WIth winter kicking in and dangerously low temperatures Gilroy has been offering refuge to hundreds of cold and hungry people.
The National Guard Armory at 8940 Wren Avenue opened a week before its Nov. 30 scheduled starting date because of the bitter cold and those suffering without homes were happy.
“They really take care of you here,” said Andrew Lopez, 58, a former electrician and computer engineer at San Jose State University who has been unemployed and homeless for eight years. “We have hot food, hot coffee and a warm place to sleep. It’s getting way too cold to sleep outside.”
But that’s what Lopez has been doing, living in a campsite at Highway 280 and Meridian in San Jose, with a tent, a ground cloth and an old couch. That lifestyle could get him arrested in some places, even “liberal” Santa Cruz.
In contrast, the Gilroy Compassion Center has piloted a program for the homeless in which they can legally camp in public county parks. The program, called “A Safe, Legal Place to Sleep,” currently has 13 homeless individuals in it and provides participants with camping gear, transportation and food.
The Compassion Center serves over 700 people from its Monterey Road location. The charity, founded in 2011 and originally meant to be a homeless shelter, provides day services including food, clothing and living materials in addition to its camping program.
“This is just a temporary solution to camping illegally here in Gilroy and constantly being told you have to move on or having your stuff stolen,” lead volunteer Dee Pearse said. “We use Santa Clara county parks and try to rotate between three different campgrounds.”
Those three campgrounds—Coyote Lake County Park, Mount Madonna County Park and Uvas Canyon County Park—offer a maximum stay of 14 days per park, so the Compassion Center reserves campsites in a cycle between the three. Participants in the program live in tents and cook their own food using propane stoves.
Pearse, the Compassion Center’s only paid staff member, is one of four volunteers in charge of the program. Volunteers transport homeless participants between the campsite and the city, but for much of the time participants are left on their own, functioning as a team in collective duties like cooking and cleaning.
“I get along with people I didn’t think I would,” homeless participant Christopher Scott said. “I’ve gotten my ID back. I’m actually employable now and that’s a big thing for me.”
The Compassion Center encourages the individuals it serves to create goals for themselves. The Center believes employment is a large part of the solution to homelessness and the charity has attempted to make job searching as convenient and accessible as possible.
“We had a client in the job training program who was a recent parolee and we were able to help him go from the prison gate to that first job,” volunteer Ryan Shook said. “We were able to bridge that gap.”
Shook, a student at UC-Santa Cruz, first became involved with the center during a project for the university’s Everett Program. As part of his project, he helped establish an e-waste collection program, which generates income for the center from discarded electronics given by the community, and put a computer in the center for anyone looking to search online for employment or housing. Many of the center’s volunteers are formerly homeless.
“After being out there seven years … it was very hard to focus on a forward motion,” volunteer Diana Clinton said. “You’re constantly worried about getting another citation. With this camping program, a person is able to relax— no more of those stressful situations of having to be out of sight.”
In a further effort to provide housing for the homeless, the Center is in the final stages of building a “tiny home.” The home, being constructed in Los Banos, was partly funded by a $10,000 grant from the county, which is also looking for land on which the home can sit. It can accommodate one person and will have wheels for portability.
The home will be an interim solution to the larger problem of homelessness in Gilroy and South County. Last month, the Center provided services for 300 individuals.
“We’re seeing a lot more families this year than we have in the past,” said Pearse. “This last month we added five new families to the Compassion Center’s receiving services. Generally in the past it has only been one or two families per month.”
With the winter months growing nearer, the Center asks for socks, gloves, jackets and scarves. The Center is also seeking donations of firewood for its camping program.
For those who can get to it by 6 p.m. and are willing to leave at 6 a.m., the cold weather has filled the Gilroy National Guard Armory with 100 people a night, the week before its Nov. 30 formal opening. They sleep on a gym floor on pads and volunteers cook free meals. They can legally house 130 people there and the place fills up in the worst weather.
Lopez, the laid-off SJSU worker, said it’s been a lifesaver for him, during the past five years. Ironically, while he was working, he used to volunteer and donate at the center.
“People asked me why I do it,” he said. “I told them I liked helping people, and who knows, someday I might need it. Now I do.”
Lopez said he is looking for work, but jobs are scarce for electricians.
“At first I liked not having to work,” he said. “But then I lost my truck, my house and my girlfriend. It’s not a good thing to be out on the street. It’s dangerous. I can’t tell you how many times my things have been stolen, my bicycles, my tent.”
He spends two hours on a bus to get to Gilroy and is happy to have a shower and food, but what he really wants is work.
“Having a job makes all the difference. That way you get back on your feet. People start accepting you back in your life, your family. You have more self-worth. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing to have a job.”
Judith Ledesma has been volunteering at the Armory for 13 years and hates to see the way the homeless are thought of by some people.
“People are afraid of them,” she said. “I don’t know why. They are like you and me.”