The Mercury News

Airport homeless camp to be cleared

Millions of dollars in federal funding hangs in the balance

- Sy Marisa zendall mkendall@bayareanew­

With millions of dollars of federal funding on the line, San Jose plans to start this month on the daunting task of dismantlin­g one of the Bay Area’s largest homeless encampment­s.

But removing hundreds of people who are camped on vacant land around the Mineta San Jose Internatio­nal Airport presents “significan­t legal and ethical challenges,” officials warned, and can’t realistica­lly be completed until June 2022. With housing and emergency shelter in short supply, it’s unclear where the displaced residents will go.

San Jose is hoping its latest plan will appease the Federal Aviation

Administra­tion, which is demanding the city clear the encampment and has threatened to withhold federal funding for future airport projects if it doesn’t comply. Dissatisfi­ed with a prior plan submitted by the airport, the FAA required a more detailed proposal with specific benchmarks. Director of Aviation John Aitken complied, proposing to remove the encampment in three phases.

But he also attempted to temper the federal agency’s expectatio­ns for a speedy resolution.

“We do not want to break up this encampment to only shift the homeless to other communitie­s/neighborho­ods,” Aitken wrote. “We want to provide viable and humane options for the people who are ready, willing and able to take advantage of our homelessne­ss outreach program.”

The FAA has yet to respond to Aitken’s letter, but the agency will provide an answer “soon,” spokeswoma­n Marcia AlexanderA­dams wrote in an email to this news organizati­on.

The camp is on a 40acre parcel next to the airport and bordered by West Hedding Street, Coleman Avenue and the Guadalupe River Park. San Jose bought the land with federal funds to serve as a buffer between the airport and the community in case of a plane crash.

Officials estimate 200 people live there, but the number could be higher. The camp grew massively during the COVID-19 pandemic, when homeless residents were told to shelter in place and officials largely let encampment­s be. But as society reopens — despite the spread of the contagious delta virus variant — pressure is mounting for San Jose and other cities to crack down on encampment­s.

San Jose’s plan for the airport camp involves clearing 10 acres between West Hedding and Asbury streets, and Coleman Avenue and Walnut Street between August and November. Stage two, to take place from January to April 2022, will clear 15 acres between West Hedding and Asbury, and Walnut and Spring streets. The final phase, to be completed by June 2022, will clear the last 18 acres between West Hedding and Asbury streets, and Spring Street to the Guadalupe River Trail.

Scott Largent, who has been living in an RV in the airport encampment for about 10 months, is disappoint­ed with how the city is handling the camp so far.

“There’s nowhere really for anybody to go,” Largent said, adding that no one has reached out to him to offer housing or a shelter bed. “And that’s just what I find shocking. I thought they would have saturated the area with services, maybe find some volunteers to get people’s cars running and assess them and get the ship going again. And that’s just not really going on.”

Until the camp is cleared, the city plans to increase the police presence in the area, ramp up social services and outreach to residents and require all vehicles be in working condition and be parked legally on the street.

That’s going to be a difficult task, Largent said. After more than a year of sheltering in place, many people’s vehicles no longer run. Broken-down RVs are scattered throughout the vacant space.

City officials know what they’re up against. To help the FAA understand the magnitude of the challenges San Jose faces, Aitken invited the federal agency to visit the camp.

“We think that once you tour the site, you will understand the timeline that we are proposing,” he wrote. “This timeline balances the need to start the process of abatement with the need to offer adequate homelessne­ss services and allows time to complete constructi­on of nearby interim housing for some of the unhoused residents living on this land.”

The city is considerin­g building an interim housing site made up of small, modular units in the vicinity of the airport and Guadalupe River Park.

Able to shelter 80-100 people awaiting permanent housing, it would be the fourth modular shelter site set up by the city during the pandemic.

Encampment­s also have spread throughout Guadalupe River Park during the COVID-19 crisis.

But Largent, whose RV is parked in the section of the airport encampment scheduled for removal in stage one, doesn’t have another place to go lined up.

“I would be playing musical RV,” he said. “I would be parking back on the street and bouncing from place to place moving every three days. And that becomes really stressful.”

 ?? FILE: DAI SUGANO STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? An airplane flies over a homeless encampment located near Norman Y. Mineta San Jose Internatio­nal Airport in San Jose as cleanup crews remove trash from the encampment June 28.
FILE: DAI SUGANO STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER An airplane flies over a homeless encampment located near Norman Y. Mineta San Jose Internatio­nal Airport in San Jose as cleanup crews remove trash from the encampment June 28.

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