Compassion Center to appeal to county task force

Loredo Paster, 55, reacts after all his belongings were destroyed in a fire when he left a candle burning at a homeless encampment along the railroad tracks behind the Gilroy Dispatch newspaper. Paster, who has been battling bladder cancer for many years,

GILROY—After being rebuffed by park officials, advocates for people without homes will turn to a new county task force for help in opening campgrounds to Gilroy’s homeless.
The Gilroy Compassion Center says it will appeal to Santa Clara County’s newly formed homelessness task force for approval of a plan aimed at opening county camping grounds to temporarily shelter homeless people.
The center is a nonprofit that provides daytime outreach services in Gilroy to the homeless.
Its request for a waiver of from county rules to allow some homeless people to stay in campgrounds for up to 90 days was rejected by parks officials last month, prompting center leaders to turn to the task force for help at its June 12 meeting.
Gilroy’s National Guard Armory is open four months a year and is the city’s only overnight shelter; hundreds of homeless on any given night are in need of a “practical solution” for shelter that doesn’t involve illegally camping on public or private property, said Joseph Davis, a center volunteer.
Many local homeless live in ragged, illegal encampments, often out-of-sight along waterways, inside forested areas or beneath bridges or overpasses, all illegal.
To halt that practice, the center will seek task force support to extend the length of time campers can stay in parks, with fees waived.
Without a stable place to stay, restrooms and running water, it’s hard for homeless people to get back on their feet, according to Compassion Center Board Chair Jan Bernstein Chargin.
“In an illegal encampment or an emergency shelter, you don’t know from one day to the next whether you’ll have a place to sleep,” Davis added. “You don’t know if you’ll be caught by police in an illegal encampment and you don’t have a guarantee you’ll have a spot the next night in an emergency shelter.”
Before going to the task force, center staff polled other nonprofits and citizens to gauge support for the campgrounds proposal.
Ninety-seven percent of respondents want an end to the cat-and-mouse game of finding and razing illegal encampments and ejecting the homeless, all done at public expense.
And 75 percent support housing the homeless for up to six months in county campgrounds for free. (Readers can weigh in themselves via an online poll attached to this article, or by clicking here)
“The results tell me most of the citizens of Santa Clara County think a whole lot like we do; that we need a practical solution,’ said Davis, who is behind the proposal.
“People are tired of seeing illegal encampments scattered all over the county; they’re tired of reading articles in the newspaper of people being cleaned out of these encampments, which leaves a giant mess behind.”
“I think people realize (using parks) is probably the most practical solution out there because we don’t have a permanent solution,” he said.
Current county rules allow camping stays of 14 days at a time. Under the center’s proposal, only a select number of homeless families and individuals registered with other service organizations would be allowed to use the camping program.
In the original rejection letter, the county parks director cited an unspecified ordinance limit campground use to 14 days within a 45-day period.
Davis told the Dispatch that his research has not found such rules.
What he did find, however, stated ‘county parks held within the trust are for the use and the enjoyment of the public (and that) the primary use of park facilities are for activities of a recreational or community service nature.’
“That is exactly what we’re proposing, a community service,” Davis said.
Encampments and emergency shelters are not permanent solutions to homelessness, county officials said.
The center agrees, according to Davis.
“(In those situations) they won’t have the stability to even apply for a job, to go to school, because they’re just preoccupied with the question of where they’re going to stay tonight,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is totally different from an encampment or emergency shelter.”
Among details of its proposal, the center would add an on-site camp manager and be selective in picking participants for extended stays. People with drug or alcohol problems and sex offenders would be ineligible.
For a year, the Compassion Center tried the new approach under existing county rules and found the program helped participants, allowing them to get or maintain jobs and enroll children in school.
A mother of two said that while in the program they must move from campsite to campsite every seven days, staying in a legal and safe place—even for a week at a time, has made a difference for her family.
“We feel a lot safer knowing we aren’t in bushes staying awake worried if we are going to make it safe to the next morning. We get to shower and wash our laundry without being told to leave because we are loitering,” said the woman who’s in a Morgan Hill campground.
Having a place to stay for 60 to 90 days would allow her to secure a job and have some stability, she said. “We would like a place to call home by Christmas,” she added.
Other states, such as Washington and Oregon, have had similar success with campground programs, Davis said.
In Washington’s King County, nonprofit groups such as churches allow villages or campgrounds on their property where homeless can stay for 90 days at a time, Davis said.
“King County has legalized that,” he added.
Recently, King County officials extended the program to allow camping over the next decade as they work on a more permanent plan on ending homelessness, he said.
“It’s obviously worked for them. But you do have to have rules, and that’s the key; you don’t want to allow anybody who is disruptive because it just doesn’t work,” Davis said.
Meanwhile, as the Compassion Center prepares for its presentation to the county’s task force, efforts continue to raise money for a year-round, indoor shelter Bernstein Chargin said.
“(Our) goal of providing a 40 to 60-bed, year-round shelter will address an important part of the need for South County, but there will still be a need for additional creative solutions, such as legal camping, that could be a better option for some,” she added. “It isn’t a question of either/or; both alternatives could play a role in stabilizing people so they can access permanent housing.”
• Overnight shelter with 120 beds December through March at Gilroy’s National Guard Armory: $400,000.
• Temporarily shelter for 120 people at county campgrounds: $13,950 in lost camping fees at $30 per campsite.
Source: Gilroy Compassion Center
“People are tired of seeing illegal encampments scattered all over the county; they’re tired of reading articles in the newspaper of people being cleaned out of these encampments, which leaves a giant mess behind…This is probably the most practical solution out there because we don’t have a permanent solution out there—and won’t within the next few years.”
-Joseph Davis, Gilroy Compassion Center volunteer
The Gilroy Compassion Center created an online poll to see how South County’s residents feel about their proposal to use a select few campgrounds as the site to temporarily shelter homeless until they get back on their feet and while they seek services through local organizations. To weigh in, click here.