Features & Columns

San Jose Homeless Camps

A first-hand account of surviving in San Jose's hardscrabble homeless camps
San Jose Homeless Camps

A recent autopsy report on a homeless man found dead on Cottle Road near Highway 85 revealed that he was stabbed repeatedly before being set on fire. His killers, two men, were also homeless.

A couple weeks later, a man who lived on the streets of downtown San Jose went to the top of a garage and threw himself off of it.

These are documented cases. The Santa Clara County homeless scene teems with horrific, often unreported violence and crime of all sorts. The mixture of insanity, drug addiction, recently released violent and sexual offenders, and a general freedom to act in any way a person pleases makes all but the most heinous incidents invisible to the local population.

I know, because I have lived it.

san jose homeless camps Wellington Welch is one of the many homeless who congregate in San Jose's St. James Park.

The Descent

My descent into homelessness was as atypical as it was common. I had a great job, nice car, beautiful wife—in general, I was living the American Dream. But I share a characteristic common among the homeless: a desire to live completely by my own rules.

This more or less sociopathic desire has laid waste to the lives of those around me, and driven me further and further into the homeless culture. My path is not the only one, but it doesn't really matter how you get down and out. Once you're out, you're in for some bad times.

I was placed on paid leave six years ago from my job as a grade-school teacher in San Jose. My behavior had become erratic due to heavy substance abuse. I had even driven away even the colleagues that liked to get down with me, and I was also in the process of scaring off my family and friends.

This is an essential component of becoming truly homeless. You need to drive away all potential resources. No more spare bedrooms to crash. No more folks willing to loan you money. It is this isolation from everything other than your fellow sociopaths, that allows the homeless scene to become so out of control. There is no one to disappoint.

When I was asked to leave my job, there was still plenty of money to be had. That's when I started doing lots of cocaine. Eventually, I supplemented that habit with whatever type of speed I could find, and I was soon lost in a toxic mix of amphetamine and methamphetamine.

On the street, you are always running out of money, detoxing, then scoring and trying not to OD. But at that time, I had a steady flow of whatever I wanted. I lost thousands to street dealers who sold me bags of salt or sugar, but spent tens of thousands more on the real stuff.

Of course, this was untenable, and as I stopped eating and sleeping my behavior became more and more unacceptable to my wife, a good person, so trusting that she didn't know any of what was going on.

When I finally degenerated into a paranoid maniac, yelling and arguing for no reason, cleaning and organizing at all hours and generally acting completely bizarre, she did the smart thing: she left with the kids and got restraining orders.

Divorce quickly followed, and I set about sabotaging what was once a relatively large amount of money. Speed and alcohol are not an original combination, but they were my go-to choice. My money and job opportunities ran out around the time of my second DUI, but with this loss came a greater sense of freedom, albeit at a severe cost to quality of life. Not long after I hit the streets of San Jose—the parks, the shelters, the rehabs, the soup kitchens, the river.

san jose homeless camps Nicole Jackson finds temporary shelter in the homeless encampment near the 880 freeway known as Jurassic Park.

Gimme Shelter

The shelters in San Jose are complex places. They follow the general rule that some of the employees, due to exasperation with their clientele and a sense of power over the powerless, become disrespectful and abusive. (The clientele, of course, can give it right back.)

These institutions drastically cut back services on April 1, as warm weather arrives, and they are invariably lousy in dealing with people who are drunk and high. It is not uncommon to see people literally falling-down drunk. Been there myself.

There are also the rehabs, places like the Salvation Army's six-month working residential program. Some of these institutions are interesting in that they depend on the free labor of the participants in order to fund the organization. Thus, you have people desperate to kick their habits or please their parole agents, yet forced to accept what is essentially indentured servitude.

What's most important to consider is that the shelters and rehabs are largely unimportant in the overall scheme of homelessness in this county. According to the 2011 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, 7,045 people were counted homeless in this county over a somewhat laughable two-day period in 2011. About 73 percent of these people reported being completely unsheltered, with the rest in provided housing, crashing on a friend's couch and so on.

Setting aside the obvious conclusion that these numbers woefully understate the number of people actually on the street—after all, it is their livelihood to escape as much notice as possible—that still gives us 5,169 chronically homeless individuals.

What are these 5,000-plus people doing day to day, night to night? Many are just trying to get by. Others are committing every kind of crime imaginable against one another while attempting to police themselves.

Homeless people stick up civilians at ATMs or break into vacant homes to smoke crack, but this sort of behavior cries out for a response from the civilized world. Most of the crime is homeless on homeless.

From the stabbing/burning example mentioned above, we already know how people with nothing to lose can forfeit their humanity, but that is just what makes the news. Name the crime: theft, rape, torture, kidnapping, stalking, murder. These crimes are happening right now in our homeless population.

I spoke with a man who showed me his chest, covered in burns. He had been held down by three other homeless men and burned repeatedly with a red-hot crack pipe. He could not give any motive for their actions, but anyone who knows people that deep into crack doesn't need an explanation.

All social considerations melt into madness with crack, heroin, meth and cocaine—combined with whatever madness was there to begin with. After five or six days of steady use without food or sleep, people become something else, something subhuman.

Even those who still have money, cars, clothes and a house become this way. But the homeless, through the anonymity of their lifestyle, have the opportunity to go beyond any social norm that the average Silicon Valley resident can imagine.

