Jim Rydingsword and Enrique Arreola update Hollister and the county on homeless shelter to open Dec. 1. Photo by John Chadwell

When Jim Rydingsword, director of the San Benito County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), stood before the Hollister City Council Nov. 6, he was there to give a presentation on the HOME Resource Center, or the homeless shelter, at 1161 San Felipe Road, that would be partially opening December 1. He also came to ask for $200,000 as the city’s share to run the facility.

By the end of the presentation, even though Mayor Ignacio Velazquez spoke glowingly of the joint effort between city and county to open the shelter, it wasn’t so clear if the city was ready to pony up $200,000, especially after Councilman Karson Klauer said it was late in the process to suddenly ask for such an amount.

At the beginning of the presentation, Rydingsword spoke almost fondly of the journey to open the shelter. He recalled coming into the same room almost four years ago for an intergovernmental meeting where he was asked to solve the homeless problem for Hollister and the county. He recalled how he and the mayor attended a homeless conference in Santa Barbara together.

Rydingsword said a ribbon cutting ceremony for the shelter would take place Nov. 21. He said the county had contracted with Community Homeless Solutions (CHS) to manage the year-round 12,500-square-foot shelter. He said the county’s Whole Person Care program will be housed in part of the building and is being paid for by a state grant that is intended to eventually transition homeless people into permanent housing. He said the county is applying for additional funding for eight transitional units within the building.

“People will come in, get shelter, get services, and get into housing,” he said. “We’re working with our low-income housing group, using some of the funding that came out of the legislature to begin in the next five or six years to build permanent housing for low-income people, so we can offer a service to people, so we can say ‘you don’t have to live on the streets of San Benito County.’”

Then he told the council he was asking for the $200,000 to match part of the county’s contribution. He said the county and federal government funds supports the Whole Person Care program. He said transitional housing will hopefully pay for itself because the county can charge rent for them.

Rydingsword handed off the presentation to Enrique Arreola, deputy director of HHSA, who explained that the first State Housing Development grant for $1.5 million was secured in 2014 to pay for a facility and construction costs. Then in 2016, the county received an additional $1.5 million, for a total of $3 million, which he said is allowing the county to accomplish what many other California counties cannot do.

Arreola said the 2017 homeless census report showed 527 homeless individuals in the county, which he said was a 15 percent reduction from 2015’s total of 651 people. He explained that through phase one of the shelter the county will provide meals, transportation, security for 50 people, 28 males and 22 females. In phase two, three additional staff members—program manager, social worker and office assistant—have been hired for the Whole Person Program. When phase two is completed, more staff will be brought on, he said.

“It will be a comprehensive service delivery to implement services in a holistic manner, doing assessments and working with other services,” he said. “Phase three will be the transitional shelter, which will be a two year maximum stay. So, we’re looking at shelter, services and permanent housing as the ultimate goal to reduce homelessness.”

He reminded the council that the county also operates a family winter shelter to serve 20 to 30 families. He said the homes, located at the migrant camp along Southside Road, will become available Dec. 1. He also said the county’s Helping Hands Program, with a budget of $237,000, helps 11 families by leasing units through property management companies or landlords. The program pays for rent and utilities. Using the CalWORKS Program, the county will pay up to six month’s rent for people in the program. The county also provides hotel and food vouchers to some individuals. An additional $20,000 grant can be used to provide work experience to homeless individuals who are “work ready” once the center is open.

In 2018, Arreola said the county will apply to the State Department of Finances for $2 million for transitional housing. He said the county continues to look for more low-income housing possibilities because inventory is low.

Councilwoman Mickie Luna wondered how the county determined the city should pay $200,000.  Rydingsword told her the county thought the city should pay for a third of the $650,000 budget for the shelter. She asked him if the budget was for 50 people and he confirmed that was the correct number. He told her that he would be going before the board of supervisors the next day to get approval to pay for the company that would be managing the shelter. She asked if there would be any community volunteers involved with the shelter. He said that was the hope. She also asked if the people staying at the migrant camp were from San Benito County. Arreola answered that was a requirement for the families, who could stay four months.

Councilman Jim Gillio asked Jim Avera, city manager, if the council approved the $200,000 where would it come from. Avera said at the time there were no special set-aside funds earmarked for the shelter and that it would come from the General Fund until other sources could be secured. Gillio asked if the city could afford to pay $200,000. Avera responded, “That’s a policy decision.” Gillio wondered if there were sufficient reserves and Avera said there were.

Rydingsword wanted to remind the council that the shelter was a partnership between the county and city, but that did not hold much sway with Klauer, who said he was “taken aback by the ask.” He said the process began over three years ago and this was the first time that anybody mentioned the city would be funding any part of the shelter. He said he was not comfortable being asked for $200,000 when the council had recently refused to give $156,000 to the library.

“We said ‘no, we’re not giving you a single dollar,’” he said. “If somebody was going to ask me how I want to spend $200,000, I have to look at all of the options to spend that money on. If we decide to spend 200 grand tonight, I’m going back and call Nora (Conte) and tell her we’ve got some money for the library now. It’s just surprising to me that three weeks before it’s supposed to open everybody’s trying to figure out how you’re going to pay to run it.”

He said should there be an eventual vote to approve the $200,000, he would vote against it. The mayor commented that the issue was not an action item at that time. He recounted how within a week or two after being elected, he was being blamed for the homeless situation. He remembered asking what is the plan to address homelessness in the city and being told there was no plan. He related the journey he and Rydingsword went on to come to the point where a shelter was about to open and said the average cost per homeless person, if there were no shelter, was between $50,000 and $75,000 when police, fire and hospital services were taken into consideration.

