Government / Politics

Despite Opposition, Supes Vote to Buy Building for Homeless Shelter

County supervisors vote 4-1 to pass resolution to purchase San Felipe Road building for homeless shelter

While paid protestors—who said they did not know what they were protesting—picketed outside the county administration building, the real fight was going on inside over a resolution to purchase the property at 1161 San Felipe Rd. for a homeless shelter. By the end of the sometimes heated discussion, county supervisors voted 4-1 this week to pass the resolution. 

The devil being in the details, the resolution included “approving the executed real property purchase agreement and accepting the grant deed and approving the loan of $1 million from the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA),” which will, if all things go as hoped for, be reimbursed by the $1.5 million state grant, which is not exactly money in the bank yet, as some who opposed the resolution pointed out.

Brent Barnes, director of the Resource Management Agency, and Jim Rydingsword, director of HHSA, described the framework of the project and legal justification for its location. Barnes said Phase 1 of the proposed program would include renovating 5,000 square feet of the structure for emergency shelter and services. Simultaneously, county staff would research long-term operational funding sources as part of phase two; there would be a need to coordinate services with HHSA, which is located nearby; and an RFP would be put out to hire a qualified operator. Also part of Phase 2 would involve renovating the remaining 7,000 square feet of the building to be used for employment and training services.

“That would help us to give some specific training to help them get back into employment,” Rydingsword said. “What this does, at least for us, it sets in motion an overall development of low-income housing in San Benito County. We’ve had discussions with contractors and developers who work in the county who have shown interest in moving forward with us—if and when we’re ready to move in that direction.”

In what could be viewed as a preemptive move to head off some of the objections that had already been voiced earlier before the closed session, Rydingsword said that HHSA has more than 8,500 visits from low-income people, including 750 homeless, every month. He said the agency is doing the best it can to serve the homeless at that location, but said it makes sense as the agency moves to a more coordinated program to use the building at 1161 San Felipe Rd. And he explained that there is already public transportation from HHSA into town; something opponents claim does not exist.

“For over 25 years, San Benito County has been providing coordinated services for low income people at the current site with no significant issues,” he said. “For the last decade, the Homeless Coalition and then HHSA has been providing winter shelter homeless services at the migrant farm center with security and staffing. And those have been successful programs.”

Barnes covered the planning and environmental review portion of the presentation, pointing out that the property is exempt from CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) under the class 32 in-fill development exemption that will allow the project to proceed without further review. To qualify for the Class 32 exemption, the project was determined to have met several requirements: it is consistent with the city of Hollister's general plan in providing housing for people with special or transitional needs. He said it also qualifies under child-care center and caretaker facilities usage in an industrial zone.

“The zoning code also responds to SB2, which is the state’s homeless shelters and transitional house state law; and the county has a provision for this, as well,” Barnes said. He explained that part of the provision states that, “Those kinds of uses can go anywhere in the city, residential, public facilities, industrial, mixed-use or commercial districts, with a conditional-use permit.”

Barnes went on to say that the facility must be at least 1,000 feet from another similar center; 500 feet from a public park, a public or private K-12 school. And it has to be within 1,000 feet of a bus route. It must also be operated by a responsible agency, which he said the board of supervisors will select. Also, there must be an on-site supervisor, plus an additional supervisor for each occupant beyond 20 occupants. He said all of these requirements are included in the plan that Rydingsword is developing.

Following the county presenting its justifications for the site, the meeting was open to public comments. Business owner James Dassel  of Dassel's Petroleum on San Felipe Road, objected to the site as a homeless shelter primarily as a member of the Hollister Concerned Citizens (HCC) group. Dassel said that through 18 months of discussions with city and county officials about potential sites, he didn’t see much transparency.

“I think you have a tough decision before you that’s long overdue,” Dassel said to the board. “I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who is against trying to find a solution to the homeless situation. But there are a lot of reasons I feel this is not the best location. There will be an encroachment on commerce, industry, the Go Kids School, production agriculture and agribusiness.”

He said the capital investment and retrofitting costs for the building are excessive. He disagreed with Barnes and said he didn’t believe there is a real long-term plan for the operation of the facility. He also challenged the idea of a 24/7 operation, questioning what the occupants would do during daylight hours.

“As a taxpayer, I think this board needs to be conscious of the original federal money that was granted San Benito County and Hollister to put this together, and I would appreciate your well thought out ability to spend the taxpayers’ dollars wisely, and get the biggest bang for the buck,” Dassel said.

In making a plea in support of the shelter, Missy Blair, who described herself as a “guest of the warming shelter,” said it has impacted her life by providing job search services and classes on writing resumes. She said she believes a shelter located near HHSA and all of its services would be a big benefit for people who do not have transportation.

“It would be a positive place for them. A place for them to look forward to, to have hope,” she said.

C. Matthew Didaleusky, an attorney representing Hollister Concerned Citizens, as well as TTM Ventures, LLC, in an effort to stop the purchase of the property — and if that were to fail perhaps take the matter to litigation — complained that it would have been preferable to have seen the lengthy presentation from Barnes and Rydingsword much earlier in the process, rather than at the last moment, just before the board was to vote on it.

“I contacted the county counsel to see if they wanted to have a meeting to discuss these very issues weeks ago and the answer was ‘no,’” he said. “So, we’re left here with three minutes (to make comments) when, in fact, I think it would behoove the board to have a detailed discussion with those people who are in opposition to this project for both legal and practical reasons.”

