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In a pandemic, reaching San Jose’s homeless is a matter of trust

San Jose nonprofit helps the homeless with housing

The road to Jurassic Park starts on a cul-de-sac in north San Jose. You have to go out of your way to find it — off the road, onto a dirt trail and down into the thicket of brush that surrounds the banks of Coyote Creek. Spread out among the trees and hills is one of San Jose’s largest homeless encampments.

The 50-some people who reside there in tents and makeshift dwellings only get news when it trickles in by word of mouth. But in late winter this year, they began to notice the city changing around them. Along the creek’s south bank, cars vanished from the parking lots of a business park. To the north, by fencing that marked the borders of a municipal golf course, a hasty wooden sign propped against cinder blocks warned: IF YOU ARE NOT HERE TO PLAY GOLF OR HIT RANGE BALLS PLEASE EXIT.

One day in February, James Turner waited in his tent for health workers to arrive and take him to a doctor’s appointment — a rare health check-up scheduled when Turner collected his food stamps from an outreach clinic. The health workers never came.

Turner didn’t have much else to do either. Not long after, the city’s recycling centers closed, depriving him and many others of their only source of income. Downtown, staff shut the main entrance to a popular food kitchen, herding people to queue at the back door by lines of tape. Turner’s neighbors, accustomed to the hum of traffic when they went out at night to dumpster dive, started to notice that the only sound after dark came from the rattle of their shopping carts.

Then one night in March, Katalina Sandoval drove to the one place she was sure would be open, only to be turned away.

“I go, ‘Are you serious?’ 7-Eleven?” she remembered. “No freaking way! Stuff is really going on if 7-Eleven is closed.”

It was through small reverberations like these that COVID-19 became a reality for the inhabitants of Jurassic Park. Rumors and theories were tossed around. Was the lockdown really just a ploy to target the homeless? Would the police hassle them even more than usual?

“It’s like martial law, almost,” Shabazz Kinner, who lived farther along the bank, observed.

Cynicism comes easily to Turner, Kinner and the others. It never felt like the city was looking out for them, even in the best of times. And with the arrival of a global pandemic, many volunteers and social workers who used to come by were beginning to stay home.

Mario Fuentes was one of the few exceptions. Every Friday, the case manager for Project WeHOPE, a local nonprofit, hauled an RV trailer equipped with showers and laundry machines down to Jurassic Park.

As COVID-19 swept through San Jose, Fuentes faced a challenge. He knew the threat the virus posed to San Jose’s homeless — and how it threatened to worsen the distrust simmering between them and a city suddenly shutting its doors. He needed to convince Jurassic Park that help was here to stay.

Fuentes entered the Coyote Creek brush for the first time on a hot afternoon in October 2019. He didn’t know what to expect. All he had to go on were vague directions passed from another encampment. He found the dirt trail and trudged through the tall grass down towards the river bank, looking for anyone to speak to.

Fuentes, 35, stood out as a newcomer. Before joining WeHOPE, he worked as a bar bouncer in East Palo Alto and still looks the part — short but muscular, plenty capable of breaking up a scuffle. But his voice is soft and earnest, his demeanor more surfer than fighter. He introduced himself to everyone he came across that day and asked if there was anything they needed, promising to return with batteries, sleeping bags and food.

Still, people eyed him warily. Outsiders of any sort don’t come by Jurassic Park too often. Every now and then a health worker or, God forbid, a police officer might appear. The inhabitants peppered Fuentes with questions. What did he want? Why was he here? After he left, they scoffed at his promises and assumed they’d never see him again.

In Jurassic Park, it takes time to earn trust. People show up to help, but they come and go all the time. Names are taken down, applications are filled out. Then nothing seems to happen.

Robert Collins, an ex-Marine who limps with a leg injury from Desert Storm, loses track of the attempts people have made to sign him up for housing and the various timelines they’ve promised.

“I’m hoping these ladies come out this week and tell me where I’m at on the list,” he said one week. “You know, it’s been eight months. I’ve gotta be up there.”

Turner has been in Jurassic Park for 23 years. Before then, he spent years riding freight trains across the country. Like Collins, he’s had little luck securing a place to live. He forgets when he was told he was eligible for some form of housing, just what happened the last time he tried to ask.

