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The Jungle: San Jose’s largest homeless encampment scheduled to close on Thursday

SAN JOSE — Over the years, there has been a predictable repetition in attempts to deal with the entrenched homeless encampment called “the Jungle.”

Inhabitants are told to leave. Workers clean up the site. The homeless return. Then, the frustrating cycle is repeated.

But next week, city officials say, will be different.

The encampment alongside Coyote Creek, where between 200 and 300 people live in a trash-strewn tent city, is scheduled to be closed — once and for all. The city is planning to post 72-hour notices at the site on Monday, and work crews under the direction of the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District will begin permanently dismantling the makeshift shantytown on Thursday.

“We’re going to have to be flexible because of the weather,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s homeless response manager. “But in the last few weeks, the health conditions really have deteriorated down there, and they’re only going to get worse if there is heavy rain. It’s just not a safe site because people essentially are living right along the river bed.”

The eviction marks the culmination of a pilot project in which local government has teamed up with nonprofit agencies to house the homeless before the heavy equipment rolls onto the site, which is near the intersection of Story and Senter roads. Bramson said about 140 people have been placed in subsidized housing so far. Another 50 have housing vouchers and are looking for places to live.

The closure also has been timed to the opening of Santa Clara County’s cold-weather shelters, which creates an additional 275 temporary beds. But the stark reality is many homeless in the Jungle likely will be relocating to other outdoor locations.

“Everybody knows this is coming, so there are a lot more empty campsites down there,” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, which is focused on ending chronic homelessness locally. “But there are still a lot of people. It’s going to be tough. It’s not going to be easy on anyone. I don’t know where people are going.”

Robert Aguirre, who has lived in the Jungle for nine months, contends there are just as many people in the encampment as when public officials launched the housing effort. He said the homeless living elsewhere relocated to the Jungle when they heard there were more services available there. But even if you have a voucher, he added, few landlords are accepting them in a tight rental market.

“People just want a place to live,” said Aguirre, 60. “Right now there’s a lot of chaos, stress, tension. People here have nowhere to go, and they know that they’re going to be displaced.”

Officials have been under mounting pressure from neighborhood and environmental groups to take decisive action with the Jungle.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife filed a complaint against the city, claiming it had failed to adequately clean up encampments along Coyote Creek. Bramson said the city reached an agreement with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board that a December closure date of the Jungle would be acceptable.

Last Monday, the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper announced that it will file a broader lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, charging that the city has failed to stop pollution from flowing into creeks and the San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper did not specifically note this encampment, but the nonprofit did cite the excessive trash and bacterial pollutants in Coyote Creek.

The Jungle, which has received national attention because its size and location near the heart of wealthy Silicon Valley, is symbolic in the effort to deal with local homelessness.

According to the 2014 Annual Homeless Report to Congress, which was released in October, Santa Clara County has 7,567 homeless — the country’s seventh-largest total. Of that number, 75 percent, the nation’s highest percentage, are considered “unsheltered,” meaning they have no vehicle or homes of friends and family in which to seek refuge.

Advocates for the homeless say the severe lack of affordable housing is the primary culprit for those numbers.

“This just speaks to our crisis in housing,” Loving said. “This is not complicated. There just aren’t enough places for people to live. We have to decide as a community if this problem is tolerable or not.”

At the same time, many living in the Jungle are resistant to accepting help. Some suffer from mental illness, others from addictions. They don’t like the structure and rules of shelters, and often will use them only as a last resort when it’s freezing outside.

It’s part of the reason why the Jungle in particular, and encampments in general, have been such a vexing, intractable problem.

Michelle Cook lives next to the Jungle and like many in the neighborhood has conflicting emotions about the impending closure. She sympathizes with the plight of people who “are just trying to survive” and wishes them no harm. At the same time, the air has been almost unbreathable recently because the homeless have been burning anything — including plastic — to stay warm at night.

She also wonders if the city is capable of solving a problem that is at least partially rooted in the incredible high cost of living in Silicon Valley.

“I feel bad that the city is throwing everybody out,” Cook said. “It seems the city could do more to mitigate this. But I also worry that in four or five months, they’ll be right back there.”

The cleanup phase at the Jungle will include workers collecting personal possessions that appear to have value. By law, the city must store those items for 90 days to give their owners time to retrieve them.

Bulldozers will be tearing down flimsy structures, collecting mounds of garbage and start restoring the site to its natural state. An environmental company has been contracted to deal with bio-waste and hazardous materials.

The process, which should be completed by Dec. 19, will cost the water district at estimated $200,000 and the city between $300,000 and $400,000. Afterward, park rangers and San Jose police working overtime will patrol the site to prevent re-encampment.

“We’re not fighting the closure,” said Sandy Perry, of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County. “We’re asking for an alternative location for people. And if the city doesn’t have one, then to delay the closure.”

But apparently only bad weather can do that.

“This is a very complicated challenge,” Bramson added. “The city is trying to make sure that anybody who is seeking shelter gets it. But there’s almost 5,000 homeless people outside in San Jose on any given night.”