Antonia Gonzalez and her three Chihuahua mixes live in a tent near a U.S. 101 on-ramp. They sleep just a few blocks from the former “Jungle,” once the largest homeless encampments in the country, before it was dismantled a year ago.
On Dec. 4, 2014, the city of San Jose closed the site, moving out dozens of homeless individuals while maintenance workers in hazmat suits cleared 618 tons of trash from the area. Coyote Creek had been polluted with human waste and garbage, prompting local water regulators to pressure the city to close the camp that had been in operation for three decades, according to former residents.
On the one-year anniversary, Gonzalez, 55, plans to reunite with former residents of the Jungle on the banks of Coyote Creek to recreate, perhaps just for a few hours, what was once her community.
The dismantlement of the Jungle rallied resources and attention, as the city and county housed many homeless. But the South Bay’s punishing homelessness problem persists. A year after the Jungle’s clearing, and with temperatures dipping, there are at least 200 small homeless camps, and 1,500 homeless individuals sleeping on the street or in tents each night in San Jose alone. Another 2,500 sleep in shelters, abandoned buildings or cars, according to the most recent census of the homeless. Many still treat temporary tent camps as home, often moving like urban nomads.
“There are people who were living in homes constructed by themselves,” said Robert Aguirre, who was known as the mayor of the Jungle before its dismantlement and now lives in an apartment in San Jose. “Those people are truly homeless now.” The goal of the reunion is to connect those still unhoused to shelter services that can help them off the streets, he added.
With the onset of winter, outdoor living has turned dangerous. On Nov. 30, a yet-unidentified homeless man was found dead likely due to cold exposure, on South First Street off Interstate 280. His death will be discussed by many at the Jungle reunion, Aguirre said.
Still Searching for a home
Before its closure, up to 300 people lived in the Jungle at times, some for just a few nights and many for years. They occupied assorted tents, two-story shacks and hobbit-like holes on 68 wooded acres along Coyote Creek.
Since the closure, the city has spent more than $4 million to house former Jungle residents and connect them to social services. More than 200 have been rehoused permanently, according to Ray Bramson, head of the Homeless Response Team for San Jose. At least another 25 received housing vouchers they haven’t been able to use, mostly because of the high costs of apartments and some landlords’ unwillingness to accept vouchers. Advocates like Aguirre maintain that still dozens from the Jungle and hundreds from other encampments are living on the streets without housing available.
Gonzalez and her dogs have been moving around since the Jungle’s closure, as police and park rangers respond to complaints from neighbors and businesses, cleaning out homeless encampments weekly. Life for Gonzalez, she says, was easier in the Jungle.
“I didn’t have to worry too much about being down in the Jungle,” she said.
“I had a place to come back to, but now I can’t go anywhere, because I don’t even know if my tent will be there when I come back.”
Today, the former Jungle remains hidden below Story Road, where cars whiz by and laughter is heard from kids across the street at the Happy Hollow Park & Zoo. Tires and shopping carts still sit half-sunken in mud along Coyote Creek, and an occasional dwelling pops up on the steep banks, signaling someone has moved back for a bit.
City of San Jose considers building housing, allowing camps
The city council is considering appropriating $40 million for over 700 housing units, according to Bramson, who leads homeless outreach efforts for the city of San Jose. The investment would be a big improvement from what already exists — currently, only 100 of the city’s 18,000 affordable housing units are set aside for the homeless.
“Housing is the answer to homelessness,” said Claire Wagner, director of communications for HomeFirst, one of the largest social service providers for the homeless in Santa Clara County. Nevertheless, not enough housing currently exists.
On Dec. 1, the San Jose City Council voted 9-1 to allow city-sanctioned encampments for homeless individuals, as soon as January, even as Mayor Sam Liccardo opposed the initiative. The details are still being worked out but the idea is to have designated areas where homeless people wouldn’t be forced to leave.
But for now, the sweeps continue. San Jose Police Captain Mark Bustillos said police often respond to encampment-related calls and conduct cleanups at camps three to eight times a week, usually clearing out the same parks and roadsides, only to have people move back days later.
“Homelessness isn’t a criminal issue,” Bustillos said, though people often move back as soon as the encampment cleanup is over. “There’s a kind of communal bonding,” among the residents.
Gonzalez said she had been back to the Jungle during the year to see if she could move back. “Now that they have everybody moving from one place to another.”
“And where do they want us to go?” Gonzalez asked. “They should have just left us down there, we were outta sight where nobody else sees us.”