Caring for the community

David Cox and Jacqui Merriman prepare food baskets for the

St. Joseph’s Family Center, Gilroy’s volunteer-fueled,
ecumenical Christian organization, is rising to the challenge of
meeting the community’s needs with food, transportation, shelter
and with help paying rent or an electric bill.
St. Joseph’s Family Center, Gilroy’s volunteer-fueled, ecumenical Christian organization, is rising to the challenge of meeting the community’s needs with food, transportation, shelter and with help paying rent or an electric bill.

Founded by the Catholic Ladies Aid Society in 1962, St. Joseph’s stepped beyond the boundaries of St. Mary Catholic Parish in the early 1980s and is now larger than ever. For the past three years, under the leadership of Executive Director David Cox, it has gotten more creative about funding its wide array of services.

A tax-deductible charity since 2002, St. Joseph’s now draws balanced support – in money, donations and volunteers – from seven churches as well as local businesses, corporations, fund-raising events and a large pool of faithful donors.

It has nine staff members, six full-time, but its “backbone,” according to Cox, is a volunteer corps of about 100 a week.

Gina Colton has been volunteering here for about five years. She started processing donations and since graduated to interviewing the needy.

“It’s someplace I can help,” she said. It has also given her a sense of perspective about her home town.

“Once you get to know them, you understand better how these people got where they are,” Colton said.

The unemployment rate in this city rose again in January – to 11.5 percent – according to the Gilroy Economic Development Agency. St. Joseph’s workers know better than anyone that those jobless aren’t just high-tech workers. Many are working-class folks – or they would be if there was any work.

Needing help to meet basic needs, many come to St. Joseph’s small office in a former convent at Church and First streets, which belies the vast scope of services it has embraced. Here, staff serve roughly 500 households every two weeks. That adds up to about 2,000 people, twice a month.

Cox said St. Joseph’s saw a 16 percent increase in drop-in clientele from 2002 to 2003. The year before, the numbers rose by 12 percent.

In a garage adjoining the building, St. Joseph’s runs southern Santa Clara County’s largest food pantry, where low-income families and individuals from Gilroy and San Martin can pick up food baskets twice a month.

St. Joseph’s is a member of the city’s nutrition task force, so it makes a point of packing the baskets with healthy options. Local supermarkets and the America’s Second Harvest organization provide things like fruit, vegetables, bread, cereal and a few sweets. St. Joseph’s pays for meat, milk, cheese, baby formula, diapers and other things supermarkets don’t normally donate.

“It’s not just a few cans of tuna, a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread,” Cox said.

These groceries are meant to supplement a family’s diet, not feed them entirely, but Cox noted that, “It also allows the family to leverage some money to pay for other things.”

Sometimes, though, it’s these other things that are pushing people to the edge of homelessness. If Pacific Gas & Electric is about to shut off a family’s lights over an unpaid bill, St. Joseph’s might cover it until payday instead of having the family pay a fee to reconnect after losing power.

Transportation is often a problem. St. Joseph’s staff gives out bus tickets as needed and gas vouchers to those who show both need and a valid California driver’s license. Sometimes, they give rides in the organization’s shuttle van.

Then there are what Cox calls “off-the-wall needs.” Recently, for instance, St. Joseph’s helped an elderly couple buy a new hot-water heater after their old one broke down.

“We try to handle each case as it comes,” Cox said. The guiding principle is, “Have all other resources been explored or exploited?

“When you’re spending 70 percent of your income on rent, it puts you in a very vulnerable position.”

St. Joseph’s does occasionally help a family pay rent or negotiate with a landlord who might “rather get something than nothing,” Cox said. But even though there are more apartment vacancies these days and prices have gone down slightly, St. Joseph’s clients are having less success finding housing they can afford compared with three years ago, Cox said. The reason is simple: fewer have jobs.

Countless numbers remain homeless, whether in the traditional sense – sleeping outdoors or in emergency shelters – or whether they share crowded quarters with relatives, friends or acquaintances.

Many times, an apartment is designed for three or four people, “but there might be two families of five living there,” Cox said. “HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) would define that as being homeless.”

For the homeless – and for day laborers who wait for jobs on San Ysidro Avenue – St. Joseph’s provides bag lunches every weekday, plus clothing vouchers and shelter referrals. “Car food” boxes go to those who live out of their vehicles.

Many people do not know that some of Gilroy’s venerable charitable institutions are actually St. Joseph’s programs.

The Lord’s Table is one example. Though it is among St. Joseph’s oldest services, many of the 100 or so homeless and poor people who gather for dinner in the St. Mary School gym every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday don’t know that.

