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Homeless and I Vote

[whitespace] pat dando at shelter

Mayoral candidates court the shelter set

By Cecily Barnes

THE DOZEN OR MORE homeless people lying on beds at the Emergency Housing Consortium's Little Orchard Shelter on May 12 don't look up when mayoral candidates Pat Dando, Ron Gonzales and Kathy Chavez Napoli walk awkwardly through their warehouse-sized bedroom to the space set up for the debate forum. Shelter residents keep right on talking to each other until counselors in blue polo EHC shirts pass through the rows of beds telling everyone to "go on over there, it's time to go on over there." Although some people groan and roll their eyes, others have dressed in their job interview clothes and have been excited for weeks about meeting San Jose's future mayor. "I'm just shocked that they did this, that they came out here to talk to people like me," says Kaci Levi, a homeless mother of four. "I'll probably either vote for Ms. Napoli or Mr. Gonzales, depending on who's ahead when I go to the polls."

Thirty-two-year-old Teare Kelly, who lives at an EHC transitional housing unit, admits that before today, she didn't even know who was running for mayor. After the forum, she says she has a better idea.

"Right now I'm sort of torn between Gonzales and Dando," she says, reading their names on their promotional pamphlets. "I want to read more about the other issues before I decide. But this was definitely a big help."

San Jose's Emergency Housing Consortium is the first shelter in the county ever to organize a question-and-answer mayoral-candidates forum for homeless people. Typically, homeless constituents have been more likely to be quietly ushered away from candidates forums or whisked out after an unwelcome outburst at City Hall. They've also been overlooked by candidates as people who don't vote. According to EHC executive director Barry Del Buono, that's just not true.

"Homeless people vote," Del Buono says strongly. "If all the homeless people in Silicon Valley who are staying in shelters and under bridges voted, they could probably do something to positively affect the quality of their lives. We have found that a lot of homeless folks, because of their situation, have become very alienated from the group, and this is a real way to bring homeless people back into the mainstream."

Nearly every question raised at the shelter forum comes back to the same issue--the lack of affordable housing in San Jose. Only Kathy Chavez Napoli has a response that solicits a roar of applause from the group. Instead of using the traditional 20 percent of redevelopment funds for affordable housing, let's up the number to 50 percent, Napoli says. Dando takes a different approach, assuring the group that redevelopment money already exists to build affordable housing; the city just needs to seek out willing developers. When it's Gonzales' turn, he echoes Dando's statement that there's money in the bank, but does it while furrowing his brow and shaking his fist. He receives applause, too.

"I will be diligent in the area of homelessness if I'm chosen to be the next mayor," Gonzales promises. "I think this is an opportunity to bring in the business community. Business advisers will come in and help you set up credit. Not everything that needs to be done needs to be done with taxpayer dollars."

After the forum, Dando is out the front door within two minutes. Few people in the audience say they will vote for her, especially after she bravely admitted that while on the City Council she voted against the very shelter where she now stood.

"You have to give her credit for that," EHC communications manager Maury Kendall laughs after the forum.

Gonzales stays about 10 minutes, talking with reporters and a few homeless people before shaking hands with everyone in his vicinity and walking out the door. Napoli lasts the longest, holding a heated talk with a group of nearly eight shelter residents circled around her.

"She knows what it's like to be hungry," one woman says. Just before Napoli leaves, a man turns the conversation from general to personal.

"Excuse me, Ms. Napoli," he says, his hands linked together as a sign of respect. "I have a job, and I have found a place that will rent to me. I have money for the rent but I still need $444 to move in. Do you know anywhere I can call that could help me?"

Napoli nods at the man knowingly, reaches into her purse and hands him a business card.

"This is personal," she says, grasping his hand as she passes over her card. "You call me."

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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