South Bay's largest water provider seeks ban on unhoused encampments near waterways

Unhoused San Jose resident Ruben Salas on Tuesday, pounded a boxing heavy bag outside his tent, in a large encampment near Willow & Lelong Streets in South Central San Jose. 

He said he’s been fighting to find a place he can call his own. That battle may face a possible inflection point. This, as the encampment he calls home, could soon be deemed illegal.

"There are not a lot of places to go. I pretty much, I’ll have to look for a place," he said, peering through a chain-link fence.

Officials with Valley Water said they’re pushing for a new city ordinance banning such encampments along the 295 miles of waterways under the district’s control.

"This is really a matter of Valley Water doing what we have to do to protect the environment," said Mark Bilski, a spokesman for Valley Water.

He said encampments such as this, near the Guadeloupe River, send garbage and contaminants into the water. That forces his teams to do abatement and clearing an estimated 1,300 tons of contaminants each year at $3 million.

Officials said this also negatively impacts life for nearby residents.

"If you’re coming to look at one of our apartments, and you get off the freeway and drive by this scene here, would you be more interested or less interested?" asked Marc Boyd, whose family owns apartment rental units within walking distance of the encampment.

The district’s proposed Ordinance 24 for Santa Clara County would establish protection zones along the waterways under its control. It would ban encampments, ban the dumping of trash and debris, and establish penalties – $500 in fines and up to 30 days in the Santa Clara County Main Jail for violators who return and re-establish encampments.

"As our partners at Valley Water push policies and approaches that clear the waterways and protect our watershed, there is a real risk of their efforts sending hundreds of homeless individuals out into the neighborhoods without a plan," said Mayor Matt Mahan, D-San Jose. 

Added Pastor Scott Wagers, an advocate for the South Bay’s unhoused community, "If you can get them into housing, and get supportive services to wrap around them, that would be wonderful. I’d like to see the amount that’s going to cost?"

Mahan, mayor of the largest city in Santa Clara County, which the largest unhoused population, has made helping the unhoused a central point in his upcoming budget message.

With needs outpacing housing stock and the legal landscape now in peril of changing, residents such as Ruben Salas said they feel more pressure to be prepared to move sooner, not later. 

"I actually don’t take nothing. I just take the clothes. I leave my tent behind, and I just take what I got on," said Salas.

The Valley Water proposal will be discussed by the district's Environmental Creek Cleanup Committee on Friday.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on the X platform (formerly Twitter), @JesseKTVU2 and on Instagram, @jessegontv