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Homeless advocates are calling on Gilroy to declare a public emergency in hopes of making state aid available for year-round shelters for people without homes.

Jan Bernstein-Chargin, chair of the board of the Gilroy-based Compassion Center, said the emergency declaration could be an immediate step the city could take to ease situations for Gilroy’s growing homeless population.

The Compassion Center, St. Joseph’s Family Services, Destination Home and the South County Homeless Task Force joined forces this month to conduct a workshop in Gilroy aimed at local officials, to dispel a number  of myths about homeless people and to focus on creating permanent year-round housing as the key step to easing living conditions for a growing homeless population.

City council members and staff joined citizens from Gilroy and Morgan Hill at the May 7 session.

In an interview after the workshop, Bernstein-Chargin praised Morgan Hill for taking two specific steps to ease the homeless crisis, which Gilroy has not taken: designating a safe and legal place for families living in RVs or other vehicles, and adopting “inclusionary zoning” policies that ensure that low-income affordable housing be included in all housing development plans.

She also said city and county officials and Valley Water should designate small sections of public parks and other publicly owned land as sites with sanitary facilities for year-round campgrounds for people without permanent shelter.

“Winter is over; close the Armory,”

When winter ends and the armory closes, she said, it “pushes everyone out to Uvas Creek,but they’re not allowed to stay there. At this point, there is now no legal place. Tonight, everybody is homeless, and everyone is a criminal, because everybody is sleeping in some place they are not allowed to be. Your first day homeless? You’re a criminal by morning.

“These are our children, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters who need help, and we’re not providing it for them.

“It seems that every couple of years we wind up having the same conversation,” Bernstein-Chargin added. “We have to do something differently, because what we have been doing has not been breaking through this lack of understanding. We have to think differently, we have to think about the system.”

She said public services, especially for health and mental health needs, are lacking in South County. “We have no way to get help for many people. We have no emergency psychiatric care in the South County.”

“We need to bring more services to South County,” she said. “If we have somebody in need who walks into the Compassion Center, we can’t do direct referral to local mental health. We need a team that is located in South County.”

“Some people say the problem isn’t homelessness; it’s mental health, or it’s drugs,”said Bernstein-Chargin. “The problem is homelessness, because in order to address your mental health, you have to have a place to live, a place to sleep. In order to address a substance abuse problem, you have to have a place to be, a safe place. While you are in a state of crisis, you are not going to be able to solve any long-term problem.”

She said Gilroy’s hard-line approach to homeless encampments or families in RVs or vehicles “accomplishes nothing.”

Morgan Hill and Gilroy “are taking very different approaches,” she said. “Morgan Hill has had a very progressive housing policy.

“This hard-line approach that Gilroy is taking hasn’t reduced homelessness at all,” she said. “People in Gilroy stay homeless longer. And one of the reasons is that we don’t have year-round shelter here.”

People stop by the Compassion Center and ask where are they allowed to sleep in Gilroy, she said, “and the ugly answer is no place—you are not allowed to sleep.

“Just telling people you are not allowed to exist, it just doesn’t work.”

Bernstein-Chargin said there will be more workshops and public information sessions this summer.

“We need to build a housing-ready community and housing for people with low incomes,” she said.

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