Hope for the Unhoused aims to alleviate homelessness in Milpitas

original article published January 19, 2022 by the Milpitas Beat

We first covered this group back in December 2020, when they were taking their first baby steps. Initially just a gathering of concerned citizens with good intentions, one year later they have seen a dramatic change. A new President, Robert Jung, is now on board. As the founder of the Milpitas Community Educational Foundation (MCEF), he brings organizational expertise and non-profit management experience to the table.

Now, Hope For The Unhoused (H4U) is running full speed ahead as an official non-profit, which has opened the door to funding in the form of grants and donations. They recently received a $15,000 grant from Santa Clara County, which has helped them to expand their operation. Their current mission remains true and honest to their original purpose: to find a way to end homelessness in Milpitas. Says Jung, “This is a community problem, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

One of their biggest hurdles has been trying to change the mindset of neighbors. Says Jung, who has lived in Milpitas for over 30 years, “I find it ironic that those people saying, ‘Not in my backyard!’ are willing to move the unhoused to someone else’s backyard. How does that work? We’ve got to figure out another solution.” 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

At the organization’s core is the idea of helping through direct action. Every Monday and Friday, and every other Saturday, a small band of dedicated volunteers gathers at board member Tom Valore’s home to put together food and hygiene packs for the unhoused. The food is donated by Loaves & Fishes in Morgan Hill, and picked up by Valore himself. The packs are then loaded into 2-3 cars and distributed directly to the unhoused throughout Milpitas. Jung estimates they average about 180 meals per week. They are also working with the Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) to provide meals for low-income families.

Lisa Moreno navigates the homeless encampment along I-680

On the day of my visit, founding board members Lisa Moreno and Yolie Garcia are running late. They are on a dump run, another service that H4U has just started to provide to homeless encampments. They give out trash bags to any unhoused people that want them, then they pick up the filled trash bags and haul them to the Newby Island landfill. It’s a model that Jung realizes is unsustainable, as they have to pay per vehicle each time they do a run. But it’s their version of an immediate solution to a problem that has dogged the City of Milpitas since the start of the pandemic.

Says Moreno, “We’ve been asking the City for months for trash bins or some type of trash service for the homeless. They haven’t responded, so we’ve taken matters into our own hands. Now we supply the homeless with trash bags, gloves, rakes, and garbage cans, and tell them to clean up their area or they’ll get swept.” Garcia chimes in, “Many of them ask us for trash bags. They want to do their part.”

At the 2021 California Economic Summit in Monterey on November 9, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “We’ve got to deal with homelessness. We’ve got to deal with cleaning the state, the streets, cleaning up our thoroughfares, our underpasses, our overpasses, removing graffiti, dealing with encampments.” To do this, the state is allocating $12 billion over the next few years, most of it going towards housing and mental health services. It will most certainly put pressure on entities like CalTrans and Union Pacific, which have a history of indiscriminate sweeps of homeless encampments.

San Jose, with over 200 homeless encampments, is already planning more cleanup in the coming months. “A big part of what we’re trying to do is build a trash service for thousands of people that have no address,” said Jon Cicirelli, director of the City’s parks department. “It’s complicated.”

Kat with her two dogs

WE ARE FAMILY

According to Consuelo Hernandez, Director at Santa Clara County’s Office of Supportive Housing, there were approximately 117 unhoused people in Milpitas as of August 2021. Of course, this is an ever-shifting number. But Moreno and Garcia, who have been going out to the homeless encampments on a weekly basis for the past year, know most of them by name. They’ve mapped out every encampment in the city, worked hard at gaining the trust of the unhoused, and consider all of them family. There’s Ron and Byron, who are vegetarians. There’s Davis and Monica, who need a tent. There’s Raoul and Jessica and Dominique and Tony and Elizabeth. There’s Rico, with his dog Princess – they’re camped in a parking lot next to his pickup. Some have nicknames, like Gingerbread, Sarge, and Tortuga. So make no mistake, when sweeps happen, it’s personal. 

As if on cue, Moreno shouts, “There’s Raymond!” as we pass a disheveled old man pushing a shopping cart under an overpass. “He’s one of the saddest cases out here,” she explains. “He’s mentally ill, he never changes his clothes. He needs medication.” Garcia says, “He was telling me he was having suicidal thoughts the other day. I asked him if he wanted me to bring him to emergency but he said no, that all they would do is take off his clothes and poke around and then put him back out on the street.”

Such is often the irony with the mentally ill: You cannot force them to get help, yet in many cases they are too sick to understand that they need help. One way around this is Laura’s Law, a California state law that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment. To qualify for the program, the person must have a serious mental illness plus a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations or jailings or acts, threats, or attempts of serious violent behavior towards oneself or others. Unfortunately, with people like Raymond, who is lost in his own world, there is nothing that the City or County can do.

