SAN JOSE — A once-in-a-decade storm that has battered the Bay Area for nearly two weeks has forced hundreds of homeless residents to abandon their tents and belongings near the city’s rivers and seek shelter indoors.
The city’s homeless population has largely avoided what officials feared could be widespread injury or even death as torrential rain flooded river streams, but the sudden rush of sheltergoers since the Jan. 3 evacuation order has also created obstacles for the disaster workers responding to the storm. They must navigate the pitfalls of housing a population whose future remains uncertain once the storm and high water along the city’s waterways ebb and those seeking shelter who have challenging mental health issues.
In a matter of days, the shelter’s residents have suddenly gone from having a modicum of privacy inside their tents to sleeping in close, mixed-gender quarters at San Jose’s Seven Trees Community Center.
The center — converted into an emergency shelter by the Red Cross and the city on Jan. 4 — has had its share of challenges. Police were called to the site twice on Sunday and five times on Monday, according to department data, pushing officials to hire security guards. SJPD confirmed that one of the calls on Monday was in response to a reported groping incident, though the alleged victim left the scene before authorities arrived.
Four people also have had to be asked to leave the site, according to shelter manager Patrick McKenna, a 30-year veteran of the Red Cross. Spokespersons for both the city and county did not immediately respond to a request for information on where these four individuals had ended up.
McKenna, who has responded to disasters ranging from local wildfires to Hurricane Katrina, said the close quarters and “getting this population to live together” have been a big challenge. “Normally they are in open air and sleep farther away from each other. And here we are putting them close together. That adds tension. It adds to security needs,” he said.
McKenna said that it’s a unique response for the Red Cross. Normally during disasters, the agency is helping people who have homes to which they can return. Only a small minority end up becoming homeless.
For Christopher Wess, a homeless resident who arrived at the shelter on Jan. 5, the situation has been frustrating.
On Tuesday night, he found his cot and clothing had been soaked with urine. He was able to wash his clothes in the on-site laundry units and was relieved that emergency volunteers were ramping up cleaning efforts for the community center’s floors and bathrooms. “Now they have all hands on deck,” Wess said.
But he still questions the safety of the shelter because both men and women are placed side-by-side on cots in the community center’s basketball courts.
In addition to the Red Cross, the city, county and a local nonprofit have been on-site referring the shelter’s residents to mental health services and longer-term housing.
Other residents at the site described the shelter’s staff as helpful.
“They’ve been respectful. They’ve been asking if we need anything,” said Alvaro Aquino, who, along with his fiancee, Veronica Maul, abandoned nearly all of their belongings after the water on the Guadalupe River rose too high.
“We lost everything,” Maul said. “The water took it all.”
Though the couple may have avoided the worst of the storm, Maul said the close quarters of the shelter have been tough for her post-traumatic-stress disorder. The two don’t have any solid housing plans after the storm ends.
In a statement, San Jose officials said the storm has “understandably created “a lot of stress” for homeless residents in the area.
“The staff and security are committed to supporting these residents by providing a positive and proactive presence to keep everyone safe and comfortable — within and surrounding the building,” according to a statement from city spokesperson Carolina Camarena. “We are incredibly grateful for the Red Cross. They are doing a commendable job of operating the evacuation centers.”
According to Camarena, the city has posted a minimum of two security guards at Seven Trees. Since security was installed, she said, there haven’t been any calls to the police.
As of Friday morning, the shelter had 106 people and nine dogs. City officials said the site will remain open until Jan. 16 but could change depending on weather conditions. The coroner’s office is currently investigating the cause of death of a man found near Penetencia Creek on New Year’s Day.
In a statement, the Red Cross said it has experience working with homeless populations.
“This is something that we have done in the past and will continue to do to ensure that anyone impacted by a disaster and staying at a Red Cross shelter has the help they need and access to resources to help them in the aftermath of a disaster,” spokesperson Jenny Arrieta wrote.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the environment of the shelter appeared calmer, with homeless residents eating at the site’s makeshift cafeteria serving macaroni lunch or dozing off on cots with Red Cross blankets draped over them.
But the mental health issues were widely apparent. Some residents walked around aimlessly or sat on their cots mumbling to themselves.
Sharon Roth, a Red Cross volunteer since 1997 who deployed during 9/11, is a registered nurse with experience working in the mental health field. The biggest challenge, she said, is what happens after the storm. Where the population will go is very much up in the air.
On Thursday in the community center’s lobby, she was trying to glean information from a younger woman in a wheelchair to connect her to job and housing services. But the woman’s mental state was making it difficult, and Roth wasn’t able to get the woman’s name or other identifying information. She asked nearby county workers about the woman’s name, but they weren’t successful in getting it either.
“Usually people come in because their homes have been destroyed,” said Roth about the shelters she’s worked at in the past. “It’s a different dynamic. … I’m hoping that San Jose will be able to help these people.”
Staff writer Robert Solanga contributed reporting to this article.