The stabbing of a Gilroy restaurant owner by a homeless man in early January ignited new fears and frustrations among local business owners. Many small business owners feel they are bearing the brunt of what they see as a growing homeless population.
Some of those concerns were vented two weeks after the stabbing, at a special study session of the city council. Others were raised in interviews in the weeks that followed, with no easy answer or solutions in sight.
“They cut my fence out back, and they break into cars to steal change from the ashtrays,” said John Murphy, owner of Johnny’s Custom Auto Body on Welburn Avenue.”I’ve had the front windows of my building broken, which cost me about $700 to fix. And not once have any of them asked for a job. They may not be able to paint a car, but they could offer to sweep up for some extra money.”
Murphy’s business, which he started in 1990, is near Pinnochio’s Pizza, scene of the January attack. Last Tuesday when he and his partner Alyssa Lehr arrived at work, they discovered a rock had been thrown through the front window, breaking not only the window but damaging a 62 Corvette. The damage, which prompted Murphy and Lehr to install motion sensor lights and additional security cameras, cost them over $5,000.
“By the time we’re done paying the deductible and the increased rates for insurance they’ll demand from us, it will cost us more to turn it in to our insurance company,” Murphy said.
In his estimation, the homeless population of Gilroy has steadily increased over the past seven years. To Murphy, the stabbing of Sal Oliveri, who is recovering, has elevated what has been a costly nuisance for him into a matter of safety for his wife, son and eight employees.
“I’m a lot more worried about my wife, now that that happened just down the street—it could have easily happened to us,” Murphy said. “I’m a pretty big guy, and I can take care of myself. I’m not the kind of guy that will back down. I’ve trained my wife and son to be careful and lock the gates when they’re here alone.”
Solutions to homelessness have eluded U.S. cities since before the Great Depression and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. While President Johnson’s plan was foiled in part by the Vietnam War, homeless people in localities such as Gilroy depend more on the charity of local organizations such as the Compassion Center than government programs.
Many Gilroy business owners such as Murphy believe that services are offered to homeless people actually attract more homeless people to Gilroy.
“We heard many different options at City Hall that night, and I don’t disagree with what the Compassion Center does; but, I don’t think they’re comprehending the impact it has on other people,” Murphy said.
Behind ExtraSpace Storage the West Branch Llagas Creek, a regular homeless encampment has been in place for several years. The campers there, who say they have nowhere else to go, have been served with a red tag, which warned them to vacate the area by Friday.
For ExtraSpace Storage Store Manager Mike Lopez, some of the residents behind his business have proven to be nuisances over the years.
“One day a guy came by with a machete and was banging on the door,” Lopez said. “He came back later that night and did the same thing. My family and I live above the office here.”
One business owner, who declined to be named in part of the fear of reprisal, said he has been attacked at his business twice.
“This goes way beyond a news article,” he said. “Yes, I was attacked twice, and I’ve had things stolen from my business. With the drugs and the theft, the city needs to do something about this immediately.”
The experience of many Gilroy business owners is not shared with some business owners in Morgan Hill. Renee Carrillo, owner of GVA Cafe Bistro Music Catering in downtown Morgan Hill has had little negative interaction with homeless people in her business.
“I haven’t had any trouble here,” said Renee Carrillo, owner of GVA Café Bistro. “We really don’t have much of an issue in downtown Morgan Hill, and I’m not sure why.”
Recent statistics released by the Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey Report reported a 13 percent increase in “unsheltered homeless,” representing a 379 percent increase from 2015 when the homeless county went from 81 to 388 in 2017.
“We have a gentleman who comes in here sometimes, but he doesn’t cause any issues,” Carrillo said. “He’s not fully aware socially, and I had a conversation with him about not bothering customers, but he understood, and he doesn’t bother anybody. He comes to the Bible study we have on Tuesdays.”
Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing said in July that the number of homeless might be inflated.
“If you were to ask any of our officers, they would tell you they have seen the increase in our homeless population in Morgan Hill,” Swing said. “Would they tell you it went up by 379 percent? That seems like a high percentage to me.”