For more than eight months, volunteers each day have gone to a Monterey Street parking lot in Gilroy and filled a small white cabinet with canned goods and other packaged foods.
“Take What You Need, Leave What You Can” is written on the plexiglas doors of the two-foot-by-three-foot cabinet, which is quickly emptied each day by people in need.
This small gesture of charity—one of thousands that have popped up on urban landscapes across the country in the past year—was built and is filled by nearly 20 community volunteers.
For several tense days in the past week, the “Gilroy Blessing Box” faced the prospect of being closed for good by the city’s code enforcement office.
This week, the city rescinded its order and all is back to normal, at least for now.
The events leading up to this past week’s threat began last spring as soon as the “blessing box” appeared.
Inspired by a post on Facebook, Michelle Bozzo, Melanie Mikeska, and Jina Carranza built the cabinet and propped it against a building where Carranza’s business is located.
The women didn’t know it at the time, but the parking lot in the 7600 block of Monterey Street isn’t owned by Carranza’s landlord—who gave permission for the project—but by local developer Gary Walton.
Walton said he learned about the presence of the blessing box when he received a notice in May 2017 from the city that someone had complained about “the box” in his parking lot and that it might violate city codes. But the issue was not pursued by the city, and the blessing box—and its daily donations—became a fixture on Monterey Street.
Then in early January, Pinocchio’s pizza restaurant owner Sal Oliveri was stabbed by a homeless transient. Four days later, citizens and business owners and homeless advocates jammed a City Hall meeting, heightening concerns about problems of homeless people in the city.
Two weeks later, the city sent Walton another letter. This time it also said the city had received a complaint about the blessing box, and gave him three weeks to get rid of it.
While Walton, president of the Downtown Business Association, gave the blessing box women his permission to use the piece of the parking lot, he said he did not want to get in the middle of the dispute. He passed on the information to the blessing box folks.
Four days later, Melanie Mikaska said she was told on Jan. 26 that she had to remove the box, which is on private property, and warned not to challenge the code enforcement decision.
One problem: There doesn’t appear to be any city code or ordinance that would prevent blessing boxes in the city.
The blessing box women posted the shut-down notice on Facebook on the weekend, which unleashed a flood of message of support and outrage at the city.
The Dispatch sent an email on Jan. 29 to Mayor Roland Velasco, City Administrator Gabe Gonzales and Community Development Director Kristi Abrams inquiring about the decision to shut down the blessing box.
One hour later, Mikaska said he got a call that the code enforcement order had been rescinded.
Few of the Dispatch questions were answered by the city, such as the specifics of who made the decision to shut down the blessing box, and on what ordinance the decision was based.
Velasco said in an interview this week that a new complaint prompted the most recent action by city code enforcement officers.
He said that “after looking into it, the city administration has decided to rescind the violation notice, in consultation with the city attorney’s office.”
Velasco said the issue had not been discussed by any council members.
“The city administrator decided he wanted to do further analysis of how these types of boxes should be regulated, if at all—and what is the council’s desire,” said the mayor.