SAN JOSE — By the time “the Jungle” became America’s most notorious homeless encampment, its name alone conjured up a mix of desperation and shame so potent that public officials insistently refused to acknowledge it, referring instead to “the encampment on Story Road.” Now, those same officials must make the actual site disappear.
After years of allowing the Jungle to fester and boil, the city plans to finally dismantle it in early December, the culmination of an unprecedented 18-month social experiment designed to identify 200 suitable candidates from the encampment, fortify them with services, and place them in affordable homes before it’s closed, once and for all.
“We’ve definitely never done this before,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s homeless response team manager. “We’re hopeful that it becomes something we can deploy to other sites around the city.”
So far, 88 homeless people have been assisted out of the encampment into permanent housing, and 59 more have subsidies that could lead to a roof over their heads. Meanwhile, the latest tangible sign that the Jungle’s end is approaching came last week when small boulders and a gate were installed along Story Road — for the first time limiting access to the encampment.
But despite the enormity of the task of closing the Jungle, it still pales in comparison to the bigger, long-term challenge concerning the lack of affordable housing for its residents. Simply put, no one believes that everyone in the encampment — estimates range as high as 300 inhabitants, many suffering from mental illness or addiction — will find a roof over their head within the next three months. It’s even unclear if the commitment to finding housing for all 200 slots in the pilot project is realistic.
That’s why some advocates for the homeless still express concern that closing what looks like a Third World hellhole, set amid the riches of Silicon Valley, may only serve to scatter the problem elsewhere — and everywhere. Despite the best efforts to house as many people as possible, they fear displaced homeless and their belongings just could be pushed onto the streets, meaning that a little bit of the Jungle soon could be coming to a neighborhood near you.
Many living in the wretched refuge remain skeptical that the Jungle’s days truly are numbered. “We’ve been told time and again that the city is coming to clean it out for good,” said Florine Browder, 54, who has been living there since last November. “If the city did close this down, then people would be pitching tents someplace else.”
The Jungle is the city’s most miserable makeshift neighborhood, oozing out of Coyote Creek and spreading over 68 acres of central San Jose like a stain. And like Sisyphus — the tragic figure from Greek mythology condemned to rolling a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down again — the city and its nonprofit partners have been trying to clean up the Jungle for years, with no measurable success.
“It’s a huge boulder that we’ve been pushing uphill,” says San Jose Department of Housing director Leslye Corsiglia.
Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, reached back to another figure in mythology. Eradicating the encampment now will require a “herculean effort,” she said, because of the daunting shortage of affordable housing.
The Jungle is one of 247 homeless encampments within the city limits, representing only a fraction of Silicon Valley’s seemingly intractable problem finding homes for everyone who lives here. More than 7,600 homeless residents of Santa Clara County were counted in a census last year, and on any given night, nearly 5,000 of those were in San Jose — an increase of 18 percent from two years earlier.
But the symbolic value of closing the Jungle is not lost on public leaders, who would like nothing better than to show that, with enough effort and resources, its homeless citizens can be lifted out of desperate straits. That’s why the city began its Rapid Re-Housing Pilot Project in mid-2013, targeting $4 million toward shutting down the Jungle, with another $2 million possibly in the pipeline for next year. Santa Clara County also is committing between $850,000 and $900,000 in annual, supportive housing services for Jungle residents. The city has partnered with nonprofit agencies like HomeFirst, Housing 1,000 and Downtown Streets Team, and outreach workers from the various organizations have been canvassing the encampment, identifying homeless who want help.
Ray Cethus, 60, was one after living at the site, on and off, for about 10 years. In February, HomeFirst helped him into a one-bedroom apartment.
“I didn’t want to be outdoors, and I got very sick down there,” Cethus said. “They call it the Jungle because it’s like a jungle out there. It’s nasty. My life is 100 percent better since I got out of that.”
