Homeless clear out

Joseph Ainsworth hugs Admiral, his 1-year-old dog.

David Ainsworth and his son, Joseph, are homeless through and
through. Natives of Pennsylvania, they’ve proudly made the
California outdoors their home, wandering across the state
collecting adventures. They’ve bounced around storied Golden Gate
Park in San Francisco and seen their encampment in Ukiah flooded
out by the Russian River.
David Ainsworth and his son, Joseph, are homeless through and through. Natives of Pennsylvania, they’ve proudly made the California outdoors their home, wandering across the state collecting adventures. They’ve bounced around storied Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and seen their encampment in Ukiah flooded out by the Russian River.

Last year, they came upon Gilroy and fell in love with a forested encampment west of Santa Teresa Boulevard on Uvas Creek known as Bamboo Village.

“It’s nice down here,” Joseph Ainsworth said. “It’s a little community.”

However, the Ainsworths were among about 30 homeless people who were told Feb. 18 they needed to leave because they were on private property. Today, only a couple of tents remain.

Some residents said they planned to head up to “Coyote,” while others are reportedly living near a truck stop. None of them planned to leave the Gilroy area. And while representatives from St. Joseph’s Family Center are trying to find housing for people at the camp, that struggle continues.

It’s a challenging situation for the city, as they try to find the balance of enforcing city codes and looking after some of Gilroy’s neediest residents.

“I feel for these folks,” said city code enforcement officer Hipolito Olmos.

Olmos helped a representative from Syngenta – which owns the property where Bamboo Village was set up – hand out flyers telling the homeless to leave. The city told Syngenta on Jan. 25 that they were in violation of various laws and needed to clean up the debris and encampments, Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said.

As of last week, all the tents were cleared off Syngenta’s property. However, many of the homeless immediately moved to the adjacent Vanni property, demonstrating the complexity of the problem, Olmos said.

A 2009 homeless survey commission by Santa Clara County calculated that about 599 Gilroyans – or more than 1 percent of the city’s population – were homeless. While this number was down from 660 in 2007, the city still had the highest rate of homeless people per capita in Santa Clara County. However, even those figures likely underestimate the number of homeless, as they are based on the number of people that survey takers can find, said Marty Estrada, homeless outreach coordinator for St. Joseph’s Family Center.

The Bamboo Village encampment is just one of several hangouts for Gilroy residents who have no permanent housing. Another encampment stands at a former cannery building just east of the Caltrain Station. Other people stay at friends’ houses, local experts said, while foreclosed homes, areas under bridges and the city’s forested regions are some of the many places where Gilroy’s transients can hide out. Homeless residents even used the former Indian Motorcycle factory off 10th Street as a shelter before the doors were bolted shut, Estrada said.

The National Guard Armory, which houses 125 people, provides shelter from late November through the end of March. Jennifer VanEvery, director of communications for EHC LifeBuilders, which runs the program at the Armory, said the Armory is seldom full.

Although transients in northern parts of the county do receive bus tokens if shelters in Sunnyvale and San Jose are full, VanEvery said the number of people using shelters in Santa Clara County generally has decreased during the past few years. The Gilroy shelter housed an average of 96 people per evening – far below capacity – although that number increased during some of the rainy days in February, VanEvery said.

Gilroy has had more challenges than other areas of the county in part because it does not meet certain state requirements for low-income housing, said Dina Campeau, a South County Collaborative board member and senior development associate of Sacred Heart Community Service, which works with poor San Jose residents. South County Collaborative is an association of nonprofit and public human services agencies.

The City of Gilroy also cannot apply for federal HOME funds, which are sometimes used for programs that house transients in other parts of Santa Clara County because the city does not meet state housing requirements, she said.

South County Housing, which builds affordable housing in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, has plans to build 26 units of permanent low-income housing near First Street and Farrell Avenue.

Estrada said many homeless people do not like the restrictions of shelters, such as not being allowed to drink alcohol, travel or have pets.

“They would rather live by the creek than lose their dignity and freedom,” Campeau said.

Olmos, who sits on the city’s Homeless Outreach Committee, believes the solution is multi-pronged. There needs to be programs for job training, substance abuse programs and transitional housing, he said.

“It’s complex, and if we don’t have the support of community leaders, it will be difficult to get any permanent solutions,” he said.

The reasons for homelessness are equally complex.

About 30 percent of homeless residents in Santa Clara County ended up in that position because of a lost job, while an additional 21 percent had alcohol or drug abuse problems. The remainder faced a range of problems, including mental health issues, family problems and being released from jail.

The ailing economy has contributed to Gilroy’s homeless population, Estrada said.

“The employment issue is dismal here in Gilroy,” he said.

Bamboo Village resident Robert Lopez, who has dwelled on the Vanni family’s property, works at a supermarket and is supporting his daughter, who is in college in San Jose.

“I tried to pay the rent, but it was too much money,” Lopez said.

By contrast, former Bamboo Village resident Joseph Ainsworth said he enjoyed the camping atmosphere at the forested encampment. If he could do anything in life, he would be homeless in Hawaii, he said.

Several Gilroyans – including Eagle Ridge residents, residents at the Village Green senior housing complex and locals who use walking paths next to the former encampment – had expressed concern about Bamboo Village, Olmos said.

The newsletter at the upscale Eagle Ridge community, which stands across the creek from the former encampment, stated that the community’s homeowners association discussed the camp in January after several homeowners – including board members – had noticed it. It stated that management had contacted both the city and property owners to help clear out the area.

“Please be vigilant, and if you notice any serious issues in that area, please contact (the Gilroy Police Department) or the appropriate government agency,” the newsletter said. “Afterwards (sic), please notify Securitas so that all issues are logged.”

Council members last week expressed concern about the situation, although attitudes toward the Bamboo Village encampment varied.

“You can define your community by how you treat the less fortunate,” Councilman Dion Bracco said. “I’ve met with people about the homeless issues. It’s like, man, what do you do? It used to be that some people were mentally ill, some were addicted to drugs and some chose to be homeless. Nowadays, it’s different. There’s families that are homeless.”

Mayor Al Pinheiro agreed that homelessness is a problem, but made it clear that he opposed encampments on private property. He wondered whether services such as the Armory were drawing more homeless people into Gilroy.

“I am absolutely against allowing any encampments up and down that area,” Pinheiro said of Bamboo Village. “It’s not fair to the owners of the property, and it’s not fair to the people around there.”

City officials also will soon consider an ordinance banning panhandling, as the practice is on the rise.

Even Joseph Ainsworth noted that panhandling in Gilroy’s shopping areas east of U.S. 101 were starting to get out of hand.

“It’s starting to look like Haight Street out there,” he said.

Ultimately, Pinheiro said resolving homelessness problems in Gilroy will require collaboration.

“It behooves us all to help the homeless, but we can’t just allow them to randomly stay in areas,” Pinheiro said. “The bottom line is we all have to work together to take care of it.”

Below: Watch a video about St. Joseph’s Family Center’s collaboration with San Jose’s Second Harvest Food Bank.

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