Besides theft, some form of rape is the most common horror I encountered. Hard drugs turn just about anyone into a sexual deviant, and vulnerable women, either high out of their minds or desperate to become so, are easy targets. I can't count the number of rape stories I have heard. I once spoke with two women by the Guadalupe River that said it was a constant way of life, that they had been violated so many times they had lost count.

Unconscious, conscious, with some degree of allowance, often unrealized, promises of substances or shelter, completely by force, one man, five or six—the stories are all too common. Street wisdom says that a woman needs to get with a strong man and stick with him. This can bring its own set of problems, given the men to choose from.

But these problems aren't just limited to women, though this segment of the homeless population gets the worst of it by far. Men get violated as well. A short time ago a man sitting next to me said, "Yeah, smoking dope makes me fucking sex-crazy man. I even raped a dude once." Isolated? Not really. I just happened to casually overhear this one.

The expectations of normal folks do not apply in this world. Anything goes, and the romanticized idea of hobos sitting around making some stew, passing around a jug of cheer and hopping a freight train for the next adventure could not be further from reality. This is a cold, hard, violent and predatory subculture.

san jose homeless camps San Jose's homeless often set up substantial makeshift campgrounds.

Cold Realities

Circumstances make rape, as well as most other crimes, more rampant. Remember the cold snap back in late December, early January? Temperatures got as low as 31 degrees at night. This creates chaos in the homeless community. Any available beds fill up, and places like the river and St. James Park become desperate dwellings.

Keep in mind that walking from your car to the supermarket in 31-degree temps is one thing. But the longer you are outside, the lower your core temperature drops, and it is difficult to describe what it is like hour after hour, shivering so hard that you look like you might as well be having a seizure.

This is when people are the most vulnerable, particularly if they start the night loaded and slowly lose their high and get colder and colder. People get desperate and are willing to give or get anything to find a place inside someone's tent or sleeping bag. At this stage, people get rolled, raped or killed.

Things get particularly intense when the first to the fifth of a new month rolls around. Most people get their aid money around this time, and even the sanest among us could get $150 in General Assistance (GA) from the county. Those with significant mental illness or physical disability get around $900. Everyone gets $200 in food stamps on an EBT card, and many people, if not most, sell the food stamps 2-for-1 in cash.

This period of the month becomes especially crazy and dangerous, as the aforementioned conflicts increase exponentially. Even shelters take on the appearance of some kind of wild drug party during this time.

A walk through the EHC shelter in south San Jose, commonly known as Little Orchard, will present a miniparade of people high as kites. The courtyard outside is an easy place to score, and the start of the month sees a kind of farmer's market of pills and hard drugs for sale. This is just as true in and around City Team Ministries. It would be true of the Emmanuel House, a shelter run by the Salvation Army, but St. James Park is just up the street, and anything anyone wants is there.

The homeless get their cash, make their initial scores and then, more often than not, completely overdo it. In the throes of too much first-of-the-month drug consumption, the money starts to flow more freely, more people get ripped off, more people pass out and more people are robbed.

By the end of the week, many people are completely broke, regardless of how much money they received. Whether it's $150 or $10,000, it is going to get blown in a hazy way. There are mellow people that just lose it, and there are violent criminals where each story of going broke has its own unique trail of senseless violence and crazy circumstance. Everyone feeds off of each other, and everyone ends up with nothing.

One would think parole officers and social workers would control this better. But these people know their clients and the streets. It isn't even a wink-and-a-nod situation. They have client lists. A box gets checked. Clients are then let loose.

Cheap Drugs

There are good people on the streets, but it's hard to remain so for long. Even if you don't have substance-abuse issues, drugs are very cheap, and you don't feel cold or lonely after you inhale crack or meth, or shoot some heroin, or tilt a vodka bottle until it's empty.

If you don't have a habit, you'll likely pick one up, driving you further down the spiral and increasing the chances that you'll become a victim of a crime. Common practice is to wait until someone is completely screwed up and then roll them, administering whatever blows are needed until there's no more resistance.

The people completely free of substances tend to be so insane that they simply don't need drugs. They're known as J-cats, after the Category J classification of the California Penal Code. Because they're likely receiving disability, they're also taken advantage of most.

The city of San Jose recently stated a goal of ending homelessness by 2020. But like any addict, the city and Santa Clara County can't take the first step in addressing the problem without properly acknowledging just how out of control the situation has become.

Heinrich Boll wrote that when most people break a heart, they do so like a plate dropping and snapping cleanly in two. But when Boll broke the plate, he wrote, he put it in a burlap sack and pounded it with a hammer until it was dust. That's where we are in Santa Clara County. Everything is so hopelessly disassembled, with such ridiculous, half-hearted attempts to solve the problem, that it is difficult to know where to begin.

First, there is an issue of abandonment at every level. Those released from prison need to be more closely monitored. At least 1/10 of the 5,000-plus people on the streets are profoundly mentally ill and need to be committed into lockdown facilities, where their care and medication can be monitored. Police presence needs to be increased and county drug treatment centers need to be more than a token presence.

Decision makers often lament the problem of homelessness before turning a blind eye—because it's easier to ignore all but the most heinous occurrences. As a result, daily crimes on the streets or in the creeks are contained rather than addressed.

There is no real homeless problem in Los Gatos, Saratoga, Monte Sereno or similar places. These neighboring towns shift the burden into concentrated pockets of our county, such as downtown San Jose.

In order to change something, the first thing to do is truly observe the problem. Unfortunately, the county has yet to admit it's hit rock bottom.

The author's name has been changed for his protection.