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Gimme Shelter

No Direction Home: The homeless await word while the council and neighborhood opponents debate their future.

Blessed are the weak and unempowered neighborhoods, for they shall inherit temporary housing for the homeless

By Rafer Guzmán

Susan Forbes lights a cigarette, eyeing a certain house across from hers on Monticello Avenue. "Those people over there don't want to have anything to do with this," she grumbles, peeling a yellow flier from the stack in her arm. "But I'm gonna put one of these damn things on their door anyway."

The flier, drafted by Forbes, reads: "WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF THE FIGHT OF OUR LIVES FOR OUR LIVES AND OUR PROPERTIES AND OUR BUSINESSES." She sticks it in the screen door, and moves on.

Here in the Little Orchard neighborhood, they call Forbes the "Pit Bull of Monticello." When earlier this year the Emergency Housing Consortium announced its intention to open a homeless shelter in this community of mostly senior citizens, Forbes voiced her objections loudly. Fearing that the shelter would bring with it crime, vandalism and lowered property values, she helped start the Little Orchard Concerned Citizens' Group. They gathered 550 signatures protesting the shelter, and successfully encouraged city councilmembers Pat Dando, John Diquisto and David Pandori to vote against it.

"If we can get three more councilmembers to change their minds," Forbes' flier states, "we can raise the dead if we want."

Unfortunately, raising the dead is not much more difficult than what Forbes is trying to do. Despite past successes, the Little Orchard elderly population has proven difficult to motivate. "I had a meeting and got all the seniors together," Forbes says, "and their hearing aids are all tweeting, and they can't hear me, and I'm thinking: these are my neighbors?" At 57, Forbes reckons she's one of the youngest people in the community. "They're 80 and 85. Somebody's got to help these people. This neighborhood's going to become a ghetto."

At present, Little Orchard--the roughly two square miles west of the intersection of Curtner Avenue and Monterey Highway--is a peaceful place where the elderly come to spend their golden years. On a sunny day, various seniors can be seen walking their dogs or sweeping their driveways. The diminutive neighborhood boasts eight parks. Seven are mobile-home parks. The eighth, and largest, is the Oak Hill Funeral and Memorial Park.

The EHC plans to open what it calls the Reception Center at 2011 Little Orchard St. That address, a 35,000-square-foot General Electric office building, lies on the outskirts of Forbes' neighborhood, just a stone's throw away from the sprawling GE plant. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 1997, around the same time that the 250-bed shelter in the National Guard Armory downtown will close its doors.

Last year, the EHC tried to make room for the armory's soon-to-be-displaced clients by opening a new shelter on Timothy Drive in northeast San Jose. But neighborhood residents, enlisting the help of local businesses and a public relations firm, successfully foiled the EHC's plans. Subsequently, the EHC and the City Council developed a policy which includes a set of "siting criteria" to determine sites for potential shelters.

"Using those criteria," says Maury Kendall, a spokesperson for the EHC, "we began a search with a real estate agent to find the best possible fit for EHC. That included affordability of site and suitability of site. And 2011 Little Orchard St. was priced within the budget and had the capacity we needed."

Though the policy suggests that shelters should be at least 1.5 miles from other shelters, and should be accessible by sidewalk, Forbes' group protests that the shelter is just down the street from a group of 95 permanent low-income housing units, and that Little Orchard's occasional lack of sidewalks will force clients to walk on lawns and in the street. In addition, they say, the policy discourages shelters from moving into residential neighborhoods, but 2011 Little Orchard St. lies just 10 minutes' walk from many homes. The city, however, did not find the shelter in violation of the criteria.

"We felt comfortable with its location," says Kendall. "It's not in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it's in the middle of an industrial neighborhood."

"We don't need this here," Forbes complains. "Alcoholics, drug addicts, wackos, coming in and screwing up a beautiful neighborhood."