“The dude came by and asked me if I was on a housing list, I said yeah, he asked me for my name and either a birth date or Social Security number, and I gave it to him,” Turner recalled. “And all of a sudden he walks away and I’m like, ‘Well where am I on the list?’ He goes, ‘Sir, I can tell you that you’re on the list, I just can’t tell you where.’”

Sometimes, the help they get just feels strange. When the San Francisco 49ers made the Super Bowl this year, Collins said, a group came over and gave everyone a pair of Nike shoes.

Turner went to a city council meeting where a councilman proposed a plan to offer a bus service that could shuttle homeless people to and from nearby counties. “That’s not going to help at all. Why would you even think that?” Turner recalled thinking. “There are hustles here… why would I want to move?”

Turner is one of the more scathing voices in Jurassic Park. Not everyone sounds as bitter. But they share an understanding that, for the most part, they have to look after themselves.

“If I got butthurt at every little thing that life has spit at me, I’d be a nervous wreck by now,” Collins said. “But, you know, I also don’t want to put out to people that I enjoy this.”

The stigma of homelessness weighs heavily on many in the encampment. They say that many more in the Bay Area aren’t far away from falling on hard times like them.

“Some people don’t realize that they are a paycheck away from being evicted,” Kinner said. “They’re paying $3,000 a month? Wow. You’d have to get three jobs, two girlfriends and an old woman who’s got some money.”

Fuentes knows what it’s like. In 2010, he lived out of his car with his young daughter for six months in East Palo Alto after breaking up with his partner. He remembers his daughter crying with no bed to sleep in, and feeling embarrassed when people passed by and saw them.

“I’ve been out with nothing,” he said.

So Fuentes didn’t take it personally when Jurassic Park met his introductions with doubt. There was only one way to convince Turner and Collins that he’d be different, he knew: to honor his promise, and keep coming back.

When Fuentes returned to Jurassic Park a couple of days later, the cynicism was still there. But it was tinged with the slightest hint of surprise.

“They were like, ‘Oh, you actually care, huh?’” Fuentes remembered. “And I’m like, ‘Well, you gotta care about something.’”

Fuentes penciled Jurassic Park into the schedule for WeHOPE’s mobile shower and laundry service. Fridays worked best, he was told, and it would be better to do it in the afternoon when people weren’t out recycling.

Every week, between each laundry load and shower, Fuentes worked to get to know people. He greeted newcomers, asked for feedback on the showers and offered food and supplies, all with the same relaxed friendliness. Over the months, he began to build a rapport that might earn the encampment’s trust.

Then COVID-19 tightened its grip on the Bay Area, and the goal posts changed again.

As Turner, Collins, Sandoval and the others in Jurassic Park slowly came to terms with a changed San Jose, Fuentes and his colleagues at WeHOPE were working overtime.

The pandemic touched every corner of WeHOPE’s operations. Money had to be raised for hotel rooms to isolate the elderly residents of the nonprofit’s emergency shelter in East Palo Alto. Demand for its food banks quadrupled. WeHOPE also accelerated plans to start a separate outreach program, buying a camper van with a mounted television screen that would provide health advice and coronavirus information to homeless communities through video chats with medical school students.

Fuentes and the team running WeHOPE’s shower and laundry RV, though, were probably spread the thinnest. Santa Clara County’s lockdown order shut public bathrooms, parks, laundromats and restaurants, places San Jose’s homeless relied on for clean water, showers and hygiene. There weren’t enough hotel rooms — or funds — to house all of Jurassic Park’s inhabitants, let alone those in the dozens of sites that WeHOPE served across the Bay Area.

At home, Fuentes watched the virus tear through East Palo Alto as well. As neighbors on his block began to panic, he knew that his promise to Jurassic Park would matter more than ever. Continuing his work was never a question.

“We know that we’re always putting ourselves out there and getting close to bad diseases and all that stuff,” Fuentes said. “We know this. So when corona hit, it was like, ‘Okay, well now they need our help even more.’”

Still, just maintaining WeHOPE’s regular schedule of service didn’t feel like enough.