“The homeless people don’t realize there’s a bunch of different churches involved,” said Sue Moon, who has directed the Lord’s Table Director for nearly four years. “They think it’s just St. Mary’s because it’s at St. Mary’s.”

Both in menu and service, the Lord’s Table is much more than a soup kitchen. Moon’s mantra is that the volunteer servers should treat guests as if they were visiting their own homes for dinner. On March 7, the entrée was salmon, served with mashed potatoes, green beans and fresh fruit salad. Two days later, it was spaghetti and meatballs with salad. Baked goods and fruit are available for guests to take with them.

Cox calls the Lord’s Table a “lighthouse” – the only year-round hot-meals program for the homeless in South County. There is a need for it to be open more than three nights a week, he said, but booking the heavily used gym more often would be impossible, he said. St. Mary’s already donates the space, plus St. Joseph’s office, free of charge.

Therefore, St. Joseph’s is taking a role in helping the Emergency Housing Consortium build a new, year-round homeless shelter in town. Perhaps St. Joseph’s will provide hot meals nightly at the Monterey Road shelter in north Gilroy, Cox said, or maybe shelter guests could sign in at St. Joseph’s.

It was St. Joseph’s that opened a winter emergency shelter in the Army National Guard armory on Wren Avenue, and it is St. Joseph’s that runs Gilroy’s only other shelter, the Ochoa Winter Center on east Luchessa Avenue.

St. Joseph’s also runs a migrant labor camp at the Ochoa center in the summer months. About six months ago, it opened a computer lab there with 21 laptops for educational purposes, a partnership plan with Microsoft Corp., and Community Foundation Silicon Valley. By the time the migrant families arrive on May 1, the computers should have Internet access.

“A lot of the migrants out there, through focus groups and surveys, have expressed interest in learning English as a second language, learning some computer skills, … (and) citizenship information,” Cox said.

About a year-and-a-half ago, St. Joseph’s began cooking and serving dinner two nights a week at Wheeler Manor, a home for the elderly run by South County Housing, to provide more nutritious diets and to spark social interaction.

“St. Joseph’s is the core organization in South County when it comes to helping poor people,” board member Marge Albaugh said. She should know; she ran it for 20 years until 2001 – 12 of those years without pay.

Jane Gonzalez had run St. Joseph’s for years before Albaugh and had put much of her own money into it, but it was about to close around 1980.

It was when Albaugh took over in 1981 that it began to offer its services beyond St. Mary Parish.

“I’m Catholic, but I believe it shouldn’t make any difference what (religion) you are,” Albaugh said. “Many of these churches were far too small to have a program like St. Joseph’s on their own, but they could lend support, both financial and moral, … to a bigger organization.”

Under Albaugh, the agency dauntlessly hunted for grants, and St. Joseph’s grew – and grew, and grew. By 2001, she said, “I got to where I was operating at the top of my capacity and couldn’t take the stress; otherwise I never would have quit.”

She now sits on the board of directors and is extremely impressed with Cox.

“He had the youth and the vitality and the knowledge to take what we had and build on it,” Albaugh said. “He’s taken something that was very good and given it that essential ingredient.”

The long-haired Cox has won over the local business community as well, securing more cash and in-kind donations from private enterprises. Recently, on behalf of St. Joseph’s, he accepted the Nob Hill Foods “Good Egg” award for February from the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce.

What’s next?

Besides the EHC’s homeless shelter, St. Joseph’s is working on a diabetes awareness program with Gardner South County Health Center and St. Louise Regional Hospital. Looming over all this, however, is a glaring need for more physical space.

“We’re literally busting at the seams,” Cox said.

St. Joseph’s already rents storage for its food pantry. There’s little room inside the office, and it can get packed. On March 10, staff served 80 families. Confidentiality is hard to maintain. When clients have something sensitive or confidential to say, a staff member has to borrow Cox’s office.

Nevertheless, Cox said, board members aren’t ready for a capital campaign just yet. Even if they were, he expects they couldn’t move into a new place for another five to seven years.

In the meantime, the need keeps growing. The latest influx is from the Central Valley, according to St. Joseph’s Services Coordinator Graciela Ramirez. Even though housing costs are cheaper there,

“They say there aren’t as many services over there,” Ramirez said.

“I’ve seen a lot of people from Modesto these past few months,” Ramirez said.

Overall, she said, “We’ve been getting five new families a week. When I started here two (and-a-half) years ago, we were getting about two new families every two weeks.”

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