Forbes believes that right now the Little Orchard neighborhood is virtually crime-free, but she sees that changing with the shelter's arrival. She points to the railroad tracks that run through the center of town, and envisions unsightly homeless encampments along it. She points to the bus stop where the shelter's clients will arrive and depart, and foresees knifepoint muggings at the nearby ATM. She points to her own home, which a young couple wanted to buy until they heard about the impending shelter. They forfeited their $600 deposit, and informed Forbes in writing that they did not wish to raise their children in such an area.

"Who's going to move here?" asks Forbes. "Nobody in their right mind, if there's drugs and murder around here."

Kendall foresees a different future for the shelter neighborhood. "I think the neighborhood's concerned because we're being honest in saying that we won't deny shelter to people with problems," he says. "They don't have weapons, they aren't all drunks. I really wish [the community] had come out this winter to the Armory. ... They would have seen families, they would have seen an awful lot of barely-21 and over-60-year-old people who are forced to live on the street, who are trying to hold down jobs, and who come to the armory in work clothes, but can't afford a place to stay."

When the armory closes each spring, residents are forced to fend for themselves. "Homelessness is not a weather-related phenomenon," says Kendall. "There needs to be a year-round shelter." The Reception Center will fill that need, and then some. While the armory offers only "a hot meal, a hot shower and limited social service," says Kendall, the new shelter will offer on-site medical care and substance-abuse counseling services. "It's not just a pitstop. It's an opening to a better future."

The Reception Center will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The EHC plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on safety measures such as increased lighting, an around-the-clock security guard, and a shuttle bus running between the shelter and the nearest transit stop. In addition, the EHC has asked members of the community to join the Reception Center's advisory board in order to monitor the program and voice concerns. At least one Little Orchard resident says she'll join the board "to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Before embarking on today's flier campaign, Forbes received some exciting news: at today's City Council meeting, Pandori will oppose a $1,965,000 city loan to the Emergency Housing Consortium to build the new shelter. Forbes encourages every able-bodied and not-so-able-bodied resident she meets to attend the meeting in a show of support. Most respond halfheartedly at best, complaining of ailments and pleading other engagements. Most often, they simply nod their heads, feigning comprehension.

Yet a handful of seniors do manage to find their way to City Hall for the 1:30pm meeting. One man with failing knees has been driven there by Forbes. They sit patiently while the loan comes up for approval. To Forbes' surprise, Pandori votes for the loan, with the stipulation that the shelter's number of beds be reduced to 125, expandable to 250 during the winter. The Council votes 9-1 to approve the loan.

One elderly woman wakes up. "What happened?"

Her neighbor shrugs. "Whatever it was, it's over now."

Pandori later explained that though he is "still opposed to the size of the shelter as a whole," he voted as he did because the city's decision to reduce the number of beds "had already been made." Dando, the only councilmember who voted against the shelter, did not return a reporter's calls.

"I didn't decide to put it in the district," says Councilmember George Shirakawa Jr., who represents the Little Orchard district. He refers back to the Timothy Drive controversy. "We established some criteria for shelters in San Jose, and this district met the criteria."

"Shirakawa just wants to turn this district into a dumping ground for all the garbage in San Jose," fumes Forbes. She stands outside City Hall, smoking irritably. "He just thinks that a bunch of seniors won't give him much resistance. Well, he's got another thing coming. Maybe someone has to be murdered or violated before they shut this thing down. And if that happens, I'm going to hold the city of San Jose personally and legally responsible."

Forbes returns home, taking a seat on her couch. Nearby lies a small paperback book titled How To Clean Everything. Forbes vows to continue to fight the shelter, planning to stage pickets in front of City Hall. She knows, however, than the chances of organizing 50 or so seniors for an all-day demonstration are slim.

"They all have that apathetic attitude of you can't fight City Hall,' " Forbes says. "Well, they better fight it. They better pack up their Pampers and their oxygen tanks and get down there, because it's our lives we're talking about here."

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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