Homeless residents of the Bay Area are continuing to cope with dangerously cold weather that has flooded shelters in recent weeks and led to the deaths of four men in the South Bay.
A ministry for the homeless and other groups planned to hold a prayer service this evening near an encampment south of downtown San Jose known as “The Jungle” and considered as one of the largest homeless camps in the United States.
Pastor Scott Wagers, head of the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry in San Jose, said the 5 p.m. service in a vacant lot at Senter Road and Keyes Street near “The Jungle” is for the four homeless men who died due to cold weather exposure in the South Bay since Nov. 28.
The encampment is considered one of the largest in the country if not the largest with about 150 inhabitants, Wagers said.
“The camp is huge, it’s just gigantic,” Wagers said. “There are a lot of people there who are victims of hard times.”
Wagers said that members of his ministry and other church groups are going to pray for the dead men and for solutions to the problem of housing people living outside who are vulnerable to temperatures that have dipped below freezing recently at night.
“A lot of people are upset that people could die like that in San Jose,” Wagers said. “It is unnecessary. San Jose is so wealthy.”
The encampment has drawn the attention of documentary filmmaker Joanna Rudnick, who has worked for the TV networks Al Jazeera and the Public Broadcasting Service and is doing a film on San Jose, including its homeless, Wagers said.
Last Wednesday, Rudnick interviewed homeless people at “The Jungle” as the ministry and its supporters went to there to pass out blankets and jackets as part of CHAM’s annual winter program, Wagers said.
The pastor said he wants the city of San Jose to consider opening some vacant buildings to serve as temporary “warming places” for people to stay in overnight to protect themselves from the cold, as is done in Eugene, Ore.
“If the city would give up a building, we’d staff it,” Wagers said.
Jenny Niklaus, spokeswoman for EHC Lifebuilders that is contracted with Santa Clara County to oversee its homeless program, said that some consider “The Jungle” as the country’s largest homeless camp, with between 150 and 200 people living there, although there are some camps in Hawaii that may be larger.
At an event to provide services for homeless people in San Francisco today hosted by Project Homeless Connect, a non-profit that links transients with housing and other essentials, some of the people seeking services toted rolled up sleeping bags and blankets.
Kara Zordel, the organization’s director, said some 2,000 homeless or marginally housed people were expected to attend today’s event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
One of those attendees was Ronin Tomoshima, a 29-year-old muralist and Bay Area native who said he’s been living on San Francisco’s streets for less than six months, including during the recent bone-chilling weather felt across the region.
Staying outside at night in his tent, “it’s pretty much impossible” to keep warm, but Tomoshima tries, bundling inside a sleeping bag beneath three blankets.
He said most local shelters are full this time of year, and he prefers not to stay in them, because he worries his belongings will be stolen.
Mark and Terrie, a married couple who declined to give their last names, said they have stayed alternately in shelters and on San Francisco sidewalks for more than two years.
When temperatures drop noticeably, as they have in recent weeks, the pair doesn’t sleep at night, when the cold is especially biting, they said.
“You’re pretty much awake at night and asleep during the day,” Mark said.
The pair said the city’s homeless population is more vulnerable to thefts and attacks after nightfall, although they said they feel safer because they stick together.
“It’s hard out here if you’re on your own,” Terrie said, adding that homeless women on their own in San Francisco face even greater risks, including sexual assault.
Jeff Burbank/Laura Dixon, Bay City News