Fundraiser scheduled for Sept. 11

Published in the Sept. 2-15, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

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Photo courtesy Jan Bernstein Chargin
Volunteers with the Gilroy Compassion Center help feed the homeless during 2014 holiday season.

Maria Skoczylas had a dream to help homeless people at the Gilroy Compassion Center gain the opportunity to take a shower and feel the dignity of a clean body. The 88-year-old retired school teacher shared that dream with a writer at Gilroy Today Magazine, saying the center needed $10,000 to install the plumbing for the showers.

“Right after that story came out in the magazine, a woman called me and said, ‘You probably don’t remember me. You taught my children,’” Skoczylas said.

The woman told her: “It’s my birthday today and I said to my husband, ‘May I have $10,000?’ and he said, ‘Yes, but what do you want it for?’” She replied: “For Maria’s showers.”

The woman donated the birthday gift money to the center. It’s now waiting in the capital funds for the center to spend it installing the showers at a new location it hopes to move into by the end of the year.

“It’s one of the things that we feel that we need and we haven’t been able to do,” Skoczylas said.

Thanks to the Gilroy Compassion Center, hundreds of homeless people in the South Valley find dignity and a daily ease of their stressful way of life five days a week. The center sees an average of 650 separate individuals a year. And every weekday, between 40 to 100 people visit the center over a four-hour period. The people who use it include women, men, couples, children, veterans, and people with disabilities and mental and physical illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.

Now the Compassion Center is reaching out to local residents in Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill to raise money to move into a new rented location and for operation costs by hosting a Sept. 11 inaugural Harvest Moon Dinner and Dance at Fortino Winery.

For the past five years since it was founded, the Compassion Center has had its Day Center at a warehouse location in north Gilroy donated by Jim Currier, the owner of Flowstar Corporation, a clean room equipment company.

“We will have to leave in December. And one of the main reasons behind this fundraiser is because we will have to pay rent if we find a place, and I think we have found something,” Skoczylas said. “The city of Gilroy helps us, but their help is mainly operating expenses. They give us $26,000 (through the city’s Housing Trust). We get money from St. Mary’s Fund, but not enough to pay rent, and rent is high.” The Compassion Center is also seeking a grant writer so that it can apply for funds to keep helping the homeless, she said. Santa Clara County is also becoming “truly interested” in the center with the board of supervisors encouraging actions for some of the center’s ideas such as camping at county parks and the installation of tiny houses, she said.

“Things are looking optimistic, but as always, you need funds to do this,” Skoczylas said. “Of course, our dream is to have an emergency or transitional place where people can sleep.”

A resident of Gilroy for 37 years, and now living in Morgan Hill for 14 years, Skoczylas has seen the need through her Christian faith to help people who are struggling in life without shelter or a place to take care of basic needs.

“I just see something that needs help and I do it,” she said. “I think my greatest contribution for all of this is that I’ve stuck with it for 28 years or so. It’s just doing what you need to do and sticking with it.”

Many people in the South Valley communities of Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill often have trouble finding the resources they need to live with some level of human comfort because of the high cost of rent in the region, said Jan Bernstein Chargin, a member of the Gilroy Compassion Center’s board of directors.

“There is no overnight shelter for the homeless in South County for eight months of the year,” she said. “People who are homeless are finding that there is no central resource they can go to to find out where all of the services are. So the Compassion Center opened a Day Center. Our original intention was to open a shelter in that building, but due to issues and problems with the building itself, it could not be used for a shelter without more than $1 million in investment.”

Before the Day Center closes in December, the Compassion Center needs to find another place to locate, one preferably that can also be used as a overnight shelter for the homeless people. It also needs to be in an area that’s easy to reach by public transportation and that people can use as a mailing address, she said.

“We’ve also started another program since opening the Day Center,” she said. “That is piloting overnight stays in legal campgrounds. We’re paying the fees so people living outdoors (in a tent or donated recreational vehicle) can have a safe and legal place to stay.”

Over the years, the center has assisted many families with children as well as some teens living on their own who find it difficult to cope with the high cost of living, and this helped prompt the campground program, Bernstein Chargin said.

“We’ve definitely seen children, newborns, preemies, families with children of all ages,” she said. “One of the things that was helpful in terms of getting families into camping sites is that they were able to get their children enrolled into schools. They can come out of the shadows and start being kids again.”

The Day Center is open from 8 a.m. to noon Mondays through Fridays. There, people can get food, use the bathroom or make phone calls. They can also sign up for an interview with a case manager to obtain needed resources and get on the county’s databases to find out about housing lists.

The winter season is particularly hard on the homeless, and the center is always in need for more blankets, tarps, sleeping bags and rain gear during this time of year, Bernstein Chargin said. With the expected El Nino storms coming this winter, this year might be particularly hard on the homeless, she said.

“The shelter at the (National Guard) Armory does not open until the Monday after Thanksgiving,” she said. “And if we have a wet November, people are going to be out on the streets so we’re going to need tents, we’re going to need tarps.”

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About one-quarter of the people who use the Compassion Center are from Morgan Hill, and another quarter from San Benito County. About half come from Gilroy.

“We know there are people who are homeless in Morgan Hill,” Bernstein Chargin said. “It’s largely a factor of the high price of housing and how hard it is to find affordable shelter. Morgan Hill as a city has done a great job in encouraging the development of low-income housing. But the demand is so high that there’s a year-long waiting list for most projects. So even people who are doing everything that they can and having a housing voucher in hand have a long search ahead of them. That’s why interim solutions are so important.”

Bernstein Chargin serves as the chair of the county’s Homeless Task Force. At one point in her life, she went through a period where she didn’t have a home and found shelter in the corner of a warehouse where she once had an art studio.

“I get it. I think that once you’ve been there and understand that struggle, you can never turn your back on it again,” she said. “It’s not a comfortable, easy way to live. It’s very, very stressful and people spend a lot of time hiding. They spend their time on day-to-day survival activities, which makes it very hard to move forward.”

Details

What: Harvest Moon Dinner-Dance Benefit for Gilroy Compassion Center
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11
Where: Fortino Winery, 4525 Hecker Pass Hwy, Gilroy
Tickets: $50 each and available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1686934 or call 408-607-1284

Robert Airoldi

Robert Airoldi

Robert Airoldi is the editor of Morgan Hill Life newspaper. If you have a story idea or an Around Town column item you want to tell him about, you can reach him at (408) 427-5865 or at editor@morganhilllife.com.
Robert Airoldi