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Crews break up California homeless camp

December 4, 2014

SAN JOSE, California (AP) — About 50 muddy souls dragged their meager belongings out of a trash-strewn California creek bed Thursday as police and social-service workers began clearing away one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments, a collection of flimsy tents and plywood shelters in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The people forced out of the camp known as the Jungle ended up alongside a busy road that startled passers-by who slowed down to watch.

“People drive by and look at us like we’re circus animals,” said a sobbing Nancy Ortega.

More than 30 police officers and dozens of construction workers in white hazmat suits joined about 15 social-service workers in the effort to take apart the treacherous community 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.

For months, social workers have been trying to house camp residents. And four days earlier, they were warned they had until dawn Thursday to leave or face arrest for trespassing. Still, city officials estimated about 60 people remained at the filthy site when cleanout day came.

After a rainy night, skies cleared Thursday, and one person after another in varying states of mental clarity and sobriety dragged their belongings in suitcases, shopping carts and on bicycles out of the camp through ankle-deep sludge. By midmorning, dozens had reached the sidewalk, abandoning most of their possessions.

A few dozen protesters gathered at the site holding signs reading “Homeless people matter” and “Stand with The Jungle.”

The encampment stands in stark contrast to the surrounding valley, a region that leads the country in job growth, income and venture capital.

Officials found shelter for about 10 residents Thursday, said San Jose homelessness response manager Ray Bramson. Many more refused the city’s offers, citing concerns about safety at homeless shelters, their need to stay with pets and their dislike of sobriety rules.

Several homeless-assistance groups also stepped in to help. HomeFirst, the largest provider to homeless people in the county, set aside 27 beds at a nearby shelter. Another 50 beds are open in a separate cold-weather shelter.

San Jose has spent more than $4 million over the last year and a half to solve problems at the encampment and has housed some 135 people from the site. But it’s become increasingly polluted and dangerous.

In the last month, one camp resident tried to strangle someone with a cord of wire. Another was nearly beaten to death with a hammer. And state water regulators are demanding that polluted Coyote Creek, which cuts through the middle, get cleaned out.

The last time officials cleared out the camp was in May 2012, when about 150 people were sent away.

Dismantling the Jungle is a massive job. It will take several days to haul out tons of waste and debris. Heavy machinery will be used to fill in excavated areas where people had been living underground.

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