Downtown San Jose homeless encampment removed by Union Pacific railroad

Image 1 of 3

Over 50 residents of a homeless encampment in Downtown San Jose were swept by Union Pacific this week without arrangements for short-term housing.

The camp had existed around railroad tracks off of Bassett Street for about two years and grew to as many as 60 residents in the last few weeks.

It received a 72-hour abatement notice from Union Pacific last Friday, but residents, city and Santa Clara County officials confirmed they did not receive the outreach that typically accompanies abatement.

Pastor Scott Wagers "adopted" the camp last year and began organizing meals, clothing donations and camp cleanups. He's helped residents after dozens of sweeps over the years, but said this one was "disturbing" because it left residents without options.

"This is just not productive, it's not intelligent-it's counterproductive," he said. "There has to be something for these people to go to."

Because the encampment is not located on city property, the San Jose Homelessness Response Team was not activated to ensure residents have appropriate short-term housing, such as shelter stays.

City housing department spokesman Jeff Scott said the city was not aware of the sweep before it began this week. "(Union Pacific) did not work with the housing department in this particular instance, that I'm aware of," he said.

Tim McMahan, spokesman for Union Pacific, said the camp was swept due to trespassing concerns on private railroad property. He added that Union Pacific is "working to try to coordinate further opportunities for joint efforts to connect people with services they may need." He did not specify if residents had already been offered outreach.

"Union Pacific appreciates that Santa Clara County has a number of programs to benefit homeless persons," McMahan said in a statement. "Union Pacific looks forward to continuing its partnership with the City of San Jose to identify innovative solutions to help mitigate the issue of transient encampments on UP property."

Michelle Covert, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing, confirmed that the office was not contacted to reserve shelter beds for after the sweep.

San Jose contracts with HomeFirst and PATH to do outreach before sweeps, but neither organization was contacted in this case, leaving residents caught in a jurisdictional scuffle with few options but to repeatedly move their belongings around the Bassett Street lot.

The residents included Mama G, a 66-year-old matriarch of the camp who has multiple sclerosis and is weeks away from securing housing after five years on the streets; Brenda Gill Prutt and her daughter, Felicia Garcia, who are newly homeless; and Daniel Damien De Herrera, whose children are in foster care and is considered a "protector" at the camp.

They were some of the remaining residents at the camp this week as huge piles of debris were being bulldozed into dumpsters, leaving a rank odor in the air.

According to Scott, the city has received over 60 complaint reports about the encampment since October 2016, when the camp began to establish itself in the area.

Eighteen of those reports were this year, and Scott said outreach officers spoke with residents five times since January -- unrelated to Union Pacific's sweep.

Many of the residents acknowledged that the camp had gotten "overwhelming" in the last few weeks, partly due to winter flooding and a resulting influx of homeless individuals.

A 12-year-old girl who ran away from a Los Gatos shelter also passed through the neighborhood last Friday, shortly before the sweep, and residents speculated it may have been a cause for the sweep.

Despite these issues, the residents maintained that they should have been offered another place to go-like a sanctioned encampment on city land.

"We have no place to go, and they have no plans of making us a place to go, and they just keep on running us around in circle," resident Shaun Kevin Burns said.

Over the course of the week, Burns moved his tent about 25 feet away from his initial location, was told to move to an adjacent sidewalk, told by police that he wasn't allowed to be there, and ultimately left alone with no further instructions. He said the lack of communication between police shifts left him confused and feeling harassed.

Of the nearly 60 people who once lived at the camp, Pastor Scott Wagers said only two people have been able to secure housing -- Mama G and 62-year-old war veteran John Klippen.

Mama G has housing at the new Roosevelt Park Apartments planned at 21 N. 21st St. in San Jose, and Klippen will be living in a Morgan Hill senior citizen complex subsidized by Abode Services.

"I've been homeless 29 years-it's the first time in 30 years I've seen a government agency actually do their job," Klippen said of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority.

Other residents have not been able to find housing due to limited housing lotteries, distrust of local governments, mental illness and addictions, among other reasons.

The individuals and their tents were scattered around the Bassett Street lot as of Thursday awaiting further sweeps.