Hope Village residents pack up and temporarily move to motels as lease expires

Moving day is quickly approaching for 16 residents of San Jose's Hope Village homeless encampment. The camp’s closure comes after a federal agency raised objections to its location near Mineta International Airport.

The short-term lease agreement between Santa Clara County and the City of San Jose for the homeless village began in September, but comes to an end this Sunday, leaving the group who lives there with an uncertain future. 

“It’s ridiculous. It’s an affordable solution and, yeah, it’s ridiculous,” said Charlie Nelson. A homeless resident the past six years, he finally had a stable living situation that allowed him to look for a job.

Residents spent Thursday clearing their tents and packing up the contents as the camp is dismantled. 

For now, residents will move to motels while organizers try and find a new location for another sanctioned homeless encampment.

“[I'm] a little emotional actually. Because this is our family. And we have no place to go really, so this is hard,” said resident Kelly B.

The encampment offers tents with plywood decking, showers, and laundry facilities – all for about $16,000 plus preparation costs of about $60,000. Although temporary, many hoped it would become a permanent template of a partial solution to the growing homelessness problem.

“Everyone, politicians, community at-large, city and county staff, acknowledged we did our part,” said Peter Maron-Conk, part of the organizing team that set-up Hope Village.

But county officials said the Federal Aviation Administration raised objections because the encampment is directly under the flight plan for Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Ky Le, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing said use of that space for the village could jeopardize FAA grants to the city. 

Le said an alternative proposal called "Compassion Village"-- a similar plan with RVs instead of tents-- never got off the ground. An ad-hoc committee of the city's water district raised objections for staging the site on their land. 

Residents in the area shot down the idea this month, saying the encampment would be an eyesore and pose safety concerns for its homeless residents. Hope Village tenants were also concerned about the site's proximity to state Highway 87.

"There are so much empty, underutilized properties that have been abandoned and vacant for years," said James, a 59-year-old Hope Village resident who grew up in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. 

He pointed to the vacant Santa Clara County traffic court building on Ruff Drive across the street from Hope Village, and asked for the city to include sanctioned encampments in a multi-pronged approach to transition people from the streets to permanent housing.

So far, city leaders have favored tiny homes over the encampments, but the storage-like structures are more expensive than a collection of tents and fencing.

“The county and city staff have really been focused on trying to meet the temporary housing needs and sort of the long-term housing needs of the individuals,” said Le.

“This is part of the larger moral failure of our society. We have a human rights crisis.”

That crisis could be worsening with the closure of this camp. With 7,000 residents already homeless in the county, the people here say once Hope Village is gone, they may have no other alternative but take a backward step before trying to find housing again. 

"The worst thing they could do is put me back where I started," Nelson said. "Which is in the creek, under the bridge, and deeper into the woods," James added, describing homeless individuals as "resilient" and "scrappy."

Hope Village moved four times in the first week and a half of its existence amid disputes between the city, the California Highway Patrol and the state Employment Development Department, which owned the encampment's original site a block down from its current one.

The residents' motel vouchers are eligible for 30 days, but Hope Village founders are trying to find another site in as soon as a week. 

Janice Rombeck, spokeswoman for Supervisor Dan Cortese, said the county has not secured another site, but is working on eventually relocating Hope Village.

“[I'll] basically go out on the street again...put everything in storage and carry a backpack with me,” said Kelly B.

Hope Village is asking for volunteers to help move their belongings into storage on from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

"The closing of Hope Village is a result of the failure of local government to act," Hope Village leadership said in a statement. "Future plans are unclear but we will continue to search for a way to re-open Hope Village and move forward with our plan to provide a safe secure, humane location for area homeless."

Bay City News reporter Supriya Yelimeli contributed to this story.