Shaunn Cartwright has a question for San Jose: Why don’t homeless lives matter?
As a member of the Unhoused Response Group, Cartwright said she couldn’t help but wonder as much over the weekend when the city dismantled a 90-trailer encampment at Happy Hollow Zoo that was set up to protect homeless people from catching COVID-19.
The trailers that sit on a parking lot by the zoo were used for 32 days. Prior to that, they had been vacant for nearly two months after the city obtained them from the state as part of a $730,000 contract with Abode Services, which served as the site operator.
“It’s so disheartening when you see something like this get closed when you only tried it for a month,” Cartwright said. “Most of us are in a relationship with someone longer than a month before you break it off.”
San Jose Housing Department spokesman Jeff Scott gave a couple of reasons for the shutdown in an email message to San Jose Inside. He also noted that the city and its partners were able to find hotel rooms for all of the trailer clients.
“Our hope was that we could use the trailers as an innovation housing solution to help address the health challenges facing unhoused residents due to the pandemic,” he explained. “However, we encountered numerous operational issues with the trailers, including costly maintenance and upkeep. And our trailer clients who were older individuals with underlying health conditions, had difficulty navigating stairs at the site and walking to the shower and laundry facilities. After about a month, we came to the conclusion that transitioning our trailer clients into hotel rooms while the shelter-in-place order remains in effect is a better solution for our clients and the city.”
Scott said it cost $1.3 million to refurbish the trailers and make the site usable, and the city is working with FEMA to determine how much it will get reimbursed for the cost.
So, what happens to the trailers now? Scott said they could be kept in storage, returned to the state or repurposed.
Darriel Trotter, who lived in one of the trailers for three weeks, was evicted on Monday after receiving a notice a week ago that the closure was imminent. Despite not being able to retrieve all of his belongings as of Tuesday morning, he said the transition to a hotel in Sunnyvale has been a relatively smooth one. “They transported us [to the hotel] in a SUV,” he said. “The experience living in the trailers was all good.”
The city’s contract with Abode runs through the end of October, but there was a clause to end the deal sooner for a situation like the planned reopening of Happy Hollow.
“It’s my understanding that Happy Hollow will reopen some time in July, and when it was ready to reopen, we agreed we would begin demobilization of the site,” San Jose Deputy Director of Housing Ragan Henninger said.
Cartwright and members of Survivors on the Street (SOS), an advocacy group for the homeless, said a lot of the residents were unaware of the temporary nature of the setup. And contrary to what Scott said, some of the clients ended up returning to the streets after being displaced. “It takes a lot to talk them inside,” Cartwright said. “You can’t toy with them and experiment with them.”
Another bone of contention with the city was what she called “a nearly impossible” task of navigating the phone lines for people trying to get into one of the trailers.
Amanda Cole said Joelle Washington—a fellow SOS member—might still be living today had she been able to get into one of the trailers. “Joelle was at Parkside Shelter and was desperately trying to get into a trailer before she died [on June 5],” Cole said. “She was around 50 years old. It was impossible for her to get into a trailer, and now we know why. It’s because they planned on dismantling them. … She had multiple physical illnesses and was married for 20 years. Losing her really devastated our group.”
Lisa Landry, another member of SOS, expressed frustration that Washington wasn’t able to get into one of the trailers at Happy Hollow.
“She died waiting to get into a trailer,” Landry said. “She died on the floor waiting. In honor of her memory, we will try even harder so another unhoused person doesn’t have to die while waiting to get into housing.”
In response to COVID-19, the city, Santa Clara County and Valley Homeless Healthcare established a departmental operations center, forming a central hotline for individuals seeking shelter. Henninger said the focus was on the elderly—generally ages 65 and up—who have three or more underlying health conditions (categorized as the most vulnerable by the Centers of Disease and Control guidelines). “So the triage system is very much medically focused on sheltering our most medically vulnerable,” she said.
Of the 6,200 homeless people in San Jose, the county has identified at least 2,500 who are at high risk of contracting the virus due to their underlying health conditions.
“The majority of the unhoused are people of color, the same population most vulnerable to COVID-19,” Cartwright said. “Why are so few who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable being offered adequate shelter?”