SJSU in the News: University Joins Effort to Aid Homeless While Reducing Trash Along Coyote Creek

San Jose snags nearly $1 million in funds to reduce trash, employ homeless along Coyote Creek

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News June 10, 2011.

By Tracy Seipel

On the day that Shannon, desperate and homeless, decided to kill herself, she stumbled upon a program in which the homeless clean up Palo Alto in exchange for housing and food.

If something like that could save her life, the 58-year-old woman said Thursday, then a similar program in San Jose might hold the same hope for others like her — and even help clean up the environment.

That idea is behind a new program called Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities, believed to be the first effort funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the amount of trash that flows into a waterway — aided by the very people who contribute to the problem.

“I’ve never heard of this being tried before,” Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator told a group of about two dozen supporters gathered at the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Coyote Creek Outdoor Classroom, near a well-manicured downtown San Jose neighborhood.

Local officials say much of the trash along Coyote Creek comes from homeless people living along its banks. If they could be rewarded with vouchers for food and housing to pick up garbage along the creek, they might also find the encouragement to leave the creek area and transition into more permanent jobs and housing.

“We know the source of the trash in Coyote Creek that goes into the bay,” Blumenfeld said, referring to the people who have set up camp there. But, he stressed, the program must be run “through a partnership that inspires and creates dignity.”

In the past three years, Blumenfeld said, 180 tons of trash were collected from Coyote Creek by the city of San Jose, Santa Clara Valley Water District and volunteers.

Debris gets caught in the creek’s vegetation, damaging the habitat many species rely on and thwarting salmon from passing and breeding.

All told, the funding announced Thursday for the unusual project totals $942,000, the bulk of it from the EPA.

Downtown Streets Team, the nonprofit Palo Alto-based program that Shannon joined last year, will oversee the San Jose effort for the next four years, starting in July.

“The model we have in Palo Alto proves it works,” said the program’s executive director, Eileen Richardson, who attended Thursday’s event. “The big thing is restoring the hope and dignity to these women and men — making them feel like part of a team.”

Since 2005, Richardson said, her organization has taken almost 200 homeless people in Palo Alto off the streets and given them jobs, apartments or both.

But the San Jose plan is more expansive. After a count of the homeless is completed at the end of this month along Coyote Creek — where she believes at least 100 people live in encampments — Richardson hopes 18 will participate in the program. Her goal is to move 50 homeless people into permanent homes after two years.

Thursday’s announcement was especially satisfying for San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo, who spearheaded the San Jose plan with his staff two years ago after seeing what Richardson had done in Palo Alto.

“Homeless have been seen as the problem,” he told those gathered near the creek, “but we see homeless as part of the solution.”

In addition to the $680,000 EPA grant, the Santa Clara Valley Water District contributed $130,000, followed by the city of San Jose with $112,000 and $20,000 from eBay.

But at least one homeless man who attended the event seemed skeptical.

“There are programs that work and programs that blow smoke,” said Andrew Costa, 58, who has been homeless and living along Coyote Creek since he was laid off from his job at Safeway in February.

Added Costa: “I’m just trying to figure out if this is going to work.”

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.

  • $386,000 to the city of San Jose to manage the program and train the homeless
  • $137,000 to assist the city’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative
  • $117,000 for security measures to prevent illegal dumping
  • $40,000 to San Jose State to measure the trash pickup
  • $262,000 in matching funds from San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and eBay, to boost all of the above
    Source: EPA
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