“Nobody wants to be homeless,” shouted Rachel Kogan, a 17-year old senior at Christopher High School in response to Gilroy businessman John Webster, who boiled over in frustration over the negative impacts Gilroy’s homeless population puts on his business.
“They cut through my fence to steal $20 worth recyclables and it cost me $500 to fix the damage,” Webster said.
Wednesday night a packed crowd packed city hall to discuss Gilroy’s homeless population. Vicki Oliveri, recounted the traumatic attack suffered upon her husband Sal Oliveri who was viciously stabbed at his business, Pinocchio’s Pizza on Church Street. Daleen Pearse, Program Director of the Gilroy Compassion Center, who championed the progress already made along with the urgency to find the roots of homelessness itself in order to find a long-term solution. And then, there were Gilroyans, themselves homeless, who spoke on behalf of their lives and to prove the reality that they are indeed, human.
The Gilroy City Council sought answers, on crime in Gilroy, not exclusively homelessness, and Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee presented an uncomfortable reality in the eyes of the police department. Gilroy is growing and the police department is not growing enough to keep pace and due to changes in state law the basic potency of the state’s criminal justice laws has handcuffed law enforcement.
“There’s one individual the council knows—he’s been on probation 12 times, gangs, drugs, he’s not a nice guy,” Smithee said. “One year we arrested him 41 times—and not for low-level stuff. We arrest the same people over and over again and most days they’ll be back the next day or later that day.”
According to the Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, between 2015 and 2017 the homeless population in Gilroy has risen from 439 to 722. The Gilroy Police Department, in contrast, has grown from having 33 officers in 1997 to now having 38 officers today.
To help alleviate the strain on the police force, on Feb. 5 the city council will examine the possibility of expanding the overtime budget for the police department, from $50,000 to possibly up to $100,000 or more.
Representatives from the Gilroy Compassion Center, Pearse and Jan Bernstein Chargin spoke in favor of their work helping the area’s homeless make positive changes in their lives. They cautioned however, that long-term changes need to accompany short term solutions.
The mood of the audience, with more than 20 of them who spoke during the public commentary portion of the meeting, varied and seemed to be divided into partisanship—those who stressed law and order and those motivated by compassion or personal experience.
“Something must be done, we cannot fear to be on the street or in fear to run our business,” said Oliveri who recounted the traumatic and violent attack their family experienced when Sal Oliveri was stabbed while he at his business. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think of it. Why don’t we run background checks? Criminals do not deserve to be assisted in our city.”
According to data provided by the Compassion Center, 70 percent of Gilroy’s homeless population are Gilroyans. One, Minnie Nevarez, was born and raised in Gilroy and now, she is homeless.
“I just want to say that I’m from Gilroy and it’s hard, but I get through it by the compassion of others,” Nevarez said. ” I’m in the Almost Home Program which and it provides a tent, it’s safe and it’s clean. If it weren’t for that and the Compassion Center, this would not be possible. I’m going to take my HVAC test this Friday and it’s not just about a job, but it’s a career. We can’t do all of this alone.”