Helping families get off the streets

Focus program promotes housing options

EARLY MORNINGS: Janessa Villarruel in front of the two trailers donated to the Morgan Hill Bible Church and used for the Focus program. All other vehicles must be gone by 8am. Credit: Jaqueline McCool

Faced with soaring numbers of people who are homeless on city streets and in commercial parking lots, Morgan Hill continues to experiment with ways to get people off of the streets into transitional and temporary housing.
Some homeless individuals and families live in cars, vans or recreational vehicles on city streets or shopping center parking lots. The Focus program, organized by the Gilroy Compassion Center and hosted by the Morgan Hill Bible Church, offers a safe place to park these four-wheel homes.
The 2017 Santa Clara County homelessness census reported an almost fivefold increase in homelessness in Morgan Hill in just two years, from 81 homeless people to 388.

Founded in July 2017, the Focus program originally received funding from the Morgan Hill Police Department for a 13-week pilot program. One year later, Focus received $30,000 each year for two years from the Morgan Hill City Council, enough money for the program to be funded through 2020.

The idea for a car park program came when the Interfaith Community of South County was attempting to put together a shelter program of its own. A partnership with the Compassion Center emerged, and a car park program was seen as the most viable and helpful option. Janessa Villarruel is the caseworker in her second year of running the Focus program.

Morgan Hill Housing Manager Rebecca Garcia has been the city’s liaison for the program. She said when it is time to fund the program, the council will be presented with a staff report and recommendations based on the program’s success.

For now, Garcia believes Focus has had positive outcomes. “I think it’s been wonderful, and really a lot of it is attributed to the faith-based community,” said Garcia. She told the Times that the city hopes to explore other ways to get people sheltered, including opening a cold weather shelter in Morgan Hill. Garcia said city staff is looking into the possibility of a cold weather shelter.

There are two homeless shelters in the South County, both in Gilroy; the Armory and the St. Joseph’s family shelter. The Armory’s operation is funded by Santa Clara County.
The Focus program offers eight spaces for families and singles who pass a rigorous application process in order to park their cars nightly. Villarruel did not want to reveal the address of the site, fearing it would attract people looking for a one-night place to park.

Applicants fill out a four-page document with information and personal history that helps the caseworkers see if the family or individual will be a good fit. Villarruel said applicants are required to have their own vehicles and a valid driver’s license and have to be able to commit to working with a caseworker.

The caseworkers help find career training for the participants, as well as pathways to semi-permanent or permanent housing opportunities. Not every participant is successful in the program. Villarruel said about a third of participants have left the program and gone into temporary housing, while the same number have left because they no longer wanted to be involved. According to Villarruel, about 40 people have participated in the program since 2017.

Every Friday, participants gather in the makeshift mess hall at the program site. There are games for the kids, a microwave, a washer and dryer and two showers. Villarruel said this is a time for the participants and caseworkers to debrief over dinner and talk about any problems that are arising in their community. The Friday date was chosen, Villarruel said, because it’s the only day a free dinner is not available somewhere else in the South County.

Nancy Lee has been a volunteer with Focus since the program’s inception; she learned of the opportunity through her church, Advent Lutheran Church. “For me it’s really understanding and getting to know them. I’ve never been involved in anything like this before,” said Lee. “A simple act of kindness can go a long way.”

If the need for the program can be measured by the number of applicants, there is an obvious need in the South County. Villarruel said for this year alone, Focus has received about 30 applications; Morgan Hill applicants get first priority.

In an ideal world, Villarruel said she would love to have multiple program sites—the current site for families, plus one for single men and one for single women. Villarruel believes the South County could benefit from more services like Focus. She said that Gilroy city officials have not been as open to such a program as Morgan Hill has been.

“When you’re in your car, you still have a level of privacy,” said Villarruel.

Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco did not respond to the Dispatch’s request for comment on the possibility of a similar car park program for homeless individuals or families in Gilroy.

The 2017 county homelessness survey found that Gilroy’s homeless population was 722, nearly double the population measured in Morgan Hill. A new census was taken in the beginning of 2019, the results of which have not yet been compiled and published.

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