In the past, the golden ticket out for people struggling to escape homelessness was a housing subsidy. And the incentive for Jungle residents are vouchers that pay for their rent for two years if they are able to work, or subsidies that allow chronically homeless to put only about 30 percent of their income toward housing. But in a brutally tight housing market, those are worthless if landlords won’t accept them.
“We have people who live down there who have vouchers, but they can’t find housing,” said Jenny Niklaus, chief executive officer of HomeFirst. “The market is just horrible. Our clients show up to fill out rental applications and there will be 40 people there.”
One of those with a subsidy is Elena Rivera, a 48-year-old San Jose native who has lived in the Jungle for more than 2½years.
“Every place I go, they say, ‘Fill out the application. But there’s a year- to three-year waiting list,'” said Rivera, who uses public library computers to hunt for housing leads. “That’s what I’m up against. And some places just won’t accept a voucher. There’s a stigma against it.”
Public officials and local nonprofits next month will call for the construction of 6,000 new affordable housing units throughout the county. “But that takes years,” Corsiglia said, “and we don’t have years.”
Homelessness is just a symptom of the low-income housing crunch and that wider problem has become an election-year topic in San Jose’s mayor race. One candidate, County Supervisor Dave Cortese, questions the wisdom of closing down the Jungle when there isn’t an alternative for many people — other than forcing them to another outdoors location.
“If you are going to close it down without housing for people, what’s the point of that?” Cortese said. “The city can say it wants to house people, but you’ve got to have a place to put them.”
His opponent, City Councilman Sam Liccardo, has been urging the city for years to tackle the homeless issue. He has pushed for a plan to move residents of the Jungle and other encampments into hotels and motels, where prostitutes and their customers previously provided an unwelcome clientele. But after announcing his program with considerable fanfare, Liccardo was surprised to learn last week that the motels wouldn’t be available for nearly six months — too late for any Jungle exodus.
Another proposal to build what are described as “mini homes” or “micro-housing” will come before the city council in the next few weeks, although no sites have been identified. In some cities where that has been tried, the units are little more than Tuff Sheds, with residents expected to rely on communal plumbing. Corsiglia favors the idea, but even she foresees problems.
“Our land is too valuable for little houses like that,” she said. “You just can’t get enough density.” And then there are the usual NIMBY concerns. “Nobody is going to want a homeless encampment near them,” she added, “even if it’s nicer looking mini houses.”
But the clock is ticking on the Jungle. The regional Water Quality Control Board sent a letter to the city last week declaring the “direct discharge of human waste” at the Jungle an “unacceptable” threat to the state-controlled waterway. It’s why Liccardo expressed concern that time simply has run out to deal with the Jungle before environmental concerns threaten to trump the city’s carefully wrought plans to close the site as humanely as possible.
“If we don’t get people out of there,” Liccardo said. “there could be legal action, and it’s just going to get a lot more expensive and painful for everybody.”
For his part, the city’s Bramson emerged from a meeting with members of the water board last week confident that the city would be able to stick to its timetable, as well as successfully get people in the pilot program into housing.
“It just adds more pressure to an already challenging situation,” he added.
Even if the city finds places to live for 200 people from the Jungle, others, including those who have streamed into the encampment hoping to get help, will be forced onto the streets when the place finally closes and city park rangers keep the site clear. But if the plan works, it will finally mark the end of the Jungle — in name and in fact.
“This really is an example of the city trying to do the right thing,” said Loving of Destination: Home. “They didn’t take on a small encampment of 30 people, get people housed and declare victory. They went big.”
Contact Mark Emmons at email@example.com. Follow Bruce Newman at twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit
HOMELESSNESS BY THE NUMBERS
Estimated inhabitants in The Jungle: 200 to 300Homeless trying to be placed into housing: 200
Homeless encampments in San Jose: 247
Total homeless in San Jose: 4,770
Total homeless in Santa Clara County: 7,631
Sources: The city’s Homeless Encampment Response Report, 2013 City of San Jose Homeless Point-in-Time Census & Survey, 2013 Santa Clara County Homeless Point-in-Time Census & Survey