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Some Bay Area homeless sweeps continue, despite coronavirus moratorium

Some Bay Area homeless sweeps continue, despite coronavirus
moratorium 1

Homeless residents living in tents along Cupertino’s Wolfe Road thought they were safe. Following federal health guidelines adopted around the Bay Area, city officials promised not to force them to move until the coronavirus pandemic abated.

But this month, with county and state-wide shelter-in-place rules still in effect, Cupertino officials changed their minds. They plan to dismantle the camps in the next few weeks.

And they’re not the only ones. Many Bay Area cities, including San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, pledged not to remove or “sweep” homeless camps for the duration of the pandemic, to limit the spread of COVID-19. But despite those assurances, some sweeps have been reported in all three cities as officials look at camps they say have become too dangerous for homeless residents. Now activists worry those displaced residents face a greater risk of contracting the virus.

“Sweeping people at all during the pandemic shows a complete lack of humanity toward the people, and a complete ignorance of the CDC recommendations regarding unhoused people and the virus,” said Shaunn Cartwright, an advocate and volunteer outreach worker based in Santa Clara County.

If housing is not available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage cities to leave encampments where they are  — clearing them can cause people to disperse throughout the community, break connections with their service providers and potentially spread COVID-19.

But city officials also cite health concerns in their decisions to remove certain encampments they’ve deemed hazardous. And they say they offer services to residents displaced by encampment closures. But activists worry that’s not enough. Even with new shelters, interim housing sites and hotel rooms set aside for homeless residents during the pandemic, those options can’t accommodate everyone.

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In San Jose, Caltrans received special approval from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office and the state’s Office of Emergency Services to remove an encampment at Story Road and U.S. 101 this week, according to city spokesman Jeff Scott. The camp presents a safety concern because it’s less than five feet from traffic traveling more than 45 mph, Scott wrote in an email, adding the city will offer “support services” to anyone displaced.

The encampments in Cupertino present a similar concern.

The camps — three small clusters of tents along busy Wolfe Road at the on and offramps to Interstate 280 — are just feet away from cars whizzing past. Last month, a man who city spokesman Brian Babcock described as a visitor to the encampments was killed in a hit-and-run collision.

“I just hope that people know that what I’m trying to do is difficult and that we’re trying to do it with as much compassion for everybody as possible,” said City Manager Deborah Feng. “We’re doing our best in these trying times.”

And there’s another factor at play: Some of the tents sit at the edge of the Vallco construction site, and workers need access to the area so they can start setting up utilities for the multibillion-dollar project, according to the city. The development will replace the defunct Vallco Shopping Mall with 2,402 apartments, 400,000 square feet of retail and 1.8 million square feet of office space.

In Oakland, activists have reported several encampments being swept during the shelter-in-place, including one on B Street in East Oakland.

“While things have definitely diminished, they’re still actually happening,” said Dayton Andrews, an organizer with the United Front Against Displacement.

Last month, signs appeared at an encampment at 38th Street and Manila Avenue ordering residents to vacate, Andrews said. In the end, after sending residents into a panic, city workers ended up doing a trash cleanup, consolidating the camp from two blocks down to one, and moving it to the other side of the street.

“In the time of social distancing, people were crammed closer and closer together,” Andrews said.

A representative for the city did not answer emailed questions about encampment closures.

In Cupertino, Santa Clara County is working with the city to offer temporary shelter — or housing, if possible — to residents in the Wolfe Road camps, according to Deputy County Executive Ky Le. Specific details have not been finalized. There are no homeless shelters or transitional housing programs in Cupertino.

But with affordable and transitional housing scarce throughout the county, Josh Selo, executive director of West Valley Community Services, worries where displaced residents will go.

“I’m hopeful that the work that the city and the county are doing will lead to a safe, housed option for these folks, so we’re not just pushing the problem somewhere else in the county,” he said.

The city also is working with Caltrans, as the majority of the tents are on Caltrans land. A removal date is tentatively set for Sept. 21.

 That date is looming over Wolfe Road encampment residents like 39-year-old Yesenia Torres, who has been homeless about eight months. She worked driving shuttle buses for Google until she lost her license recently because her epileptic seizures made it unsafe for her to drive.

If someone offers Torres housing when they dismantle her camp, she’ll jump at the chance. But she’s not convinced that will happen.

She says the uncertainty of where she’ll live next month is making her medical condition worse. She worries she’ll start experiencing stress-induced blackouts.

“It’s not a good feeling at all,” Torres said.

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