Jung and company feel that long-term mental health support is a critical service that is sorely lacking. Says Moreno, “It really needs to start at the federal and state level. We desperately need more mental health facilities.” They estimate that roughly two-thirds of the Milpitas unhoused population suffer from some sort of mental illness. “It’s like a revolving door,” says Jung. “They get temporary treatment, but then a few days later they are back out on the street.”

Moreno and Garcia do their best under the circumstances, often referring those who need medical attention to the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program (VHHP), a service provided by Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. It’s a team that consists of a medical provider, a nurse, and a community health outreach specialist, all wearing backpacks filled with medicines and medical equipment. They provide healthcare services wherever people might be, such as in the streets, at homeless encampments, on freeways or on railroad tracks. It’s just another example of how H4U operates.

Lisa Moreno talks to Rico

CASE IN POINT

As we stop at another encampment nestled in the scraggly trees overlooking Interstate 680, I ask them if anyone else is doing what they are doing, coming out like this to help the unhoused on a regular basis. Garcia responds, “Abode Services sometimes come out, but they only come to assess the unhoused and put them into the County database for housing. For everything else they just give out referrals. They don’t have the manpower to do anything else. And a lot of these people don’t have phones or power, or the knowledge or means to use the Internet. So we’ve taken on the case management. We do it. We try to provide them with anything that they may need.” A pause. Then they both chime in, “Walmart and the Dollar Store are our friends!”

In most cases, this includes the basics: buying food, sleeping bags, tents, clothes, shoes, hygiene products, and medication. But H4U goes beyond this by helping the unhoused in their daily struggles. This may mean giving someone a ride to the recycling center with their five bags of recyclable goods. Or helping them fix their vehicle by paying for a mechanic. Or setting up a P.O. Box so they can receive mail. Or transporting them to the DMV so they can obtain an ID, with vouchers provided by Abode Services.

Jung describes one instance where they helped an older unhoused man who was taken to Valley Medical Center after suffering from a heart attack. He was soon released, but still needed time to recover. H4U was able to secure a two-week stay for him in a local hotel through City vouchers, Abode Services assistance, and a generous donation through a contact of Supervisor Otto Lee.

In another case, they were able to clear a pathway to VA benefits and housing for a homeless veteran. Says Jung, “This is something that should have been done awhile ago, but nobody had spent the time to understand his situation or to follow up with him. We ended up doing all of the legwork. This is the extent to which we go. Nobody else does this.” 

Jung continues, “Every organization has a main focus. For us, it’s about building relationships. We are spending the time to get to know the unhoused here in Milpitas so we can understand their situation and hopefully get them off the streets.”

I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THE RAILROAD…

Every Sunday, near the Milpitas Library, Dignity on Wheels provides a mobile Showers and Laundry service for the homeless. H4U has started operating a Mobile Service Center there as well, providing clean clothes, meals, and phone charging stations. Through a partnership with The United Effort Organization, they are also able to hand out free cell phones.

A homeless man picks out clothing provided for free by H4U

The site is located just across the railroad tracks from Railroad Avenue, where a long line of RV’s, trucks, and cars are parked, some with tents beside them. It’s one of the largest unhoused communities in Milpitas, and has been growing since the pandemic began. The Milpitas Police Department (MPD) has been monitoring the situation, increasing patrols to keep everyone safe, and working in tandem with local companies whose large semi-trailers go by on a regular basis. 

Says MPD Captain Frank Morales, “The challenge for us here is that it’s a pretty narrow road, plus there’s a waterway on the side that is managed by the Fish & Game Department. There are laws about illegal dumping. We’re making every effort to make sure things are clean here and that people abide by the law, just like any other community.”

While many in this tight-knit unhoused community appreciate the police presence, some have complained of harassment by the MPD, a claim disputed by Morales. Complaints of reckless driving by the truckers who speed by have also been voiced.

Campers and cars along Railroad Avenue

To help manage the situation, H4U has been working with MPD and local businesses, organizing cleanups and holding community meetings. The unhoused have responded in kind, expressing gratitude for the help. Says Kat, who moved here six months ago, “We just love Hope for the Unhoused. Before they came along there was nobody. We had to take care of ourselves. Since they’ve been out here they have really made a big difference. They’re here almost every day to check up on us, and sometimes they bring their family members. They helped move my truck here and paid for everything. Now I feel safe and I don’t have to worry about being towed. When my dog was impounded, they drove me to the pound to pick him up. They’re wonderful people with big hearts.”

Longtime Railroad Avenue resident Fay agrees: “They’re the greatest. They’ve come back again and again to help us out. With more and more people starting to settle here just in the past month, it’s important to have someone advocating on our behalf.”

