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September 26, 2021

Water district, cities tackle homelessness

A report on homelessness in Gilroy this month painted a bleak picture of daily struggles to protect a Gilroy watershed that disrupts and disperses tent communities of homeless people.

At a joint meeting Aug. 21 of the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors and representatives of the cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy, district staff reported that in the first seven months of 2018 there were 571 homeless camps cleaned up along county creeks, far surpassing the yearly average of 400.

The staff reported that water district ratepayers had funded $1.4 million for clean-ups of homeless encampments this year, mostly along two streams, the Guadalupe River in San Jose and Llagas Creek in Gilroy. The district had authorized funds for just 52 clean-ups per year.

The report detailed the increasing number of clean-ups the water district has been conducting on homeless encampments that exist on district property. The clean-ups, take place throughout the water district but are most frequent in Gilroy and San Jose, said district staff at the joint meeting.

The report detailed ongoing efforts to form partnerships with other agencies that work with the county’s homeless. This included $15,000 in grant funding awarded to the Gilroy Compassion Center by the district.

The grant for the center is meant “to provide year-round outreach to homeless individuals living at target hot spots along South County Creeks. The outreach teams will provide information, encouragement and incentives for homeless individuals to keep toxic materials, garbage and waste out of the waterways.”

During a recent clean-up operation along Llagas Creek, a water district crew, accompanied by a large waste truck, removed piles of garbage, waste, trash and personal belongings left near the creek, which parallels Holsclaw Road east of Gilroy and is part of the Pajaro Valley watershed.

The compassion center has been critical of the water district’s clean-ups. The center’s board chairwoman Jan Bernstein Chargin said the center applied for the grant and anticipates beginning a program this fall.

Chargin says what leads to the homeless encampments is simple—a lack of housing for those in need. “The big problem is there are human beings that don’t have a place to go.”

She said the big question now is, “What are the harm reduction activities we can do?”

Chargin said she hears from the community that they want to be involved in the clean-up efforts. For the water district, however, it’s a matter of keeping the streams clean and responding to residential phone calls about homeless people on water district property.

Sue Tippets of the district presented the Aug. 23 report and said, “It’s challenging to decrease encampments when homelessness is on the rise.”

As for why most of the clean-ups are taking place in San Jose and Gilroy, Tippets said, “those happen to be the locations where most of the encampments are located.”

When conducting the clean-ups, the water district posts notices 72 hours in advance in the sites. Depending on the time allotted, the district may come back the next day to ensure that everyone has moved.

Carlos Tovar is in charge of all of the clean-ups. He said the district and the workers it contracts look through every item that’s thrown away to ensure no personal belongings are present. However, Chagrin said some of her clients have told her their belongings have been swept up during the clean-ups.

Chargin said at the joint meeting that the people living in the encampments often did not move their things in time because they’re not physically capable. She said many suffer from physical disabilities or chronic diseases that stop them from moving their things before the 72 hours.

The definition of a personal belonging that can be stored is narrow, Tovar said. Blankets, tarps and tents, for example, don’t count and are tossed. Tovar said if clothes were clean in a suitcase, they would be stored or left at the end of the clean-up site to be claimed. Bikes that are in a usable condition are also stored, but if they’re missing chains or wheels they’re thrown out.

The Gilroy police officers that accompanied Tovar and his team at the Aug. 24 clean-up said the items taken and stored are rarely reclaimed.

At the meeting the water district reported programs it had piloted or was considering to mitigate the effects of the encampments aside from the clean-ups. Tippets said the district had tried putting dumpsters near some encampment sites, but that program was deemed unsuccessful.

Chargin disagreed. She said the excitement among her clients over the new trash cans was palpable. Chargin said those living at the encampments were happy to have the trash cans and told her they would use them.

Chargin and the center also hoped to get portable toilets in certain areas of the encampments, but Tovar said that wasn’t possible. He said if the toilet were to flip over, the chemicals inside would contaminate the water.

At the meeting Gilroy City Councilmember Dion Bracco, said the clean-ups didn’t seem to be alleviating the problem and advocated for a stricter approach to dealing with the encampments.

Renee Spring, a councilmember from Morgan Hill, said at the meeting, “At the end of the day we’re talking about human beings today.” He advocated for looking for alternatives to the clean-ups or for additional mitigation measures to implement.

Tovar said he has seen the number of encampments in Morgan Hill increase in recent months as well as surrounding water district properties throughout the Bay Area.

As to mitigation, Chargin said the center’s upcoming program will be focusing on “cleaning and education.”

The water district was set to adopt a recommendation on the encampments at an Aug. 28 board meeting. The first recommendation was to allocate 90 percent of revenues from renting district-owned properties to the clean-ups. The second was to ask the board chair to write letters to city mayors and the chair of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. The letters would ask for “increased police and security support for homeless encampment cleanups and to patrol waterways to prevent re-encampments.”

Gilroy already provides police protection with the district clean-ups. Marty Grimes, a district spokesman, said the police presence was necessary. “It’s getting really dangerous out there.”
Typically there are two officers present at the Gilroy clean-ups who go first when entering encampment areas before the crew arrives.    At the joint meeting, Gilroy City Administrator Gabe Gonzalez said the city had spent $32,000 in overtime this year for police officers to accompany water district crews to the clean-ups.

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