Water district postpones vote on bill to remove homeless encampments from streams in San Jose and Santa Clara County

Unable to agree on how one can address widespread pollution and threats to its employees without treating the homeless fairly, the board of Silicon Valley's largest water utility postponed a vote Tuesday on a brand new ordinance banning camping along 295 miles of streams in San Jose and other parts of Santa Clara County.

After 4 hours of public hearings, the seven-member Santa Clara Valley Water District board voted to send the matter back to considered one of its committees for reconsideration. A brand new vote could happen later this fall.

“It’s not how you start that matters, but how you finish,” said board member Dick Santos.

The district, a government agency based in San Jose, has spent $3.4 million since July to remove 15,050 cubic yards of debris – enough to fill 1,500 dump trucks – from Coyote Creek, Guadalupe River, Los Gatos Creek and other South Bay waterways.

Water district officials say a growing variety of encampments are polluting South Bay streams with hazardous materials, piles of trash, batteries, propane tanks and human waste. Camp residents have caught endangered steelhead trout with shopping carts, cut down trees, began wildfires that threatened nearby homes, discarded needles and built makeshift structures in areas that steadily flood within the winter.

Water district employees also report increasing threats once they travel to the streams to take water quality samples, conduct flood control work or perform other tasks.

“People have been pointing knives, machetes and guns at them,” said Jennifer Codianne, the county's watershed operations and maintenance commissioner. “It's not safe for our employees to be doing flood protection work.”

The district estimates that about 700 people live along the streams it manages. Proposed regulation would have banned the establishing of tent camps, the polluting of waterways with “garbage, debris and dangerous contaminants,” the setting off of explosives or fireworks, and the harassment of district employees.

After a verbal and written warning with a 72-hour deadline to vacate the camp, violations would have been punishable by fines of as much as $500 and 30 days in jail. The latest law would have been enforced by local police and sheriff's deputies.

Dozens of individuals made passionate statements at Tuesday's debate, with some residents who live near streams saying the measure was long overdue.

Yamini Sadasivam, a San Jose resident who lives near Los Gatos Creek within the Willow Glen neighborhood, told the panel that she was attacked outside her home by a homeless man with a bow and arrow.

“After this horrific experience, I felt extremely unsafe in my own neighborhood,” she said.

“Seven fires have been reported near our neighborhood, putting our lives and homes at risk,” she said, adding that open drug dealing, automobile break-ins and other problems are coming from people living within the nearby creek. “This is unacceptable. This constant threat is not something a community should endure.”

Others said the proposed rules were unfair and counterproductive.

“We can address these problems without criminalizing people for their struggle to survive,” says Jan Bernstein Chargin, CEO of PitStop Outreach, a Gilroy-based nonprofit that delivers food to the homeless. “That would make people's lives worse, clog up the courts and make it harder for them to find housing.”

Board members discussed the role the water district, whose primary mission is to offer drinking water and flood protection to 2 million people within the Santa Clara Valley, plays in providing housing.

“We're not a housing authority,” said Tony Estremera, a longtime water district board member. “We don't build houses, and that's the real solution. We can't relocate people because we don't have police powers.”

“We will protect our employees,” he added. “I'll tell you that right now. We are committed to that.”

But board member Jim Beall, a former state senator, said the water district should do more to offer housing.

“We are not a housing authority, but we work with people who can provide housing,” he said. “We can provide land and we can provide assistance.”

Last month, the San Jose City Council approved a plan to relocate about 500 homeless people living along creeks to approved encampments on public lands throughout town. Of the eight sites chosen, five are owned by the water district. Each is 1 to 2 acres in size. They are positioned on Lelong Street, Willow Street, 14020 Almaden Road, 3278 Almaden Road and Almaden Road at Canoas Garden Avenue.

Some have suggested these sites will provide tents for 100 or more individuals with supervision, but details still must be worked out between town and the water district.

Helen Hutchings, a Willow Glen resident, said such sites ought to be built on county land and away from residential areas.

“We don't think it's appropriate to house people in tent camps in neighborhoods when the county has so much land that could be used,” she said.

A coalition of eight environmental groups supported the foundations, including the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society and Green Foothills.

“When we're out there cleaning up the creek, we encounter feces, needles and even fire, as well as guns and dogs,” said Deb Kramer, executive director of Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful.

Several speakers stated that they’d been or were currently homeless.

“It's inhumane to punish people and put them in jail,” said James Campbell, who lives in his automobile in San Jose. “My car is broken. I got a ticket, the police are harassing me.”

Board member John Varela said the difficulty ought to be delayed until after Oct. 11, when the water district plans to fulfill with other agencies and the general public to debate solutions.

Rebecca Eisenberg, the water company's board member who’s the strongest opponent of the ordinance, said: “After they are released from prison, there is no place for homeless people to go.”

“It is not only arrogant but also irrational of us to say that we know more than the homeless people who are speaking before us,” she said. “We also know that the homeless are not the biggest polluters of the rivers. We are causing more damage to the ecosystem than the homeless through our terrible, ecologically irresponsible projects, for which we use huge amounts of cement and concrete.”

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