As a church, GBC is well experienced in service delivery. For 100 years we have been serving our San Jose community and its needs. We have been active in the work for peace and human rights, and against racism and oppression. We have sided with the poor and their plight, offering them compassion and material resources.
In recent years, GBC has offered bus passes to the needy, a community meal every Sunday after worship, a welcoming attitude toward the homeless, free showers and laundry room service, and a winter emergency shelter for those who sleep on the streets.
The homeless people we are trying to serve are displaced people in Santa Clara County. They are working hard to make their situation better. A few years back, they organized themselves as a community around the church. They were committed to maintain our grounds in proper condition; they were respectful and deserved human dignity. They lived around our church for a few years. The persons were not the same all the time because they managed to move on to shelters or housing depending on the situation, but the camp has been steady. When the City of San Jose closed the jungle, an encampment of hundreds of homeless people, in December of 2014, all those displaced turned to roaming the streets of downtown. Little by little they made their way to GBC because they were not turned away. However, two years ago we realized that allowing them to sleep outside was not enough for winter conditions. So we made plans to allowing them inside for the winter.
The first winter we did this was 2015-16; we were not in compliance with the City authorities because they had waived permits for shelters at places of assembly only for 35 days and a maximum of 15 people. We were housing 30 people every night for three months. At the end of that period, the Interfaith Winter Collaborative, an organization we formed with some other 30 houses of worship in the County, approached the City and requested an extension of the waiver for the upcoming winter. They did extended to 90 days for a maximum of 30 people. In the winter of 2016-17, we exceeded this terms again by housing 50 people every night for a three-month period. We were able to continue this work thanks to a grant of $90,000 given to us by ABCUSA. In advance of this winter, we approached the City again and told them that homeless people are homeless year-round, and that we needed permission to house them for 365 days a year; they approved this petition also.
Having a winter shelter was not enough to appease our neighbors who were not happy having the houseless camping around the church. So, last year we decided to create a seven-month program for 12 people living in our church. The purpose of this program is to move them into transitional housing. To that effect, we incorporated mandatory classes on self-esteem, goal-setting, and empowerment, and implemented an individual coaching program. Members of our congregation received training to become coaches and help support the goals of our residents. All of them moved to either permanent or transitional housing by the end of 2017.
In the meantime, we discovered there were some 300 homeless students at SJSU. In partnership with Canterbury, an Episcopal College Ministry, we opened our doors to offer housing to students year-round. Also, in May of 2017, our church became Sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and refugees, having a dedicated, furnished room ready to receive a family anytime is necessary. We work on this in partnership with PACT and the First Unitarian Church of San Jose.
There are 7,000 homeless people in our County; only 1 in 7 can access a shelter bed in the city of San Jose. Our work is minimal, considering the enormity of the problem, but we are encouraged by the response of other communities of faith who are following our example. In the meantime, we are doing advocacy work at the City and County levels so the homeless will have permanent solutions to their housing needs.
On May 26, 2015, the Mercury News reported that now, for the first time, a staggering fiscal cost of homelessness has been calculated in Santa Clara County: $520 million annually. A new study, described as the most comprehensive look ever at the expense of homelessness on a community, has determined that more than $3 billion was spent over a six-year period in the county on services such as trips to the emergency rooms, jail stays and mental health care.
Many of our homeless people are intelligent, educated and resourceful. Patrick is in a wheel chair. He is 59, but looks much older. He was an architect, graduate from UC Berkeley with a Master’s degree. He had a stroke and several bad financial decisions, no family or support system. GBC is his home. Ruth is 86; she was a pharmacist assistant and a Navy wife. Her four adult children managed to ignore her need of housing and she lives at GBC. They will not be able to resist another winter outdoors.
Several service providers have closed their shower programs, including city programs, since the city’s closure of the Story Road encampment in December of 2014. Many people were concerned that the hundreds of people living in the large creek side community would filter into neighborhoods throughout Santa Clara County and that services like showers and laundry would be magnets for the houseless, and that is why most decided to discontinue these programs.
In fact, this fear has been realized. Our city parks, churches, business areas and other creeks have seen a huge increase of houseless people sleeping outdoors and congregating during the day. There is simply nowhere else to go.
We are well organized and effective in the delivery of service to our homeless population. We have a Homeless Task Force that meets monthly also to address problems or needs in that community.