SAN JOSE -- Even before bulldozers ripped through her fenced compound in Silicon Valley's largest homeless encampment -- a sunken subdivision from hell known as "The Jungle" -- Mama Red had been thinking about moving. The departure of her pregnant daughter, who was taken into police custody on a drug violation, had left her a slightly emptier nest.
Two of Mama Red's four tents were razed in the cleanup, along with the patio furniture where she often could be found in repose, scratching the spider bites that cover her legs. To outsiders, the Jungle's 75 squalid acres might constitute the most shocking microcosm of Santa Clara County's homeless community, a simmering cauldron of addiction and alcoholism lying directly across Story Road from Happy Hollow.
But the move Mama Red was contemplating had to do with trying to find a quieter neighborhood in the Jungle, not leaving it. This, after all, was home. When city cleaning crews departed, she was one of the first to return, slipping past the security guards vainly attempting to protect the grassy floodplain along Coyote Creek from its 200 or so inhabitants. "This," she said, her mouth tightening toothlessly around a cigarette as she surveyed the unhappy hollow, "is all I know, right here."
Keeping body and soul together is a daily struggle for Mama Red and her neighbors, but a close observation of the Jungle makes obvious why it -- and nearly a hundred smaller places like it around the city -- keep rising again despite San Jose's efforts to knock them down.
The Jungle works for the people who live there, providing a sense of community, a support network, even a meager livelihood. The Jungle has its own crude system of governance, with order often maintained vigilante-style, residents say. "Any time people break the rules, they're asked to leave," said a longtime inhabitant, known as Giggles. "As much as we don't like rules, you have to have them."
Most of the people who live there didn't choose to be homeless, but now that they are, the Jungle meets their most basic needs.
After a failed flower shop in Felton swept away the last of her savings, Mama Red -- she declined to give her full name -- took care of a friend's invalid mother until the woman died. With no place to turn, she tumbled into the social safety net and wound up in a homeless shelter for several weeks. That was 13 years ago, the last time Red lived indoors.
"It's almost like being in jail," she said of the shelter. "You're told when to eat, when to go to bed, when to shower. You can't do this, you can't do that." To escape, she began sleeping behind a gas station, then lived for two years next to a freeway onramp. Five years ago, she packed up her shopping cart and rolled down into the Jungle.
"They get hassled less here than if they sleep in a storefront doorway," said Chris Richardson, outreach director for Downtown Streets Team. His group, with a mix of federal and local funding, removes trash from the Jungle every day and works with the city's other nonprofit partners to provide services before all encampment cleanups. "Down here they have a permanent place to come back to, rather than trying to find a warm place to sleep every night."
Despite its sprawling size, the Jungle's creekside structures are virtually invisible to anyone passing by on Story Road. More shopping carts than cars traverse its dense foliage, and at night, residents wear headlamps to avoid tripping over the buckets of human waste that are everywhere. "If you're coming down here, homelessness is a core part of your being," said Ray Bramson, who directs the homelessness response team for San Jose's housing department.
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Like any small town, the enclave actually is a collection of distinct neighborhoods. Mama Red avoids what she describes as "the riffraff" who reside at the encampment's central hub. "That's where all the drama is -- buying drugs, stripping copper, fights and all that stuff," Red averred. During her first few years in the camp, Red stayed near a group of transgender homeless, who sometimes pack knives inside their capri pants. This recently resulted in a stabbing.
Three people have died at the encampment this year -- one from exposure, one as a result of gang violence and one by drowning in the creek. Last summer, when a pregnant mother went into premature labor there, the baby did not survive even a few minutes in the Jungle. "It was shocking to see the paramedics carrying this tiny bundle up to the ambulance," recalled Rose Amador, CEO of the nearby Center for Training and Careers. "The saddest thing is when you see somebody holding a child's hand going down there."
"They call it the Jungle for a reason," Bramson said. "You disappear down there."
