Orrin Carr peered through dark lace curtains from inside the lone house at the end of an orchard-lined street in San Jose’s Northside neighborhood, expecting authorities to arrive any moment. He’d taken a hot shower that morning — pretty sure it would be his last for a while.
Soon, a fleet of white trucks, animal control vehicles and a police cruiser rolled up the drive. Carr and the rest of the half-dozen homeless people who’d been squatting for months at the city-owned property were given a few hours to pack up their belongings. Public works crews began sawing sheets of plywood to board up the seven-bedroom, single-story building shaded by tall palm trees beside a garden of shrubby pink rose bushes.
Outreach teams promised the squatters spaces in tiny homes. But some, including the 70-year-old Carr, turned down the shelters, unsure whether the nonprofit workers would follow through on the offer and worried about having to part with their possessions.
“Maybe I could find another empty house,” Carr said. “I’m scouting them all the time. There’s all kinds of empty houses in San Jose.”
Orrin Carr was squatting in a city owned home on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Exactly how many vacant properties are housing squatters in San Jose and across the Bay Area is unclear. Officials don’t keep such records. But in recent years, some homeless residents have made headlines by moving into empty homes, such as when a collective of then-homeless women known as Moms 4 Housing took over a privately owned house in West Oakland in 2019 to protest investor-backed companies buying up homes in the East Bay.
The following year in Los Angeles, homeless families moved into a handful of vacant houses owned by Caltrans to protest the lack of affordable housing in the city.
Even so, squatting in city- or state-owned homes appears relatively rare. And the situation in San Jose had little to do with any sort of activism. But Thursday’s forced eviction at 1157 East Taylor St. was still an unmistakable result of the struggle to house San Jose’s estimated 9,900 homeless residents as the city grapples with a chronic affordability crisis.
City officials said they had previously offered shelter to those living at the property, but were rebuffed, an assertion Carr denied. Officials said two of the six people who were living at the property last week ultimately accepted shelter. They declined to say how long they were aware of people squatting at the site. Officials also could not say how many residential homes the city owns.
Orrin Carr waits for police to arrive to evict him from the building he’s called home for months, Thursday morning, August 31, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
The city’s plans for the property, now that the squatters are gone, have not been revealed. But earlier this year, the city received a proposal from the YWCA asking for $350,000 to rehab the site and use it as a child care center, according to a report presented to the City Council in April.
In 2011, the city agreed to buy the house for $2.1 million because officials at the time believed they needed the site for a future roadway project on Highway 101, which borders the property.
In the meantime, San Jose officials agreed to lease back the property to its former owner, Dr. John Licking, a dentist in Sunnyvale, for $1 a month, according to city documents. Licking opened a rehab facility at the site, but it lost its operating license in 2014 after allegations surfaced that its staff had encouraged drug use at the house, according to a report by news site San Jose Inside. Speaking to that publication, Licking denied many of the allegations. The facility continued operating as an unregulated sober living home, the news report said.
Last fall, the facility abruptly shut down because it became too difficult to operate, Tiffany Franko, who had been in charge of the home, told this news organization.
Carr, who had previously lived at the facility after four decades in prison, moved back shortly after he learned Franko was abandoning the site.
Carr fixed up the plumbing and had the utilities switched on — including by writing up a fake lease so he could pay the water bill — and invited other homeless people to stay in the house, he said. Outside the house, another two or three people had moved into wooden chicken coops with palm-tree-frond-covered roofs on the property. A brown and white pit bull mix roamed the front yard.
San Jose police arrive to evict people living in an abandoned house on East Taylor Road, Thursday morning, August 31, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
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“We were just thinking, well, we’ll just pay our bills and enjoy living here because it’s a great place to live,” said Carr just before the eviction, sitting in his bedroom with multicolored mandala blankets decorating the walls and a cinder block shelf holding cans of Hormel Chili and Campbell’s tomato soup. “This is a great area. There’s no neighbors or nothing, right?”
But as other homeless people learned squatters were at the house, some began breaking in and threatening to take over the property, Carr said. He would sleep each night with a can of mace and a sheathed knife next to his bed.
Things improved this summer after the city cleared out encampments from nearby Coyote Creek. But Carr realized he’d also likely be forced out soon, so he reached out to a nonprofit for help finding a permanent home, he said.
“Until then, it’s either this place or a tent in a field,” said Carr, a few days before renting two moving trucks so he and another squatter could pack up the house. “And this is a lot better than a tent in a field.”
Orrin Carr stands in a room of a city-owned home that he was squatting in on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Staff photographer Karl Mondon contributed reporting.