San Jose police launch program to patrol homeless encampments

With a growing homeless population in San Jose, police are trying new tactics to deal with it. That means treating the encampments like any other neighborhood in need of patrols.

They say they’re trying to balance the need for both criminal enforcement and compassion.

The sight of San Jose police, used to mean one thing in the encampments— that the tents along the creek beds were being cleared. But that’s not always the case anymore.

"Our unhoused community needs public safety as well. And we're not going to turn a blind eye to it,” said Chief Eddie Garcia. 

Garcia has tasked the Street Crimes Unit with patrolling and enforcing the law in the homeless encampments just as they would anywhere else.

"We find guns, we find a lot of stolen property, even stolen cars down here in the creek,” Officer Katie Zasly of the Street Crimes Unit said. 

But while there are criminals here. There are also victims.

Officers said their intent is not to criminalize homelessness.

While one man, who had a warrant, was taken into custody, his neighbor, who did not, was offered a hat and blanket.

The program, has sparked concern amongst some homeless advocates who fear excessive enforcement.

But Pastor Scott Wagers, who has been working closely with police, says it's better than letting the law of the streets prevail.

Wagers, a longtime homeless advocate, calls the camp the “wild west.”
 
“It's a fact. Anybody that says that's not true is lying. There are a lot of elements in the camps that are dangerous for everybody, so we all want to see law enforcement practiced equitably across the board."

So far this year, the Street Crimes Unit has made 92 felony arrests along the creeks. 

Gilbert Heraldo, who has been homeless for five years, said he just wants peace, 

The chief wants that too.

"The criminal element is the criminal element whether it resides in encampments or it resides in our neighborhoods, and we're here to keep everybody safe. And that's the message that we want to send: that they matter,” Garcia said. 

Over the last year, the Street Crimes Unit has been patrolling the creek beds about every other week. They plan to continue the program and perhaps expand it, next year.