To be sure, Railroad Avenue has had its share of domestic disputes and alcohol/drug-related incidents. But now, when the police are called in, they come prepared with mental health training and social services referrals. Says Police Chief Jared Hernandez, “When someone has a complaint about the unhoused, they traditionally call us because they don’t know who else to call. Over the past few years we’ve had to change our model. Of course we’re about enforcement, but we’re also about social justice.”

In an effort to change the way the community responds to the homeless population, H4U has launched a Resident Referral program. By filling out a short form on their website, businesses and residents can alert the non-profit to an unhoused person who may need help. Says Jung, “It’s not a crime to be homeless. As a society, our approach should be to send in an agency that can establish a relationship and help out that person. It shouldn’t have to be the police every time.”

Lisa Moreno and Yolie Garcia give food to an unhoused man living near I-680

ASSESSING THE SITUATION

Many of the people I spoke with felt that the City of Milpitas could do more to help the unhoused. Says Kat, “The City was complaining about all the trash and people going to the bathroom everywhere, but when the idea of bringing a dumpster and port-a-potty out here came up, the mayor vetoed it. I mean, none of us want to live like this.”

Says Jung, “Every city needs a policy on homelessness, and Milpitas doesn’t have one. They know there’s a problem, they just don’t want to necessarily solve the problem, or they don’t understand the problem. Sure, they’ve partnered with Abode Services to do assessments, and have provided shower and laundry services, but that’s it! That’s not a strategy. The City Council just doesn’t seem ready to make any sort of commitment to try and reduce homelessness in Milpitas.”

While the City has indeed partnered with Santa Clara County to assess the unhoused through Abode Services, this generally leads to them getting on the waiting list for housing, which is merely the first step in a long and winding road. Says Jung, “Once they’re in the system and given a number in line, unless they’re at the top of the list, it can be a very long wait. I mean, 10 to 15 years is not unheard of. What do they do in the meantime? They don’t receive any wraparound services until they’re housed. That’s where we come in.”

Jung sees H4U as a hyper local case management service that helps the homeless until the day comes when they are granted housing. He feels frustrated that the County’s “Housing First” strategy is leaving many people stranded. “By taking this one-size-fits-all approach, the County is really missing a lot of opportunities to help people who really want to get off the streets, like veterans, battered women, and teen runaways. They shouldn’t have to wait.”

As idealistic as Jung can be, he’s also realistic: “I understand that there’s a segment of the homeless population that we won’t be successful with. There are some with severe mental health issues who need professional help. All we can do for them is advocate to the County so they receive support. If they understand that we’re there to help them survive another day, then that’s enough for us. There are also those who don’t want to leave the streets. But for those who are ready and willing, we’ll do whatever it takes to give them a boost in life.”

Lisa Moreno and Yolie Garcia talk to an unhoused man living near the railroad tracks

BACK TO WORK

As part of their services, H4U is also committed to helping the homeless get jobs. Says Jung, “If someone is ready to commit to training, drug testing, and going through the whole process, then we will make the connections necessary.” 

With the high cost of living in the Bay Area, becoming financially independent is no easy task, and could take years for many who try. But Jung and his staff are in it for the long term, whether it means buying new clothes for an interview or obtaining an ID. Says Jung, “Just to get an ID is such a long, arduous process. First they need to fill out an online form, then we need to provide a voucher so they don’t have to pay any DMV fees, then we need to help them make an appointment and then drive them to the appointment, and then drive them back. Many of the unhoused don’t have the education or background or understanding of how these agencies work, so we need to explain it to them.”

For one young man down on his luck, H4U helped him get hired at a 7-11. Says Jung, “You can’t live in the Bay Area on $15 an hour, I can guarantee you that. What we’re trying to do with our clients is to encourage them to develop a plan and we will help them move forward. We want them to think ahead, and for many that may entail getting a higher education. We will help them achieve this however we can. It’s hard, and will take a long time, but we are committed to be there for them the whole way.”

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

As 2022 begins, H4U is gearing up for another year of hard work and selfless advocating. Despite the continued hardships brought on by the pandemic, Jung is optimistic. He cites a recent success story: Working with Abode Services, the City of Milpitas, MUSD, and MPD, H4U helped convince an elderly unhoused person who had moved onto MUSD property in December 2021 to relocate. Using money from their Emergency Shelter Fund, H4U paid to put the individual into a local hotel for a few nights, during which time his medical needs were assessed by VHHP. He was then transferred to a temporary shelter provided by Abode Services.

But Jung worries about what will happen to this unhoused person once he is released. In the meantime, it’s safe to say that without the services of H4U, Milpitas’ unhoused would certainly be facing darker days. Says Kat, “It’s because of this group that we have a fighting chance.”

All photos by David Newman.

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