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San Jose dismantles The Jungle

Isabel Angell
An abandoned shelter in the Jungle. You can see a shelf with ceramic ducks, carpeting, and welcome sign.

Crews dismantled a large homeless encampment in San Jose Thursday. Called the “Jungle,” it’s thought to be the biggest homeless camp in the country. The camp was home to up to three hundred people who occupied over sixty acres of a park along a creek bed. But San Jose has been under pressure from different agencies who say the Jungle is polluting the creek.

Credit Isabel Angell
A view of the Jungle from the street above. Most of the tents and shelters are hidden from view behind the trees.

Early Thursday morning, Tamara Cockrell walked away from the Jungle, pushing a shopping cart piled high with all her belongings.

“The cops came at seven like they were supposed to, and they started their sweep and clean up and they cleaned everyone out,” she says.

Cockrell is 27 years old. She’s wearing jeans and a yellow t-shirt. She says she’s been living in the Jungle for two months

“It was somewhere to be, it was home,” she says through tears. “Now I don’t have anywhere to go and I can’t find my boyfriend. And I’m going to really be out here all by myself.”

At the corner of Story and Senter Roads, about two miles from downtown San Jose, a group of newly evicted residents stand with their belongings on a sidewalk overlooking their former home. One man helped another man pull up his pant leg to air out an open wound. They both said people in the Jungle always help each other out like this.

Taking down the Jungle

Credit Isabel Angell
Workers begin to tear down a makeshift shelter in the Jungle, about two miles away from Downtown San Jose.

Crews in white jumpsuits make their way through the camp. They started tearing down the makeshift shelters early this morning, and bulldozers came in to take the wreckage up to the waiting garbage trucks.

It’s really muddy -- people are slipping and sliding all over the place -- except where some residents have put carpeting over the dirt. Some of the makeshift homes are very detailed. One has a bookshelf lined with ceramic ducks, abandoned by its owner.

The housing shortage

Jenny Niklaus is the executive director of HomeFirst, a nonprofit that’s trying to end homelessness in Santa Clara County. She’s been to the Jungle many times, and she’s here today to watch, and help ferry people to a nearby shelter.

“Right now, there are 53 people that were living in this Jungle who had vouchers for housing and can’t find a place to live, so where else would they be?” she asks. “There’s not enough shelter beds for people, so they’re forced to live outside in these slum-like conditions.”

City officials say another 144 residents from the Jungle have already been placed in housing. But that doesn’t fill the need -- Santa Clara County has the seventh-highest homeless population in the country.

Credit Isabel Angell
Someone leaves a farewell message on their former shelter. City officials have tried to clear out the Jungle before (most recently in 2012), but say this time the removal is more comprehensive and permanent.

Ray Bramson is the homelessness response team manager for San Jose. He stressed that this day has been eighteen months in the making as part of a city-wide plan to end homelessness.

“We have a very, very tight rental market, about a two percent vacancy rate, it’s very competitive,” he says. “There’s a very considerable barrier to finding that long-term housing and support.”

But, he says, they’ve got case managers who are working to find housing for everyone.

“Anyone who’s engaged with us for help over that time is getting help today.”

“I feel so humiliated”

But Lucia, a Jungle resident who only wanted to share her first name, says she tried to get a rental voucher and didn’t get it. She has been living in the Jungle for five years.

Credit Isabel Angell
Lucia, who has lived in the Jungle for five years, says the people who live there are like her brothers and sisters.

“I can’t believe they’re doing this like this because I feel so humiliated right now,” she says. “But it’s all right though, because we’ll live, and move on. And hopefully for the better. Maybe it is for the better. But I just feel humiliated like this.”

Lucia has a small teardrop tattoo at the corner of her eye, a colorful eyebrow piercing, and a quote tattooed in cursive on her chest.

“I haven’t worked in a long time, but I’m willing to work, I can work, I’m willing to do that, if somebody would hire me,” she says. “But probably I look too much from the Jungle for anybody to hire me.

Lucia says she’s knows where she’s sleeping her first night away from the Jungle -- in a different park, by a different creek.

Tamara Cockrell, the woman from the beginning of the story, did end up finding her boyfriend. She told me she was waiting at the welfare office, hoping to talk to a social worker to get a hotel voucher. But for now, she’s sleeping outside.