Didaleusky went on to say that everyone agrees that a homeless shelter would be an important use for the building, but said the question was the location. He said the city’s general plan did not call for a shelter at that location. He gave reasons that seemed to imply that the services included in Rydingsword’s presentation did not exist.

“This particular building is placed where it doesn’t belong,” he said. “It doesn’t serve the homeless needs there. The building would require significant remediation. Almost certainly it’s going to have serious environmental problems and I’m not sure what kind of OSHA problems, but in terms of getting an occupancy certificate, as opposed to using it for industrial purposes, I think you’re going to have a very difficult time going through that process.”

He also said the price being paid for the building was “way out of proportion and several hundred thousand dollars more than it’s worth.” He said it was clear to him why other buildings, including “an old hotel and a jail” that had appropriate facilities were not being considered.

“These buildings represent better investments at a more reasonable cost that would serve the needs of the homeless better,” Didaleusky said. “This is a pie-in-the-sky dream that somehow funding is going to come along during phase two and there’s going to be an opportunity to offer services to these people.”

Ken Harris, the owner of TTM, used a slide from Rydingsword’s presentation to show a large building behind the building where the proposed homeless shelter would be located. He said he had just purchased the larger building. He said he had been criticized via e-mail for not supporting the homeless. He said he does, in fact, support the homeless and that nobody in the community knows anything about him or his business.

Harris said that he has been in business for 13 years and after extensive due diligence decided to locate his business in the county. He said he went to the city and county and there were no disclosures about a homeless shelter.

“My business is run under the FDA, USDA and Homeland Security and this is a very serious situation where there is a great possibility, after talking to my inspectors, that they’re not going to let my occupy (the building) and do my place of business here,” he said. “After spending a huge amount of money and if they don’t let me open up, who’s going to pay for that?”

He said he purchased the building and has been working on establishing his business in Hollister for the past year and there was never a mention of a homeless shelter.

“I went everywhere to make sure I’m doing everything by the law,” he said. “And then I find out that sometimes you guys (supervisors) can do what you want. This is my life. This is my business. I’m not against any homeless site. What I am against when they say I can’t do my business? Should I go Texas? Should I leave the state of California? There’s got be a better solution.”

Supervisor Anthony Botelho agreed that what Harris had said was powerful, but he wanted to know if Harris had done his due diligence and knew he was locating his business next to HHSA, where the homeless came for social services, what.

“What I expected is what is zoned there,” Harris responded. “Your services are Monday through Friday. That is no problem. I didn’t expect a living facility.”

Christine Kemp, an attorney with the same law firm as Didaleusky, said she had met with city and county staffs 18 months ago along with a number of other residents and business owners who expressed concern about a homeless shelter on San Felipe Road. She said the county moved on to other locations and those who attended the meeting felt that the San Felipe Road site was no longer being considered.

“No one picked up a phone and called any of the people who were at that meeting and it was only by happenstance that we found out about the day before that you were going to consider this and you were already in contract to purchase this building,” she said. “The transparency, the concern and the outrage of the community is well-placed.”

Kemp said there had been no opportunity for opponents of the project to be involved in further discussions. She said she disagreed that the building could be exempt from CEQA regulations and that the proximity to Go Kids Inc. cannot be ignored.

“There’s no plan for a full-time facility,” she said. “It’s locked at 8 o’clock in the morning. People are out on the street.’

She said that all of the letters and correspondence that she had submitted to the board needed to be incorporated into the public record for the board’s decision. She said that the county’s general plan, which had been adopted earlier in the meeting, stated that there are more than 200 acres suitable for housing sites.

“The city’s general plan does not designate this (San Felipe Road site) as one of them,” Kemp said. “It is not consistent with the general plan. There’s been no notice to work with the neighbors, and it is ill thought-out, unplanned, underfunded, and costly experiment to the detriment of the neighbors and folks who have purchased their property relying on industrial zoning and industrial use.”

Maria Velazquez, the site supervisor of the San Benito County Child Development Center, spoke on behalf of Go Kids, which she said is located 480 feet away from the proposed homeless shelter. She said Go Kids currently serves 48 families and that the nonprofit is struggling financially.

“We fear for the teachers and the clients who come early in the morning to drop off their kids and pick them up late in the afternoon,” she said. “We’re fearful of any confrontation they may have with the homeless. I want to thank you for providing services for the homeless, but do also encourage you to think about the children and their families who are going to be concerned about safety issues.”

Barnes wanted to address the issue of public schools. After reading from the zoning code the definition of a public school, he said Go Kids does not meet the criteria. Rydingsword came back to the podium to address conditions of funding of phase two of the project, which would include staffing, security and other operational needs.

“We are convinced those conditions can be met, and if the board takes positive action today, then we’ll start tomorrow going through those conditions with the state, and we expect that approval to come back to the county within a few weeks,” Barnes said. “I also want to address what someone called a $1 million loan. There are some options for the board. One, is we can use available funding to move forward with this and then get reimbursed. It will take some weeks for that to happen. The second option is to not use available funding and request from the state that we get an advance on the funds before we start to work. That will delay things. We are ready to move forward with this and we await the board’s decision.”

The decision came fast, with four votes to pass the resolution and one, Supervisor Robert Rivas, voting against it, citing being possible litigation. Supervisor Margie Barrios summed up the majority votes with the comment, “I don’t have any difficulty making a decision for our homeless community. What I have difficulty with is sitting up here and doing nothing. We’re at a point where we have to do something. We don’t do this lightly. We’ve given it a lot of thought for years. It’s time to address the issue and we need to do something.”

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected].