Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Silicon Valley homeless camp dismantled

As many as 350 people at one time occupied the San Jose site, known as the Jungle and believed to be nation’s largest

San Jose has begun dismantling an encampment of hundreds of homeless people that has persisted at the southern edge of the Silicon Valley city for more than a decade.

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More than 30 police officers and dozens of construction workers in white hazmat suits joined about 15 social-service workers on Thursday in the effort to take apart the community, known as The Jungle, that at its peak housed as many as 350 people living in squalor just a short drive from tech giants Google, Apple, Yahoo and eBay.

The camp had become a symbol of the ever-widening income divide in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing regions of the country due to the current tech boom.

That has created one of the country's most expensive rental markets, pushing low-wage workers out of Santa Clara County or onto the streets. The median home price is close to $700,00, and the average apartment rent within 10 miles of San Jose hit $2,633 in September.

The San Jose and Santa Clara County region (PDF) posted the nation's fifth-highest homeless population, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also ranked among the places with the most chronically homeless and homeless children and young adults.

That translates to about 7,600 homeless residents, most of whom sleep under freeway embankments, in parks and on sidewalks. The area’s homeless problem in one of the nation’s most intractable.

The Jungle's population had been growing in the past year, with estimates of between 200 and 300 people living there in unsanitary conditions that upset neighbors and worried regional water quality regulators.

The process of taking down tents, make-shift shacks and in-ground bunkers built on the 68-acre site followed 18 months of placing residents into homes or shelters, a process that has housed 144 people so far, said Ray Bramson, San Jose's homelessness response manager.

"It was a change in approach," Bramson said on Thursday, during a daylong break in a series of heavy rainstorms. "Historically we'd come in and clean the site and people would come back and repopulate it. We realized that we needed to deal with the underlying issue creating the encampment, which is homelessness."

Bramson said once the camp was completely cleared, he said, the city intended to keep it from being repopulated using patrols by park rangers.

The last time officials cleared out the camp was in May 2012, when about 150 people were sent away. But this time Bramson said they will conduct regular patrols to keep anyone from returning.

Dismantling the camp itself is the second phase of the $4 million project and crews were expected to work another two weeks taking down the often rickety, unsafe structures built by occupants in a dense wooded area.

City officials estimated about 60 people remained at the site on Thursday. Dogs and cats still roamed the square-mile camp, some of them pets, others wild. Rats hopped through the muck. A few dozen protesters gathered at the site holding signs reading "Homeless people matter" and "Stand with The Jungle."

Many of the people forced out of the camp ended up alongside a busy San Jose road, startling passers-by who slowed down to watch the eviction process

"People drive by and look at us like we're circus animals," said a sobbing Nancy Ortega.

Officials found shelter for about 10 residents Thursday, Bramson said.

HomeFirst, the largest provider to homeless people in Santa Clara County, set aside 27 beds at a nearby shelter. Another 50 beds are open in a separate cold-weather shelter.

"This feels terrible," said Jenny Niklaus, HomeFirst's chief executive officer, her voice breaking. "People are up to their calves in the mud dragging their stuff into the street."

Al Jazeera with wire services

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