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A city-county partnership in the effort to combat local homelessness received a boost recently when San Benito County was awarded a $1.5 million Community Development Block Grant targeted to help construct a homeless facility.

“We (City & County) have been working hard on this for nearly a year and against all odds we won,” Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez posted on his Facebook page in announcing the grant. “In the next few weeks, we will be presenting the overall vision for our Homeless program that will make our community an example to follow throughout the State.”

In an interview with BenitoLink, Velazquez said the city-county partnership is essential to address the homeless issue locally.

“We both realize it’s both of our problems so let’s both work together on this,” he said. “That’s the first stage of what we’re trying to do.”

The grant is designated for a transitional shelter — similar to a dormitory facility — with a kitchen facility. Velazquez called it “kind of an emergency-type of setting for the homeless to come through.” City and county officials are expected to meet this month to further discuss ways to use the funding to help the homeless transition to permanent housing.

“This is the first step so we can plan those services we need for the homeless; especially for the winter months,” the mayor said, noting that two locations are being considered for a homeless shelter, with a San Felipe Road site rumored to be the early favorite with its proximity to county services and the local food bank.

“(Homelessness) is a much bigger problem than people realize it is,” Velazquez said. “We know we could build 50 units and they’d be filled up easily. That’s why we’re trying to dig deeper into it, trying to first take care of the chronically homeless.” 

Supervisor Margie Barrios has been working with Velasquez on the homeless issue, first through Intergovernmental Committee meetings that have brought together representatives of the cities of Hollister and San Juan Bautista with school and county officials.

“We were cautiously optimistic” about receiving the $1.5 million grant, Barrios said. “These grants are never a sure thing. I think we made a really great case. It’s really been a joint effort by a lot of people and agencies.”

Barrios said the funding means the community will have a “wonderful facility that’ll have a central location for services.”

“Not only will folks have a place to meet, but to receive meals and services and find jobs,” she said. “Even though we’ve had a lot of these services already, having a central place is key, rather than having them living under the bridge and not knowing these services were even available.”

As Velazquez noted, Barrios said upcoming meetings will include discussion of potential locations for a homeless facility and that there are property owners already interested in leasing land for such a site.

The mayor and the supervisor recently walked down to a homeless encampment along the San Benito River near Brigantino Park on Fourth Street and invited the people there to come to the park to fill out surveys to help local officials get a better grasp of their needs. Approximately 25 people filled out the survey and were provided lunch, and Barrios said another 15 surveys were filled out later.

“It’s really going to be good for this community to address something this serious and do something about it,” Barrios said. “We have had housing for (the homeless) but that’s only in the coldest months of the year at the farm labor camp” on Southside Road. “As soon as the date is up, however, they’re on the street again. These folks have serious issues and they need help.”

Asked whether any downtown Hollister sites would be considered for a homeless facility, Barrios said officials are looking for a place “big enough where we can expand. I’m not sure there’s such a location downtown that’ll meet those needs. I think out on San Felipe Road, in that direction, would be ideal, but nothing is set in stone yet.

The $1.5 million grant “certainly is not going to take us 100 percent of the way,” she said, adding that additional funding will be sought from other sources.