“I have a lot of people who tell me the homeless are not from Hollister, and somebody bussed them in,” he continued. “I remember bringing a county supervisor (Jaime De La Cruz) to the homeless shelter one evening so he could see the issue first hand. That night he ran into two homeless people that turned out to be fellow students of his in high school. He changed his mind about the homeless situation.”

Velazquez said it cannot be denied there is a homeless problem in the city.

“The issue is, do we deal with it or do we ignore it,” he said. “Every morning when I leave town about five in the morning, I look around to see if anyone is sleeping on the streets. I pull over and ask them ‘have you gone to the county to try to get some help yet?’ There’s nowhere to go. I try to get them some basic help, but until we have a full-time facility, we are going to continue to have a problem. I want everybody to know that by having a full-time facility it does not solve all of our problems, but it helps, and it’s a start.”

Time and again, he said he has seen a homeless person on the brink of success only to fail because they can’t find a place to shower or get ready for a job.

“It’s not for us to judge, but it is for us to help,” he said. “I want to give a lot of credit to the county for sticking with this, and to the city and everyone involved. To get here in such a short period of time is an amazing feat. A lot of communities are still trying to figure out what to do, and we did it in partnership. It is not free. It’s going to cost us money. But the cost of doing nothing is much more than $200,000.”

He said the $200,000 will have to go on a future agenda and he hopes the public will come out in support. Resident Char Andrews said she strongly agreed with both Klauer and Velazquez. She said what she had come away with between the two is that there is a desire to do something, but being a business person she does not want to go blindly into the situation and addressed Klauer directly.

“I would say to you, if the choice is library versus people, I say ‘people,’ and that’s what I would push for with my community and neighbors,” she said.

Marty Richman said he was in a bad spot because he supports the library and the shelter and that he sees a two separate issues. He said as a pessimist he doesn’t think the program will work to any great degree, but he also believes they have to do something, and if it doesn’t work, they have to be honest enough to admit it.

“We understand it’s a complicated problem,” he said. “It’s not just an economic problem. It’s not just a mental health problem. It’s everything and we’ve got to try something.”

Same Song, Different Verse as Rydingsword goes before supervisors

As he said he would do, Rydingsword came before the board of supervisors to ask them to approve the contract to operate the shelter and fund the management company, CHS, to the tune of $100,000. The difference from the $200,000 he had asked the city for the night before was the $100,000 needed to be paid in advance and then reconciled over the following 12 months. Predictably, this elicited a similar response to Karson Klauer’s comments.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho wanted to know if it was common practice in the homeless service industry. He commented that he prefers to pay for services after they have been performed. Rydingsword said a community-based organization can sometimes have cash-flow issues and need upfront money to get things started. Botelho also questioned the wisdom of having a one-year contract, rather than a longer one. Rydingsword answered that it was done in order to make sure CHS’s services were satisfactory and, if not, to have county personnel take over the management of the shelter. He admitted CHS was the only bidder so, having no plan B, as it were, they needed the option to be able to allow the county to take over, which was not the most desirable alternative. He added, though, that CHS was very experienced in running shelters and he was confident it would go as planned. If that fails, he said the county would have to put out another RFP in an attempt to find another company.

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz questioned if CHS has been operating successfully for more than 20 years, why it doesn’t have sufficient reserves. Rydingsword suggested it was because of the amount of work the company was already doing in Monterey County “it was a stretch for them and we’re happy they’re coming to work for us.” Ultimately, he said the contract would not cost any more by paying the company in advance and would only help get the shelter in operation.

During public comments, Elia Salinas wanted to know how much of the $100,000 would go to executive salaries and stated she was against paying in advance. She wondered if the county was not satisfied with CHS’s work, how difficult would it be to get the money back. She suggested paying the company a retainer rather than the entire amount. Marty Richman said he supports asking the city for $200,000 and hopes for the best. He said one comment that came up during the city council meeting (from Mickie Luna) was a concern if people using the facility are from the area. He maintained it doesn’t matter where homeless people come from.

“We have our share of homeless, and if they’re not from here they’re somewhere else, and we hope wherever they are, someone is taking care of them,” he reasoned. “If we happen to have a homeless person from Los Angeles and they’re stuck here, we need to take care of them.”

Pat Loe asked where the $600,000 was coming from and wondered how the homeless would be fed hot meals without a commercial kitchen in the facility.

“The other part of this is you’re talking about 50 people at $600,000 a year,” she said. “That’s a small percentage of the homeless people here. At $600,000, that’s a huge amount of money. I don’t think you have a choice because you’re in a position now where you have no choices and you’re three weeks away from opening up.”

She wondered where hundreds of thousands of dollars would come from if the grant money disappeared. She said the federal government is indicating that is what is going to happen, so there needs to be a backup plan to find more money.

Rydingsword said the $600,000 for the first year is coming from various sources and reminded the supervisors he had asked the city for $200,000, and the mayor was encouraging. He said funding “will happen, one way or another.” He said the kitchen will be part of phase two of the facility. Meanwhile, he said the county is looking for a contractor to provide food.

Supervisor Mark Medina wanted to approve the contract, except for the advance of $100,000. Barbara Thompson, county counsel, said they could amend the contract to pay whatever amount the board desired. Rydingsword said he would present whatever contract the board wanted to CHS, but wouldn’t be surprised if the company turned it down.

Supervisor Botelho said the $100,000 was a minimal part of the overall cost and that he was more concerned about the $200,000 from Hollister.

“I don’t care about the optimism you take in the mayor that he’s able to swing anything at City Hall,” he said, adding that the county and city need to be partners in working on the homeless situation. “What do we do if we don’t get the $200,000?”

Rydingsword said in that case, “We go and find some more money and we’re actually pretty good at that.”

Then the board voted 4-0, with Supervisor Robert Rivas being absent, to approve the contract, including the $100,000 advance.

John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...