San Jose

Nation's Largest Homeless Encampment, “The Jungle,” Dismantled

Police and city crews on Thursday began dismantling the nation's largest homeless encampment, notoriously named "The Jungle," in a controversial move that aims to move hundreds of transients from the center of San Jose and find them affordable housing.

Streams of homeless people wheeled their lives out of the encampment on Story Road, their shopping carts full of their belongings. Some cried they didn't have time or the ability to move everything they own out in time.

Businesses owners surrounding the encampment said the streets filled up with the evacuated homeless looking for somewhere to settle.

"Before they moved them they should've had a place for all of them to go," said Bridgget Tapia, Tap's Keyes Club owner. "Because now we've just scattered them."

Earlier, before the sun had come up, officers had set up road blockades, hoping to create a clear path to move the estimated 200 homeless people left in the encampment without any fuss. Teams in white suits and orange hats moved in about 8 a.m. to clear all the trash from the site. 

At least 130 people voluntarily left the sprawling makeshift community, a short drive from some of Silicon Valley's wealthiest tech giants. City homeless advocates said those people have already been helped with either permanent housing, subsidies or housing vouchers, though social workers have not been able to find homes for everyone.

San Jose's homelessness response team project manager Ray Bramson said that increased violence, wet weather and unsanitary conditions had made it imperative the camp that the camp be cleared.

In the last month, one resident tried to strangle someone with a cord of wire, he said. Another was nearly beaten to death with a hammer. And the State Water Resources Control Board has been demanding that polluted Coyote Creek, which cuts through the middle, get cleaned out.

He also has stressed that the closure of "The Jungle, " one of 247 homeless encampments within the city limits, coincides with the opening of the county's cold-weather homeless shelters.

"People who live in this encampment are in jeopardy every day and we need to do better,” Bramson said Thursday morning.

The eviction had the backing of at least one man who had once been homeless.

"How is this controversial?" asked Michael Photopoulous, 45, of San Jose, who has lived on the streets and worked for homeless organizations and now lives in Section 8 housing, less than $200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with his wife.

He has several friends who live in The Jungle, and he feels they should move out of what he described as a toxic wasteland, like he did.

Photopoulous, who worked as a janitor until his wife needed his fulltime care because she's on dialysis, said he believes the city is right in cleaning up the camp. But he knows that many homeless people will choose to live outdoors "so that they can do dope under a bridge" and "party like rock stars."

Not everyone is a drug user, he said, but he's not quite sure why the homeless people didn't choose to work with the band of social workers sent to help them over the last several months.

Added Carlos Balencia, who lives nearby: “I think it’s a great idea. I mean, look at how dirty it is. Think about the poor people who live around here.”

But the move angered many in the homeless community, who have made this garbage-strewn outdoor area their home.

Homeless advocate Robert Aguirre, who lost his own job in the tech sector and who still "hasn't recovered," told NBC Bay Area early Thursday that the city's eviction of "The Jungle" likely won't work.

"It's a game of 'Whack-a-Mole,''' he said.

Aguirre said some homeless people either won't find traditional housing, or don't want to find traditional housing, and will look to set up their lives in another non-sanctioned spot.

"And if the police find it," he said, "they'll come and run you out of there. They're scattering people around the city. They'll just cause them to go further and further away from traditional housing. And they'll end up in people's neighborhoods."

He also said that homeless people already have an "economy" in "The Jungle," and when they're forced to move, they'll have to work on creating another one. The same problems and issues will still exist — just somewhere else.

"I don't see this as (making this) a safer city," Aguirre said. "They're going to be angry. They have homes now. Now, you're really going to make them homeless."

Sandy Perry, of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, said there just isn't enough housing to place everyone. More than 7,600 homeless residents of Santa Clara County were counted in a census last year.

"They’re making a lot of publicity about the 144 they’ve housed," Perry said. "I think that’s excellent. I’ll give them credit for that. But since then, 200 to 300 people became homeless. So they’re going backwards.”

But the city is committed to finding residents of "The Jungle" — about 68 acres near Coyote Creek in the center of San Jose — suitable housing in a pilot project.

Closing the encampment has been a hot political issue in the city as well. Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who lost his bid for mayor last month, wanted to find $10 million in county funds to pay for affordable housing. But Mayor-Elect Sam Liccardo said that housing developers should pay for it, as they do in other cities.

In the past 18 months, the city of San Jose has spent more than $4 million trying to solve the problems at the encampment. The last camp clean-out was in May 2012 when about 150 people were moved out of The Jungle. Many returned and others, swept from other encampments in San Jose, joined them.

The encampment is in stark contrast to its surrounding area in the heart of the Silicon Valley, a region leading the country for job growth, income, innovation and venture capital.

Tech giants Google, Apple, Yahoo, eBay, Facebook, Intel and many more call the 1,850-square-mile stretch of business parks, small cities and suburbs south of San Francisco home. But as tech roars back from the recession, housing costs have soared, and more than 5,000 now people sleep outside in streets, parks and under freeways there.

Aguirre is well aware of this dichotomy.

"This is the wealthiest county in the U.S.," he said. "And this is the largest homeless encampment in the U.S... This is a tale of two cities."

NBC Bay Area's Peggy Bunker, Robert Handa, Damian Trujillo and Martha Mendoza from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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