Hundreds gather in downtown San Jose for warm Thanksgiving meal
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo served food during the Thanksgiving dinner and said it was a "wonderful" experience. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    More than a hundred volunteers and people in need packed the African American Community Service Agency (AACSA) in downtown San Jose Wednesday to enjoy an early Thanksgiving dinner complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie.

    The residents were warmly greeted by an army of nonprofit service providers and volunteers, including Mayor Sam Liccardo, as they rushed to escape the bitter cold and rain for a warm meal, showers and other resources.

    The annual event hosted by AACSA —  this year dubbed “Love Thy Neighbor” — included nonprofits such as Community Homeless Alliance Ministries, PATH, Destination: Home and Dignity on Wheels.

    Milan Balinton, AACSA’s executive director, said it’s a reminder to recognize the struggles of the homeless community, low-income families and “anybody that’s in the building right now, regardless of what they might be going through.”

    “We believe that these types of events are essential to being human beings, connected with other human beings, who just are down on their luck,” Balinton said.

    Pastor Scott Wagers of CHAM Deliverance Ministries had his “Mercy Mobile” parked outside: an RV with piles of blankets, tarps and other necessities ready to be handed out. Wagers said he’s worked directly with homeless residents for 25 years.

    As a young pastor, Wagers recalls the homeless community used to gather downtown. Now, 3,000 to 4,000 homeless residents live along creek beds, he said.

    “The homeless are far flung now,” Wagers said. “They get swept and they’re not wanted in the neighborhoods, so they go deeper and deeper into creek beds, under overpasses… that’s just the way it’s all changed. The shortage of affordable housing is unspeakable.”

    William Wallace has been homeless since July. He sat near the Dignity on Wheels bus after enjoying a meal and hot shower. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    One of those homeless residents hoping to escape the cold and enjoy a hot shower and holiday meal was William Wallace. The 52-year-old is a welder fabricator and has been homeless since July.

    “(I plan to) stay warm and dry, maybe get to a shelter and de-stress and start my job search,” Wallace said. “But it’s hard to even apply for a job.”

    Dania Granados, 31, was picking out some socks from the clothing donations table while one of her daughters decorated a pumpkin with other children in a room next door. Her family came to AACSA for Halloween and Thanksgiving, Granados said, and they have plans to come visit for Christmas.

    “I have five kids; I’m a single mom,” Granados said. “So it helps me, the food, the socks.”

    An analysis by San José Spotlight earlier this month found the city is far behind Mayor Sam Liccardo’s goal of building 10,000 affordable housing units by 2022. According to city records, only 245 of those 10,000 units have actually been built since Liccardo’s announcement.

    The City Council has been working on a series of goals to tackle the housing crisis, including building tiny homes for homeless residents who are working and making it easier for homeowners to build granny units on their land for low-income housing. The council will decide Tuesday whether to place a tax measure on the March 2020 ballot to raise $50 million for affordable housing, Liccardo said.

    “It is my hope and prayer that we’ll see fewer homeless individuals in our communities,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “But what we know is that this is a very big problem that’s not going away anytime soon, so we just have to find more resources and find ways to push harder.”

    Liccardo himself served food during the event and said it was “wonderful.”

    “While we know this is a small gesture, it’s very meaningful,” the mayor said. “I had an opportunity to see several individuals who I’ve known for a few years, who’ve been struggling with homelessness, who are now housed. I was thrilled to hear it… it was really uplifting.”

    Shelby Bates, 17, was setting placemats on the dining tables before the event. Her family has donated hundreds of dollars of food for the dinner, she said, and has volunteered for the AACSA’s annual Thanksgiving feed for as long as she can remember.

    “A lot of people need help out here,” Bates said. “I’m so fortunate to live in the place that I live in and to have the opportunities I do, so I just like to give back.”

    Not far from Bates sat Olliver Pelayo who bundled up with two coats outside as she directed people to the showers. She works for Dignity on Wheels, a mobile hygiene outreach program that provides free showers and laundry services.

    Pelayo, 21, said she deeply cares about housing for everyone, and her job ensures that people’s “baseline” needs are met.

    “My mom grew up homeless,” Pelayo said. “I came to be an adult and I realized that it’s not normal for a society to have (homelessness) as a thing that exists.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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