A real community
When crews cleared out the Jungle in late April, they found the encampment produced about 685 pounds of trash per person. "I personally have not seen anything worse than this," said Richardson of Downtown Streets during a recent visit to the Jungle. "It's the worst in almost every way: the number of people, the amount of debris, its size, the nature of criminal activity."
And yet, in its own way, it is no less a community than Willow Glen or the Rose Garden, one with an undeniable pull for people like Troy, 53, an unemployed member of the carpenters union. "I don't see any place else that's as easy to live as this," he said, not far from the shower he rebuilt after a more elaborate one was torn down by stunned cleanup crews. "Anywhere else, people are hiding in the bushes. At least here, it's like I'm camping."
That suggestion of homelessness as a lifestyle choice sometimes seems at odds with social service programs designed to provide permanent housing. The architects of those plans view homelessness and places like the Jungle as a looming public health and safety threat.
"What is the magic formula to make people pay attention?" asked Destination: Home Executive Director Jennifer Loving. "What is it you have to do that makes people go, 'Every single day people are living and dying outside? Every single day, two blocks from where I live, people are living in substandard, Third World, horrifying conditions?' Does it have to be a terrorist attack? Does it have to involve a puppy? Does a pipe bomb full of puppies have to go off in the encampment for people to pay attention?"
To some people trying to eradicate homelessness, it's a condition that can be cured with sufficient resources. But for encampment dwellers, it's more complicated than that. That so many have come to terms with their rough existence shows the almost unfathomable resilience of the human spirit. Patty has lived in the Jungle for 10 years and refers to the people there as her "family." But she says if she were offered permanent housing -- not a likelihood because most housing programs are aimed at the most physically frail segment of a homeless population estimated at 7,000 in San Jose on any given night -- she would definitely take it.
Patty has lived in the Jungle with a succession of boyfriends. Some hit her, some didn't. Her only long-term relationship has been with Giggles, her roommate of the past four years. Giggles is 55 and has been mostly homeless since she was 18. She hasn't had much luck with men either. One promised he would change her "if I have to beat you every single day."
Last fall, Patty and Giggles used discarded scraps to build an enclosed duplex structure just above the creek. The compound gave an illusion of privacy and safety, though in truth it provided neither. "Women have been raped, people have been killed," Richardson said. "A couple of months ago there was a semi-gang-related war, where this guy attempted to light another man on fire, and he ended up setting himself on fire. It's anarchy down there."
Most mornings, Patty, 36, would make French toast or oatmeal over an open fire for anyone who was hungry. "This is where we belong, where we fit in," she explained. "I consider everyone here my family now."
Patty spends most of her day "recycling" -- her term for reclaiming items from Dumpsters. Still, she refuses to Dumpster-dive for food. "We're all different," she said. "You've got some who will put their little table inside a Dumpster, tuck their napkins around their neck and grab a fork." Others won't go near a Dumpster. "We just accept people, how ever they are."
After he moved to the encampment in October, Troy devoted himself full time to feathering his Jungle nest. He accepts only $200 a month in food stamps. In the spring, he reclaimed some plywood crates from a nearby store in Vietnam Town shopping complex and fashioned an enclosed shower, with heated water flowing from a nail hole in a bucket.
"It would be nice to be in a house," he said, "but I don't have to pay rent or worry about a mortgage. I just eat and hang out." He sounded content. But a week later, the shower and his campsite had been torn down, and he began scavenging to create a place for himself again.
"We're not bad," Troy said. "It's not our fault we're in this position. I'm hoping the economy is picking up. Somebody told me the union might have work." If it does, he said he would gladly go back to work and move out of the Jungle.
Bramson of San Jose's housing department said the city expected to be back in six to eight months to tear it all down again. "If you're out here, the system has failed you," Bramson said. "The safety net that was supposed to catch you didn't. I think it's a terrible statement for our community that there are people who believe this is their best option. This is a terrible, terrible place for anyone to live."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.