City Of San Jose ‘Cleansing’ Homeless Encampments

California wildlife officials have filed a complaint against the city of San Jose, saying it hasn’t done enough to clean up water-polluting homeless encampments.
By @katierucke |
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    A homeless man stops to rest in San Jose, California (Photo by SCHIPUL/cc)

    Concerned that the unregulated homeless population in San Jose, Calif., was beginning to pollute the already troubled waterways in the city, state wildlife officials filed an environmental complaint against the third largest city in California last week.

    Wildlife officials claimed the city’s failure to adequately clean up homeless encampments along Coyote Creek was a violation of the state’s pollution laws and expressed concern that a further contaminated water supply could affect the health of the city’s residents. The pollution is caused by urine and feces in the water, as well as bicycles, buckets, clothes and other items left at these encampments. If the city is found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act, it could be liable for more than $100,000 in fines.

    Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. Byron Jones filed the complaint on March 19 with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Talking to local media, he explained that he filed the complaint because the city “accept(s) the encampments, they feel no sense of urgency to remove them, nor have they ever. It’s always been about the next cleanup. It’s never been about ending the practice of illegally camping and being in proximity to water.”

    According to Jones, this is the first time that California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has filed a complaint against a city for failing to keep homeless populations from creating a waterborne pollution threat not only to the wildlife in the water, but also to those who would drink the water or eat the fish. However, it is not the first time that homeless populations have been at the center of or caused an environmental issue.

    Jones, who spent 22 years working for the San Jose Police Department, said he spent the last two years directing local Fish and Wildlife wardens to remove homeless encampments along the Coyote and Los Gatos creeks, as well as the Guadalupe River.

    He said he filed the complaint because city administrators and police “have refused to remove the encampments and protect the water.”

    “I feel very bad for the homeless people that they are stuck there,” said Mondy Lariz, director of the Santa Clara County Creeks Coalition. “But they are damaging the creek and the ecosystem. Something needs to be done.”

    San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle said that while he recognizes some people would like the city to spend more time and resources cleaning up encampment sites like they did in the 1990s, the city is doing what it can right now.

    “I wouldn’t agree that we are allowing this,” Doyle said. “We do have a coordinated effort with the water district, so it’s not as if we’re not doing anything. But unfortunately, it’s a larger problem than we have resources to meet immediately.”

    Doyle may have a point. Last year the city spent $275,542 removing more than 2,000 cubic yards of debris from homeless encampments along the creeks and rivers.


    Environmental hazards

    While it sounds harsh or insensitive to blame homeless Americans for water pollution, the sad truth is that homeless populations do impact the environment more than many people may realize, turning homelessness into more than just a social justice issue.

    According to Sharon Chamard, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, homeless encampments, which can sometimes have 100 or more people, are often riddled with environmental hazards.

    For one, any garbage at the encampment sites attracts rodents and other types of vermin. There is no way to store food properly, and since dishes and cooking utensils cannot be properly washed and disinfected, foodborne diseases begin to spread, Chamard told MintPress News. Items such as batteries and fuels are used to heat the encampment sites and for cooking purposes, which presents fire hazards, as well as dangers in the case of ingestion.

    Though some encampments are located near portable toilets or some sort of public restroom facility, the bulk of homeless people end up relieving themselves outdoors. But as Chamard noted, “inadequate human waste disposal at large encampments along rivers can pose a hazard to the water supply of nearby communities.”

    “Concerns about water quality are very legitimate,” she said. “A bunch of people urinating and defecating in or near water sources can contaminate the water.”

    However, Chamard did not agree that a complaint is the best way to solve this problem. Instead, she suggested allocating more funding for low-income housing, raising the minimum wage and generally having programs to help homeless people find jobs and homes.

    She also proposed installing toilets and hygiene facilities near encampment sites, but she noted that some city officials may object to doing this because it would make encampments a semi-permanent part of the city.

    “The real solution to homeless encampments is to prevent people from getting to the point in their lives where they end up in the camps,” she said. “This entails much better resourcing of services for the mentally ill, chronic alcoholics, other substance abusers, those with traumatic brain injuries, etc.

    “When you factor in the large-scale de-incarceration happening in California, and the impediments for those released from prison in finding work and housing, it would not be surprising to see even more homeless encampments emerging. Other factors include the high cost of housing in the San Francisco area and the low pay for unskilled or undocumented workers.”

    Jason Flanders, program director at San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental group that monitors local waterways, said he has never seen a social justice issue like homelessness bring forth an environmental enforcement action before, but he called it an “important gesture.”

    Bruce Wolfe, executive director of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the waste discharge in the water “is a big deal.”

    “The Clean Water Act requires any type of discharge into the creek or bay needs a permit,” he said. “We’re the agency that issues the permits. When it’s identified that there’s an unpermitted discharge, that’s considered a violation of the Clean Water Act.”

    Historically, fines for industrial polluters caught violating the Clean Water Act have reached upwards of $10,000 a day. But since the polluters in San Jose are homeless people, it’s probably safe to say the Regional Water Quality Control Board would never issue a permit to allow for urine and feces to be discharged into the water.

    While it’s unfortunate that this social justice issue has become an environmental one, Wolfe said, “This may be a way to trigger looking at homeless encampments as a source of pollution that we need to better address.”


    Ending homelessness

    Given that a city’s failure to pick up after homeless people has never before ended with a complaint being filed against the city, this has started a whole new conversation about homelessness in the United States.

    Though it’s not clear whether homelessness in the U.S. has actually increased in recent years or if officials have increased capabilities to better determine how many people are homeless, Chamard said data indicates that the increase in unsheltered homeless people may be leading to an increase in the number of homeless encampments.

    Chamard said many homeless people in the area are not chronically homeless, meaning they haven’t lived on the street for a year or more, and that many of these “novice” homeless populations have begun to form and occupy encampments which are often less hygienic than those encampments formed by “veteran” homeless people.

    “[T]his is significant because these camps, relative to camps established by more experienced campers, tend to be more visible and more unhygienic,” she said.

    Due to a lack of space in shelters combined with the reality that many homeless people are dealing with issues such as medical conditions, substance abuse problems and mental health conditions, among others, many homeless people need a lot of support in order to get back on their feet.

    “The old method of dealing with homeless encampments was to go in and clean them out, which as it turns out is probably a violation of campers’ Fourth Amendment rights,” Chamard explained. “In Anchorage, for example, a guy named Dale Engle lost some of his personal belongings (including military medals) when his illegal encampment was cleaned out by the police department.”

    As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the municipality, which resulted in a policy change. Now, police officers give homeless people 72 hours to clear out of an encampment. After the time is up, “any property left at the scene is seized by the police and stored for 30 days.”

    Chamard said in order to avoid storing items left at the camps, the police will instead post a 15-day notice, “which allows them to come back after 15 days and throw out everything that is left behind. Of course, this approach allows camps to remain in place much longer than in the past.”

    How the complaint will play out remains to be seen. One thing homeless advocates point out is that criminalizing homelessness doesn’t work, and the best way to end problems such as encampments polluting waterways is to give homeless people access to social programs and facilities where they can properly dispose of their waste and have a chance to end the vicious cycle life on the streets.

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