San Jose homeless families living in cars receive new shoes

It started with a single pair of shoes.

A student in North Carolina cut holes in his sneakers in an attempt to extend their usefulness after he outgrew them. His school nurse took a picture of the battered footwear and sent it to her husband — sparking an idea.

After receiving the text message, John Fagala decided that this kid — and others like him — shouldn’t be without such a basic necessity so he and his daughter Kelli hatched out a plan. The pair hosted an event in Wadesboro, North Carolina, where they passed out 105 new pairs of shoes to children in need. The event’s success led to the birth of the nonprofit Sole2Soul Mission which has now provided more than 31,000 pairs of shoes around the country since its 2017 start.

On Monday night, homeless families staying at the Seven Trees Community Center parking lot as part of the city’s new safe parking program became the latest recipients of the new kicks.

Fagala maintains a day job as a packaging salesman and managed to dovetail a business trip to the Bay Area with a humanitarian mission. He found out about the opportunity through Paige Robbins, wife of Cisco Systems CEO Chuck Robbins, whom he happened to be close friends with in high school.

Fagala said Paige alerted him to the families living in their cars in San Jose and he packed 65 pairs of shoes for them.

Last fall, San Jose partnered with LifeMoves to provide staffing and resources to families in need of a safe space to park their cars — becoming the first parking lot available for such a purpose in San Jose.

Since the program began on Nov. 1, the Bay Area-based nonprofit has helped 25 families. Eleven homeless families sleep inside cars on the lot from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day, said Chelsea Tercero, LifeMoves’ program director.

Tercero said some of the families have since transitioned into other shelter programs or began living with family. Two families have moved into apartments in that time.

“This is a good feeder program,” said Tercero. “This is a solution for families that are in the car and want to get into shelter.”

The program is only open to families but Lorena Diez, a development specialist with San Jose, says the City Council in March will consider two additional parking lot sites for individuals and couples.

Raquel Gordon, one of the center’s newer visitors, has lived in a car on the lot with her two and a half year old son.

Gordon missed out on her chance to sign up for the shoe giveaway, but held out hope there would be some extras leftover. And her hopes were answered.

Sole2Soul founder John Fagala prepares to hand out shoes to homeless San Jose families. Photo by Carina Woudenberg,

Fagala worked with LifeMoves to get shoe sizes for each of the parking lots’ tenants, but also planned to mail shoes to new participants like Gordon after he returns to his headquarters in North Carolina.

Since becoming homeless two months ago, Gordon has bounced from place to place with her toddler before living out of her car. She said the sense of security and consistency provided by the center makes a difference.

“My son knows we go to this spot and we sleep there,” she said.

Louise Grimes has lived at the center for about a month. The family of four gets a little crowded in their Nissan Sentra so sometimes they stay at a hotel when they can afford it.

Grimes said many families at her kids’ school are dealing with similar issues with securing housing and said she’s grateful to have a safe place to sleep.

And on Monday, she was grateful for two new pairs of shoes for her children, who are 10 and 8 years old.

“The littlest things give a smile to people,” she said. “It’s good that they do this, hopefully they’ll keep it up.”

That sentiment is exactly what keeps Fagala going with his Sole2Soul project.

“God told us we need to take care of the ones who can’t take care of themselves,” he said. “Whether you’re spiritual or not, doing something nice for another human being is what it’s all about.”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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