It has been more than two weeks since Travis Barrios started living in a car with his 9-month-old son, Jeremy, and Jeremy's mother, Hazel Diaz.
Diaz is employed, and Barrios takes care of the infant. The three look like any other family, but the rigors of life now include looking for a place to live.
According to advocates for the homeless in Gilroy, they are far from alone.
“There are so many people out there in this situation,” Barrios said.
Much work remains in the effort to open the Gilroy Compassion Center, the city’s first full-time homeless shelter, but “compassion” was a common sight on Wednesday as the future site hosted a one-stop help event for the homeless.
The donated warehouse at 8425 Monterey Rd. housed the quarterly event, “Project Homeless Connect,” drawing approximately 230 area residents and providing links to county services such as housing and medical care, said Jan Bernstein-Chargin, compassion center board president and advocate for the homeless.
Attendees were also asked to take part in the “Housing 1000 SV” survey, an effort to house the county’s 1,000 most at-risk homeless residents by 2013 and record the identity and needs of others.
“We’re hoping to do this [survey] on a quarterly basis,” said Marty Estrada, homeless outreach coordinator for .
While numbers from the most recent homeless census have yet to be released, authorities said Gilroy has the highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the county.
Strollers and children were a common sight at the event, and Estrada said he’s seen an increasing number of homeless families.
“They may not be on the street at night, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not homeless,” said Bernstein-Chargin, describing how many families are living in cars or in cramped conditions with others.
One family, Sylvia Garcia and Luis Gamez, have six kids and were living with Garcia’s parents until they died, more than two years ago. Since then, Garcia said, they have been homeless.
“Until I get stabilized, I can’t help my kids. That’s the hardest thing,” said Garcia.
Participants in the Housing 1000 SV survey interviewed attendees to assess their individual needs. Data included injuries, mental health, duration of homelessness and substance abuse history.
Unlike other cities, where surveyors went out in search of homeless residents, Gilroy’s rural setting made it more effective to question attendees as they arrived at the event.
“Part of the goal is letting people know that homelessness is an issue,” said Rebecca Garcia, a coordinator for Housing 1000.
The survey continued Thursday in Morgan Hill and San Martin, with constantly updated findings available on the project’s website. Following the survey, the group will identify and attempt to house those who have the greatest need.
Apart from the countywide survey, which itself is part of the national “100,000 Homes” campaign, volunteers were questioned to determine the potential impact of the proposed full-time shelter.
“I think this puts to rest the idea that there aren’t any homeless people in Gilroy,” said Bernstein-Chargin.
District Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who serves on the board of the county housing group, “Destination: Home,” brought several staff members to help volunteer at the event.
The supervisor said that a full-time shelter would actually end up costing less to taxpayers than leaving a person unhoused. Even with the winter-only National Guard Armory that provides overnight shelter in Gilroy, many people are still at risk during the day.
“Number one, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The armory is not a solution of any kind.”
Other attendees included Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner and Mayor Al Pinheiro.
Turner has served on the city’s Homeless Outreach Task Force since she started as the city’s police chief three years ago, and the creation of a full-time shelter and one-stop center has long been a goal, she said.
“We wanted to figure out what was the most compassionate way to do abatement,” she said. “After a while, we realized that we weren’t solving the problem—we were just moving people around.”
Between 15–20 percent of calls that patrol officers handle are related to the city’s homeless population, most of whom are known by name, she said.
“Jim Currier came along and said, ‘I have a building,’” she said, “Then it just took off like wildfire.”
Currier, who donated his warehouse to the shelter effort after an encounter with a freezing homeless man changed him forever, came to see the event, despite feeling extremely ill.
“It’s wonderful,” he said.
When asked if seeing the building come alive was validating, Currier stressed that his warehouse was only one option for housing the homeless in Gilroy.
“I had a building to donate, but I don’t care if it happens here,” said Currier. “We know from the response of the community that this is going to happen.”
"I'm looking forward to the day when we can offer people temporary shelter until they find permanent housing," Bernstein-Chargin said.
The coalition of groups who volunteered their time and donated food and other items included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, New Hope Church, the Salvation Army and St. Joseph’s Family Center, along with numerous volunteers connected to the compassion center and other agencies.