriorated at a crazy rampant rate,” and the threat of violence employees face when cleaning out homeless encampments is a big concern. Bettencourt urged the board to consider added safety measures for district staff, including bullet-proof vests and assistance from the county sheriff’s office, during clean-up operations.
Robert Aguirre, who is no longer homeless but who used to live in the infamous “Jungle” encampment in San Jose, said the water district has largely done a bad job working with the creekside homeless population. When district staff come in to clean out encampments, Aguirre said there’s no opportunity for the homeless to separate their belongings, and that one person had a backpack physically taken off by a district staff member and thrown into a trash compactor.
“If you continue harassing the people who are homeless, they are going to continue to harass you back,” Aguirre said, in response to Bettencourt’s comments.
Despite the feelings of animosity, Aguirre said homeless people are willing to work with water district staff to keep the area clean, provided they’re given the opportunity. The problem, he said, is that there’s no trash pickup service when you live on the creeks, and naturally the garbage and refuse is going to build up.
“If people didn’t pick up trash in your neighborhood, it would start to accumulate and it would start to become a health hazard as well,” Aguirre said.
The encampment cleanup policies also have flaws that keep county waterways covered in trash. Richard McMurtry, a member of the Santa Clara County Creek Coalition, showed the board photo after photo of heaps of trash left by district staff immediately following an encampment cleanup. That’s because the cleanup program is intended to dismantle encampments, and any trash more than 30 feet from tent sites is left on the ground, McMurtry wrote in a letter to the board.
And taking down encampments doesn’t prevent homeless people from taking up residence along the creeks either, McMurtry said. If anything, he said, homeless people are simply uprooted and pushed to a new location along the same creek.
“There are many homeless who, despite having their sites being dismantled 10 times in the past two years, are still living within 200 yards of their original campsite,” McMurtry wrote to the board.
Moria Merriweather, a resident near Coyote Creek, said taking down encampments doesn’t really work, and that the district should be focused on providing toilets, trash collection and other sanitary services. Taking these steps, she said, will help to avoid the bacterial outbreaks, disease and trash build-up that are all too predictable as people live along the creeks.
A housing solution
The board agreed last week to put together a committee and find out what the water district can do, working with county officials, to better provide homes and services for the homeless in Santa Clara County. The move comes after the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution last month calling on local agencies to do their part and reduce homelessness in the county.
The water district does have authority to support housing initiatives, including the use of district-owned land for temporary or permanent housing for homeless people, according to board member Gary Kremen, who represents North County cities including Mountain View and Palo Alto. He said using the district’s resources to build housing will be a much more cost-effective solution to homelessness along the county’s waterways.
“We need to house these people. That’s the best return on investment,” Kremen said.
Board member Tony Estremera agreed that a committee could give water district officials a good idea of what options are on the table for helping to reduce homelessness, and that it’s time for the water district to acknowledge that the high cost of living is forcing people to live along county creeks.
“I know in the past that our attitude has been, ‘We don’t want to attract folks (and) we don’t want to make it easy to camp,’” Estremera said. “However, we don’t have a choice about this economy, so we need to take a look at that.”