SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) -- A sprawling homeless encampment in the shadows of Mineta San Jose International Airport has captured the attention of Federal Aviation Administration officials who have asked city officials to clean it up.
Some call it 'The Crash Zone' and it has been grown dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. The encampment now stretches for nearly mile and is cluttered with discarded debris as well as makeshift living quarters.
"Every single tree out here has RVs, cars, tents," said Scott Largent, a homeless man who gave KPIX a tour of the site. "I would have to say there's close to 600 people out here."
A recent headcount put the population at around 200, according to Neil Rufino, Parks, Recreation, & Neighborhood Services Assistant Director.
However, from informal conversations with San Jose Police officers patrolling the area, business owners have been told the population has been as high as 400 to 500, in the area bounded roughly by Coleman Avenue, Hedding Street, and the Guadalupe River.
In comparison, the infamous "Jungle" at Story and Senter Roads was home to roughly 250 inhabitants. In 2014, it was believed to be the nation's largest homeless encampment at the time. Its dismantling made international headlines.
With no long-term housing for the Jungle residents, in the ensuing hours and days after the closure, the homeless fanned out into surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.
"I would call this the Jungle 2.0 out here," Largent said
The City of San Jose, following CDC guidelines, paused all sweeps of homeless encampments in the early days of the pandemic. In the following months, the population of the so-called Spring Street area boomed.
During a recent tour, nearly every tree and bush was being utilized as shade for a makeshift dwelling. A loose network of dirt roads meanders through piles of refuse, burned out RVs, a graveyard of discarded appliances, fortified living structures. The smell of garbage and smoke wafted through in the air.
Largent made note to stay in the middle of well-traveled common spaces to avoid alarming long-time residents. Largent, who lives inside an RV, said the hundreds of people within the encampment run the gamut in the social and mental services they require.
"There are a lot of people who just need help," said Largent, adding that he does not feel safe within the area.
Since the encampment is nestled under a landing path to the airport, the growing size has gotten the attention of the FAA. With post-pandemic air travel rebounding, commercial airliners and private jets glide overhead every few minutes.
The FAA has sent two letters requesting a plan by June 30 from the City of San Jose to remove the homeless.
"Please provide FAA a revised plan that will result in the City taking a more immediately active role in relocating the homeless," according to a letter from the FAA dated May 17. "It is not FAA's intent to show disregard for the homelessness crises, only to ensure that use of Airport property does not become the solution to the crises."
Initially, the FAA set a June 30 deadline to respond with a plan for removal of the encampments. But SJC has requested an extension to July 31, according to the airport's Public Information Manager Keonnis Taylor.
Homeless advocates were made aware of the FAA letters on Monday, June 21, according to local activist Shaunn Cartwright. By Wednesday, June 23, flyers had been posted around the encampment warning of an impending cleanup, with notice to leave by June 28 or face charges of trespassing and criminal prosecution.
Also on June 23, a cleanup crew consisting of more than a dozen workers arrived at the encampments along with a dump truck.
"All it [the FAA letter] does is put pressure on the city to, like, get rid of everybody," said Cartwright. "And it certainly seems like the city is complying with that. Residents say they have nowhere to go."
Encampment resident Kelly Goodman echoed those sentiments.
"We're human beings too," Goodman told KPIX 5. "We're just asking for a little help. That's all. That's it."
Cartwright questioned the city's efforts, given its timing and proximity to public release of the FAA letter. Adding that the FAA letters are likely causing city officials to rush and clear out the encampments without a clear, long term plan on where to house the inhabitants.
"We know sweeps are coming. All it does is put pressure on the city to get rid of everybody. And it certainly seems like the city is complying with that," said Cartwright.
Rufino, who oversees the ongoing cleanup operation at the encampments, said there would be no sweeps for at least several weeks, and that crews had been attempting to inform residents of a cleanup only, not a sweep, this week. The strongly worded flyers that were posted are required by law, according to Rufino, but he acknowledged the panic and fear it caused.
"I think we can definitely look at the language of that flyer," said Rufino.
As for the city's approach to the Spring Street area, Rufino said it is one of compassion. The city has been providing portable toilets and trash pickup throughout the pandemic.
"How can we work to coexist in the city? We're a large city, and we're going to have an ongoing concern and challenges with the homeless. We do not have enough affordable housing or low, low income housing to put everyone. And we know it's not a sustainable safe place for them. So we got to figure out how to allow that space to be manageable. If there's people living in that space now, can we keep it clean enough?" said Rufino.
Responding to a KPIX 5 inquiry Friday evening, Taylor said the airport's plans for a gate or fence surrounding the property "are still in development".
Regarding abatement of the homeless encampment, "Plans are still in development and have not been solidified at this stage," said Taylor.
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