The homeless are no longer out of sight, out of mind in Cupertino. An estimated 20 homeless people are encamped in plain sight along two narrow roadside stretches of land on the east side of N. Wolfe Road, between Homestead Road and Stevens Creek Boulevard.
Beginning around late February, blue tarps, tents, overloaded grocery carts, suitcases, chairs, plastic water jugs, propane gas tanks, camp stoves, ice coolers, bicycles, stuffed animals and an American flag have lined the roadway near the on and off ramps of Highway 280.
The two homeless camps are in poignant contrast to Apple’s flagship headquarters just a stone’s throw away. The multi-story Hamptons Apartment Homes and luxury hotels are within close view.
“We understand that many city residents are concerned about this situation,” said Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf. “We are as well and are focused on the safety of both the community and the unhoused people in the encampments.”
One encampment is on Caltrans property, under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Transportation. The other is on City of Cupertino property.
“It’s a complex situation that we’re trying to address to the satisfaction of all,” said Deborah L. Feng, the Cupertino native who has been City Manager since June of 2019.
The Center for Disease Control advises that clearing homeless encampments can increase the potential for infectious disease spread. Its guidelines state that if individual housing options are not available, people living unsheltered or in encampments on public property are to remain and shelter where they are.
People are thought to have migrated to Wolfe Road after being displaced from camps elsewhere that were disbanded before the shelter in place order.
In a legal show of compassion, in September of 2018, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs West Coast states, ruled that people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives. It would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Our goal is still to get [the homeless] moved safely and to a safer place,” said Feng. Moving them to hotels, however, would be at the expense of the City.
In the meantime, to ensure sanitary conditions both for the health and well-being of the encampment members and of those living nearby, on June 11 the City of Cupertino placed a portable toilet and a handwashing station in each camp. The City covers the monthly rental and servicing fee of about $1,500, plus twice weekly trash removal by Recology.
This installation was not possible until a safe location was determined. Sufficient space is needed to allow waste and trash removal trucks to pull off Wolfe Road, out of the flow of traffic, to service the units.
Also, social organizations offer optional services, including COVID-19 testing. A Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department officer checks daily on the camps.
Feng says that the City continues to work with CalTrans, the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing and other organizations to find solutions to the complex situation.
“We know that we need to come up with a long term solution and are working toward that end,” said Sharf.