Official tells supes: proposed homeless shelter site good, building ‘has some challenges’

In the interim, winter shelter and other organizations bring hope to the homeless

The latest preferred site for a new homeless shelter at 1161 San Felipe Road "has some challenges" but "is a great location," according to Bret Barnes, director of the San Benito County Resource Management Agency.

Barnes this week told the Board of Supervisors that a structural engineer had recently examined the building.

 “It’s probably not adaptable for what we want to do, but it is a great location, so I had an appraiser go through the building last week. Our original goal is to have that in by the end of the month. We’re going back and forth on contract points.”

He said the agency is working with an architect who has been helping with the homeless project. The agency is working on the cost and creating a separate agreement on the building to determine the amount of dollars to be spent on the land in order to stay within the grant amount of a little over $1 million.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he and Supervisor Jerry Muenzer toured the site and said while they were there a storm poured down on the building. He said the interior of the building remained dry.

“I’m at a loss why (it’s not suitable),” Boethlo commented. “It beats being out on the streets. Why would it not work? Is it because it’s a metal building?”

“It’s non-sprinkler,” Barnes said. “If you’re going to have (people) sleeping (in there) it’s going to trigger (the need for) fire sprinkling and the structure is not strong enough to carry the load to have sprinklers suspended from the ceiling. Even putting insulation in it is more of a load than the building is designed for. It’s designed for what it is, it’s cover. But it’s not designed to be applicable. That’s the challenge of this. We’re working on advancing the housing element, which is already underway and we welcome the board’s input. There is a long menu of stuff that relates to the general plan. We’ll be bringing information, policy and action items to the commission and ultimately to the board beginning in February.”

Barnes said he wanted to make sure the board understood that he will have an information item and discussion item related to the general plan update each month, beginning in February.

“In advance of that,” he said, “I welcome your comments to the director or through the administrator’s office on what you’d like to see brought forward as discussion items.”

Supervisor Margie Barrios asked Barnes if the building could eventually be adapted to a homeless shelter. He said it could and that he did not want to convey to the board that it couldn’t.

“It changed from an auto body shop—what the building was built for—to what essentially is a residential building, it triggers a whole series of code changes and we need to do upgrades to the building,” he said.

In a related report, Enrique Arreola, deputy director of the Community Action Agency of the Health and Human Services Agency, said for more than 20 years the agency has been operating the Southside Road winter shelter for homeless families.

“This year we’ve been given the opportunity to plan the warming shelter for homeless individuals, and as we reported the last time, the program started Dec. 1 with one guest,” he said. “We still felt optimistic because we had a really good plan and we knew the need was here. Later on, we averaged 14 clients by the end of the month, and for the last few weeks we’ve averaged 28.”

He said the staff has done a superb job maintaining the center, providing meals and transportation.

“We have a couple of pick-ups every day,” he said. “We pick up individuals by the river, Straw Hat Pizza, Dunne Park, and My Father’s House to take them to the shelter. Upon arrival, everyone gets checked in. Security pats them down. Anything illegal is confiscated and if someone does not want to be patted down they are not allowed to stay there.”

The shelter provides meals throughout the day with a warm dinner, a continental breakfast and packed lunches.

Supervisor Robert Rivas said that he had received a number of complaints about the shelter.

“I know your report says the winter warming shelter has been an incredible success, but I’ve heard otherwise,” he said. “I think there’s some issues that need to be brought up. We need to invite the Homeless Coalition up here because they share that facility. I don’t know if it’s factual or not, but I think it’s worth our discussions, especially since we’re investing so much money into the warming shelter we have to make sure that rules aren’t being broken. Cleanliness has been brought to my attention. I think it warrants further discussion by this board, so I’ll follow-up with (County Administrative Officer) Ray (Espinosa).”

Barrios recommended that a couple of supervisors be appointed to a committee to meet with staff to see what the issues are and then bring it back to the board.

“I think that would be a more appropriate approach,” she said.

Rivas agreed and Botelho said he supported the recommendation. Botelho said that in light of the fact that the Homeless Coalition has said it won’t continue its program,  he was curious how the board would address issues at the shelter. Barrios and Supervisor Jamie De La Cruz said they would be glad to be on the committee.

James Rydingsword, director of the Health and Human Services Agency, said the Homeless Planning Committee meets the first Monday each month. He said Barrios has been attending the meetings and said that perhaps there might be a way to coordinate a meeting with the committee before the next planning committee meeting.  

“It’s good to hear what everybody in the community is saying,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on around this issue. As we’ve discussed before, it’s a complex issue with a lot of things to do. A lot of funding opportunities related to this particular project come up all the time. Those things will be brought back to the board as they develop. We think that those opportunities are specific enough to this project that we expect them to be successful.”

He said he continues to meet with Resource Management about other sites as his department works to make the preferred site on San Felipe Road, if the board chooses, to work as the new shelter.

“This is why we continue to go out and look for additional funding sources,” Rydingsword said. “We particularly thank the partnerships we have within the community, with My Father’s House, with CSDS, with the Homeless Coalition, and the Farm Laborer’s Association. They’ve really stepped up and helped us this winter. Staff is now meeting with all of them on an on-going basis.”

He said in early 2015 the board asked them to seek a qualified regional homeless service center organization to contract the operations of the Homeless Service Center and to coordinate with the county to put the project together, from a construction point of view.

“We expect probably at your second meeting in February to come back with some specific recommendations on what the next steps will be,” he said. “We want to be sure we have as much information as possible to present to the board so you can make an informed decision.”

As part of the public comments part of the meeting, three men gave their testimonials to the board from the perspective of the homeless who have actually used the various facilities.

Scott Brown, who had served in the Air Force, came to Hollister four years ago with his wife. They divorced a year later and he said he has been struggling ever since, he said. He lost his job and could not pay rent and began living in his car. He said one day a man he only knows as David took him to My Father’s House.

“From there I was able to find a ride to the San Benito County warming shelter,” he said. “Before that I struggled every day just finding something to eat. Before I was homeless I was fit and exercised regularly. After becoming homeless, I became skinny. When I got to the warming shelter I had a warm meal every night, in the morning and a lunch. Thanks to them, I’m getting back into shape, I have family and friends there.”

Brown said he wanted to bring attention to the shelter and how many people it has helped.

“It’s been nothing but a blessing to me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them I’d probably be skin and bones and on the streets.”

Jeff Shane said he was living back east when he and his wife separated. She came back to Hollister where she was from. He hitchhiked from North Carolina to Hollister in order to be near when his daughter was born. He said he knew when he came to Hollister he would be homeless because he had no job, no friends or family.

“I was sleeping on cardboard in an alley, and then a tent down by the river,” he said. “Someone told me about My Father’s House that’s open seven days a week and they provide warm food, showers, clothing, and more importantly, love.”

While there, Shane learned about the county warming center.

“I’m so blessed to have met the people there,” he said. “It feels like home. Society, as whole, looks down on the homeless. But not everyone who is homeless is mentally ill or whatever. I’m homeless because I gave up my home in North Carolina to be here with my daughter.”

Edward Hernandez and his mother were living together when their home burned down. He said his mother moved in with his brother and he did not want to be a burden, so he ended up homeless for a time being.

“I’m the older brother and used to taking care of myself and I’d like to thank each of you on the board for helping me and my family,” Hernandez said. “They needed you more than I did. I have a place to go back to when it’s done being repaired. Some of these people didn’t have a place to go. You heard their stories and if it hadn’t been for Pastor Lampe and My Father’s House and the warming shelter. It has opened your hearts to us where there was so little hope. You gave them a second chance and I’m here to tell you thank you for all your kindness.”

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].