SAN JOSE (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 San Jose road, startling 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.
Ortega shuddered and clutched her fleece blanket while watching tractors cram couches, tents, blankets, rotten food and pails of excrement into roaring garbage trucks.
“It’s just junk to everyone else but to us, that’s home. That’s our stuff,” she said.
On a nearby sidewalk, Al Palaces, a former truck driver who settled into the encampment about eight months ago, said he was trying to think of a plan.
“I just grabbed whatever I could because I don’t want to go to jail,” he said, standing next to an overloaded shopping cart stuffed with dirty plastic bags.
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.
But some remained in the slum.
Valentine Cortes, who said he was a journeyman construction worker, said he had no plans to leave his makeshift shelter built into a steep, muddy slope.
“I don’t know why people got all chaotic today,” he said. “We don’t have to go.”
Asked about the warning that he could be jailed, Cortes shrugged, pet a 6-week old puppy in his palm and said, “Then I guess I’ll be arrested.”
The encampment stands in stark contrast to the surrounding valley, a region that leads the country in job growth, income and venture capital.