IN AN EFFORT to clear one of the Bay Area’s largest homeless camps, San Jose installed barriers near Columbus Park right before Thanksgiving, prompting concern from some unhoused advocates.
The city installed K-Rail barriers at the intersection of Spring and Hedding streets and east of it earlier this month. The city also placed “no outlet/not a through street” signs at the intersection of Spring and Ashbury streets.
Scott Wagers, pastor for CHAM Deliverance Ministry, said the barriers make it difficult to bring supplies to people in the encampment and send a hostile message to residents struggling to survive. He said the city failed to inform advocates or residents about the plan.
“The message being sent here is, ‘you’re not wanted here, we’re not going to make it easy on you,’” Wagers told San José Spotlight.
The barriers are intended to create a dead-end street but won’t hinder homeless people and service providers from accessing the area, said city spokesperson Daniel Lazo. He told San José Spotlight the barriers will help decrease high-speed traffic and illegal dumping. The barriers will stay up permanently.
The homeless camp, which is home to some 150 residents, has been a hotspot for controversy. It’s now considered the region’s largest homeless encampment since San Jose cleared The Jungle years ago. City leaders are scrambling to remove residents to comply with demands from the Federal Aviation Administration to clear the site near Columbus Park. The site sits on airport property under the direct flight path of the downtown San Jose airport, sparking safety concerns.
The San Jose City Council last month grappled with placing a giant fence around the site to discourage new people from moving in — but ultimately took no action. The FAA gave the city until next summer to clear out the encampment.
Officials said the barriers are part of a months-long effort to clear the 40-acre piece of land. The FAA has threatened to withhold millions in federal funding if this isn’t done.
The city has cleared about two-thirds of the airport land since September. Lazo said everyone must be relocated by June 30, and the barriers are a step toward that goal.
“It signals that this is not an area where the city is welcoming outside parties, or cut through traffic,” Lazo said.
But advocates say the barriers have made it difficult to bring food, blankets and other supplies to people still living on the property. The barriers impede people from driving down one of the main streets that borders the encampment.
Wagers said he had trouble accessing the camp when he visited last week to deliver Thanksgiving meals.
“We literally had to walk the trails and could barely get in,” he said. “The whole thing is frustrating to me.”
Some residents have tried to get around the barriers by driving on dirt roads through the encampment itself, increasing the risk of someone getting hit by a car, said homeless advocate Scott Largent who lives in an RV near Columbus Park.
“You could literally run somebody over,” Largent told San José Spotlight.
Largent dismissed the city’s assertion that the barriers will reduce illegal dumping.
“They just pull right down Spring Street and dump anyway,” Largent said.
Many residents want to leave the massive encampment, but the city has been moving people out at a slow clip: earlier this month, the city reported that just 17 people have been moved into some form of housing. The city’s abatements have pushed scores of people into cramped living conditions on about one-third of the airport land.
Lazo noted that overnight street parking is now allowed on the east side of Spring Street to help alleviate overcrowding at the encampment.
Advocates say the city’s abatements have prompted some residents to leave the area without securing housing first. Wagers fears San Jose is repeating mistakes made nearly a decade ago when the city cleared out the sprawling homeless encampment along Coyote Creek known as The Jungle — which resulted in scores of unhoused people being scattered around the city instead of being placed in shelter.
Some who settled near Columbus Park will be scattered again. He believes many will seek out places where they can hide from further sweeps, like the area around Guadalupe Creek.
“When you let people live in the creek bed,” Wagers said, “it’s a dereliction of duty by the government.”
Contact Eli Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.