Helping hand for homeless

Volunteer Desiree Minjares speaks with Sarah Vest for a Housing

Standing on the perimeter of a sprawling area bustling with a
buffet line, dining tables and stations manned by an army of
volunteers, St. Joseph’s worker Marty Estrada observed a variance
from the last Project Homeless Connect held December 2010.
Standing on the perimeter of a sprawling area bustling with a buffet line, dining tables and stations manned by an army of volunteers, St. Joseph’s worker Marty Estrada observed a variance from the last Project Homeless Connect held December 2010.

“The trend we’re seeing is a lot more intact families with children,” he said, taking into account entire families – versus single individuals – who showed up Wednesday for a free meal, services and outreach at the Gilroy Compassion Center at 8425 Monterey Road.

Like Armando Villarreal Junior, for example, who enjoyed lunch with his son, his girlfriend Elizabeth and relative Liz Vallez at one of the many tables set up inside the spacious warehouse.

“It’s more orchestrated this time. It’s set up really good,” said Villarreal, who has attended previous Project Homeless Connect events.

The Gilroy native who was recently laid off from his job at Milias Restaurant says the bus tokens, groceries and toiletries he and his family received is an appreciated leg up. Villarreal also received a voucher that will allow him to obtain an ID from the DMV free of charge – a huge help, Villarreal said, since he doesn’t have one – or the extra cash to cover the fee.

Stopping to chat between visits with various booth representatives, Jan Bernstein-Chargin, one of the event’s primary coordinators who estimates roughly 200 people came out of the woodwork to receive assistance, said “people were getting here yesterday.”

When Project Homeless Connect kicked off at 10 a.m. the next morning, an extensive line of expectant visitors had already formed down the block of Welburn Avenue more than an hour earlier, she recalled.

“It answers the question, ‘Do we have a need for homeless services in Gilroy?'” she said. “The answer is yes.”

Wednesday marked the first official gathering hosted on site at the Gilroy Compassion Center, a hoped-for year-round homeless shelter that is a grassroots vision advocates are working to solidify into reality.

Right now, the structure “is the home of the organization, and can only offer special events,” Bernstein explained. “It’s not a fully developed shelter with services.”

The Compassion Center will ideally mimic Project Homeless Connect, in that it would offer a centralized resource office called a One-Stop Center staffed with case managers and representatives from various social agencies. Temporary sleeping and showering facilities would also be set up in the industrial structure, which is in need of renovations and external upgrades.

Jim Currier, the building’s owner, has offered rent-free use for five years until he and his wife retire. For the owner of Flowstar, Inc., a Gilroy company that creates modular cleanrooms, it’s a practical matter of seeing a need and having the means to help. Currier was also present yesterday, setting up giant fans in corners to help combat warm temperatures.

Of the 42,500-square-foot industrial structure at 8425 Monterey St., Currier says he has 15,000 to 20,000-square-feet of superfluous space. This is where volunteers are hoping to establish the Compassion Center, which would replace the current shelter in the city. Gilroy has been using the armory building at 8490 Wren Avenue for a seasonal shelter since 1987, a facility Councilman Dion Bracco once candidly pointed out is less than sub-par..

Mayor Al Pinheiro, Police Chief Denise Turner, Councilman Bracco and Mike Wasserman, Santa Clara County’s District 1 supervisor, were among community members present. Project Homeless Connect is a nonprofit based in San Francisco, with a local chapter in San Jose assisting nearby cities to organize conventionlike gatherings of representatives from various service agencies.

Folks in need of assistance are able to peruse stations offering services such as haircuts, housing, continued education, employment, mental health, Social Security and youth outreach. Mobile medical units, such as the one from Gardner Family Healthcare, are also usually on hand, while essential items including clothing, groceries, toiletries and a free meal are distributed. The volunteer turnout Wednesday – not including service agency exhibitors – included roughly 30 people and ranged from Salvation Army workers, to local talent like acoustic guitar player Tim Moon, to Jose Rodriguez – a masseuse who set up shop in the parking lot to give complimentary massages.

“The way the economy is, any of us could end up like this,” speculated Richard Diaz, who, along with fellow Eternal Destiny band member John Work, plays at the Gilroy First Baptist Church and various community events.

Diaz doesn’t think too many people don’t know about the Compassion Center yet, although guests continued to trickle in well after noon.

“Some of us, including myself, went out to places where we thought we could find people and personally handed out fliers,” said Bernstein. Other volunteers distributed fliers to various service providers, she said.

Between the Salvation Army and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, volunteer Diana Dufur said 50 whole chickens, 170 burger patties and 200 hot dogs were donated, not to mention a bounty of desserts, side dishes and beverages. One anonymous group provided 40 cases of toiletries, Bernstein said.

Among those aided was 25-year-old Joseph Uvalles, a young man from San Jose who found himself living from house to house after being incarcerated for three years. He’s currently staying in a hospital with his 29-year-old pregnant girlfriend, who is sick and bed-ridden. The baby is due in November, he said, but could be born prematurely any day due to complications from his girlfriend’s illness.

Like Villarreal, Uvalles said the food stamps are a blessing, so he can bring fresh produce to his girlfriend.

“I only have part-time work,” he explained. “And it’s barely enough to pay the bills.”

A new element coupled with Wednesday’s gathering included a large-scale survey facilitated by volunteers from Housing 1000, a local campaign under the national 100,000 Homes Campaign that conducted interviews to add information to a database called the Housing 1000 Registry. This system will be used to identify the most vulnerable among the homeless population – such as those who have been homeless the longest and those with the most severe medical complications – which will enable such individuals to be prioritized for permanent housing.

By 1 p.m., volunteer Rebecca Garcia said 80 people had registered that day, joining 900 who have already been cataloged in the database for South County.

As for the Gilroy Compassion Center’s progress towards establishing itself as a permanent, year-round shelter, Bernstein-Chargin says project leaders have formed a board of volunteers, opened an account with the Gilroy Foundation, secured a P.O. Box, set up a Facebook page and “cause,” filed articles of incorporation with the State of California and set up an official website.

For now, Bernstein says the biggest hurdle facing the Compassion Center’s board of volunteers is money.

The major question is just what it will cost to keep the nonprofit going, she said, “and if we can pull it together to make it happen.”

Get involved

– Donate to the Gilroy Compassion Center through the Gilroy Foundation by visiting or by calling (408) 842-3727

– To get involved with the Compassion Center, email [email protected], visit their website at or visit the Gilroy Compassion Center’s Facebook page.

Leave your comments