“The other day, our staff said that when they came up with our truck… that [homeless people] came out there with buckets and garbage pails asking for water,” said WeHOPE president Paul Bains. “That just ripped my heart apart… we’re in one of the most affluent areas in the United States. How could this be taking place?”

Early one Friday morning in March, Fuentes set out for Jurassic Park again. This time, though, he had an entourage. The truck following him carried the plastic shells of several portable toilets and handwashing stations — a hopeful step forward for the encampment, and his relationship with them.

After they arrived, Fuentes and his team began to set up the stalls. People hiked up from the river bank to take a look. There were a few double takes. Donations to Jurassic Park don’t usually require assembly.

Familiar suspicions kicked in. “What are you guys doing?” Fuentes was characteristically straightforward. “We’re putting them out here for you guys.”

Curious to gauge the value of their new deliveries, the WeHOPE team members tried to be extra attentive that day. They stopped passersby and asked muffled questions through their facemasks. Were the stalls working? What else did they need? The answers were blunt — and, alarmingly, they flew in the face of the rapport Fuentes thought he was building with the encampment.

“I’m just happy you gave us a place to wash our hands instead of leaving us out here to die,” came one response.

“When this is all over, we’ll be forgotten again,” said another. “We’re only being looked after so the important people don’t get sick.”

After trading theories about COVID-19 and watching San Jose transform, it wasn’t hard for some people in Jurassic Park to question WeHOPE’s timing.

“We’ve been asking for porta potties for years,” Turner said. “The whole thing is, it’s not the toilets, it’s those handwashing stations. They want people to keep clean.”

Turner’s neighbor Andrea, who declined to give her surname, was more blunt: “Now they’re all germaphobes…the authorities don’t want to appear to be enabling us by giving us proper sanitation. But they are forced to because it’s a public health issue now. More or less, they’re scared for themselves.”

For those in Jurassic Park who took the threat of the virus seriously, the pandemic twisted longstanding feelings of isolation and frustration to painful heights.

“Coronavirus, it scares me,” said Sandoval, who is immuno-compromised. “I feel like I haven’t gotten to my life yet. Unfortunately I got caught up in the wrong kind of lifestyle with my family, and I wish I did something different. I don’t want to die yet.”

As harrowing as Sandoval and the others’ doubts were, there wasn’t much else Fuentes could do to assuage them besides continuing to come back. And somehow, even amid a pandemic, continuing to be his relaxed self.

“How was it?” he asks, still, when people finish their showers. After they reply, he grabs a bottle of disinfectant from the pavement and sprays the stall down.

Like the rest of San Jose, Jurassic Park has learned to live amid a pandemic. Recycling centers have reopened. A very lucky few in Jurassic Park have had unemployment benefits come through. Collins and his partner are close to being able to afford a van, which they hope will give them a safer place to sleep and provide a means to make better money.

But there’s little cause for complacency when most of Jurassic Park isn’t going anywhere. Though COVID-19 has drawn renewed attention to the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis for legislators and city governments, WeHOPE’s leadership believes there is still a ways to go.

“I think the majority of homeless would say, no one’s doing enough, and from that perspective that they have, they’re right,” said Paul Bains, the WeHope president and co-founder. “What I see as a person that’s in the trenches… but also works within the government structure of the county and various cities… I do see that there are extreme efforts and strides that some governmental entities are making. It’s just that it’s been so long and so slow.”

Until then, the immediate goals are straightforward. Fuentes has since moved on to manage the laundry and shower trucks at several other sites in San Jose, filling in for a shortage of drivers WeHOPE has experienced as the pandemic continues. But the trailer, driven now by his co-workers, still arrives every Friday at Jurassic Park. He intends for the portable toilets and handwashing stations to remain as well. Most importantly, he’s optimistic about the relationship WeHOPE has built the encampment.

“We’re being consistent,” he said. “That’s what builds the trust. I’m pretty sure they’re satisfied with what we’re doing.”

Turner sleeps in on Fridays, and usually trudges up the river bank late in the afternoon. But he makes sure to get a shower in every week. Almost half a year since Fuentes first wandered into the brush, Turner is earnest when asked about the showers and the people running them.

“It takes time to trust people, it really does,” he said. “But Mario seems to be a good guy.”

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