Like thousands of Silicon Valley’s unsheltered residents, Charlie Nelson dreads the 72-hour notice. In the five years since losing his job and apartment in Campbell, the 63-year-old handyman has moved from roadsides to riverbanks and back again at behest of those three-day eviction orders.
“You lose something every time,” he laments.
San Jose Hope Village offered a break from the perpetual sweeps. The privately funded encampment—a fenced-in enclave of tents, a portable toilet and sanitation stations—sprang up Saturday on an empty parking lot across from an abandoned traffic court at Ruff Drive and Hedding Street. But not two mornings passed before the authorities gave Nelson and six other homeless campers at the site a 72-hour notice to pack up and leave.
This time, however, Nelson won’t go quietly. That’s because Hope Village is as much a political statement as a practical response to the city’s homelessness crisis.
“We knew we didn’t have permission to be here,” says Peter Miron-Conk, the 72-year-old co-founder of Casa de Clara Catholic Worker and one of a few-dozen volunteers who spent the past eight months planning Hope Village. “But we also believe that the current conditions of the homeless here are untenable and inhumane. This is a reasonable alternative that should be accepted by the city, the county and the state.”
Though the state, Santa Clara County and local cities have supported permanent housing and tiny sleeping cabins for the homeless, they’ve resisted calls for sanctioned encampments. Meanwhile, various local agencies—the Santa Clara Valley Water District, CalTrans and San Jose, to name just a few—spend millions of dollars a year on clearing out un-permitted camps by waterways and freeways. The water district alone spent $1.4 million clearing out unsanctioned camps from January to July this year.
Miron-Conk, whose first acts of civil disobedience date back to the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s, says he got tired of waiting for the blessing of politicians and took matters into his own hands. The concept that became the Hope Village pilot started as a series of discussions with a handful of other residents back in January. In a matter of months, the group launched a website and published a sleek pamphlet to present their idea to people with resources that could turn their vision into reality.
Hope Village organizers wanted to prove that an encampment could be clean, orderly and effective as a short-term fix for homelessness. They selected a rarely-if-ever-used parking lot surrounded by open fields to the north and east of it and a brick building occupied by the state Employment Development Department (EDD) to the south.
Volunteers raised about $30,000 to buy supplies for the experiment, including a netted cyclone fence for privacy, wood platforms to place under each tent, fire extinguishers, sanitation, lockboxes and other necessities. They established strict rules against drinking and drugs, carefully screened the first participants in the pilot project and put Nelson in charge of keeping the site safe and clean. At capacity, they planned to host up to 30 people at the site—each in their own tent.
“It’ll be nice to have somewhere to stay while I look for a new job,” Nelson said Saturday while taking a break from setting up camp to pet his Chihuahua-whippet mix, Lucky. “Normally, I’d have to figure out where to hide my shopping carts while I go out applying for jobs so things don’t get stolen.”
Two years ago, he had to drop out of class at San Jose City College to deal with the chaos caused by one of the many sweeps he went through, he says. If he’s not ousted by the federal marshals on the train tracks, it’s the park rangers along the watersheds, sheriff’s deputies by the light rail and San Jose police anywhere else in the city.
Now Nelson has to worry about the California Highway Patrol seizing his possessions if he and the others don’t decamp by the time officers return Thursday morning.
Hope Village sits on state land, a swath of asphalt that was once overflow parking for the long-shuttered traffic court across the street. And though the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that local governments cannot arrest or prosecute the homeless for sleeping outside if they have nowhere else to go, it does nothing to prevent civil enforcement such as eviction, confiscating a person’s belongings or writing them up for violating health and safety codes.
This morning, someone from the EDD office showed up and asked Nelson what he was up to. Nelson told the woman that he was part of a special project, and then relayed her queries to Miron-Conk, who was already on his way.
“I showed up about 15 minutes later and she asked some of the same questions,” Miron-Conk says in a phone call a couple hours after the incident. “We told her it was a special project, and then the CHP arrived. They were friendly and everything, but said, basically, ‘this is our job,’ and all that. The sergeant was the one who gave us 72 hours to leave and said if we don’t, they’ll have crews come out and dispose of everything.”
The folks who spearheaded the effort—who, besides Miron-Conk, include Jacquie Heffner, Edie and Robby Brodsky, Karen Lattin, Andrew Lanier—are trying to rally the public and convince elected leaders to help them stand their ground or find a new site. In a statement penned before Hope Village even opened, they explained that they were willing to trespass on state land to call attention to a systemic failure to adequately address the homeless crisis.
“The reality, for the residents of Hope Village, is that there is no legal place for them to go,” they wrote in an open letter dated Sept. 8. “So we say to authorities who would close Hope Village down, where are the homeless to go? Provide us with a suitable location with the legal right to occupy it and we will be happy to move.”
Otherwise, they say, authorities will have to take them away in handcuffs.
The open letter ends with a call for “all persons of conscience” to join them in protest, which will come earlier than anticipated. In light of the eviction notice served today, a rally is planned for 5pm Tuesday at Hope Village, 1010 Ruff Drive in San Jose.