As San Jose struggled to build tiny homes for the city’s growing homeless population, one man decided to take matters into his own hands.
Hector Garcia, president of Sleeping Bags for the Homeless, grew tired of waiting for the government to help end the suffering on the streets of Silicon Valley. So he decided to formalize his group’s nonprofit status and create a permanent tiny home village, modeled after the Hope Village site on Ruff Drive in San Jose that was dismantled early last year.
“It was a really good program,” said Garcia, who also hands out supplies to people in need. “We have two little tiny houses set up at (The Father’s House church in San Jose) ready to test, but unfortunately with COVID-19, we needed to slow the process.”
The tiny homes have locking doors and beds. Tiny home villages usually have shared showers, bathrooms, kitchens and laundry facilities.
Garcia would like to build at least 50 tiny homes across San Jose.
The move by Garcia comes after San Jose faced years of delay, legal challenges and red tape with opening tiny home communities. Residents in 2017 refused to allow tiny homes in their neighborhoods, shrinking a list of 99 potential sites to just two. Then San Jose had a hard time getting cooperation from public agencies, including Caltrans, to use their land.
One of the city’s two approved tiny home villages finally opened in February — more than three years after discussions began — with 40 homes on Mabury Road.
Garcia, who owns a janitorial service in San Jose, began helping deliver water, clothes and other supplies to homeless people at the start of El Niño in 2013, when the winters’ heavy rains were followed by brutal, dry summers.
Now Garcia is president of Sleeping Bags for the Homeless, an informal not-for-profit group based in San Jose that collects donations and distributes them directly to homeless people across Santa Clara County.
“Our goal is just to go and help out people in the streets,” Garcia said. “We don’t believe in getting money to help ourselves; we believe in helping people.”
Sleeping Bags for the Homeless, which started in 2013, has quickly made a name for itself in the South Bay with its weekend gatherings encouraging volunteers to hand out supplies to homeless individuals. The group requests donations of items rather than cash.
Garcia is motivated to help people in need because he’s been there. An undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, Garcia arrived in Milpitas at the age of 17.
“I knew exactly what it was like, not having anything, not having food,” Garcia said. Despite that, he graduated college, started his own business and raised a family. “I consider myself blessed.”
Before coronavirus, dozens of volunteers from Garcia’s group carpooled every other Saturday to homeless encampments to distribute water, food, toiletries and clothes. But since the shutdown order, Sleeping Bags for the Homeless has shrunk its staff to Garcia and five volunteers — including Garcia’s daughter, Kianna. They visit several homeless sites across Santa Clara County each day.
The group has distributed at least 18,000 meals to homeless residents since the start of the shutdown, according to Garcia.
“We don’t just go to one place — we’re able to organize five, six different groups at a time,” Garcia said. “We’re able to have a bigger range, get involved with more people, and we’re able to feed more people.”
Meanwhile, Santa Clara County — with its much larger budget and greater resources — seems to struggle in comparison, Garcia said. “The county is not doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “They have big budgets, but I think we’re doing more than what they’re doing.”
Yolanda Gutierrez, who’s been homeless for seven years, said Garcia walks the walk when it comes to helping people living on the streets.
“He has the heart to come down here even through COVID-19,” Gutierrez said. “It’s the best thing that he does come out here, because without him, I don’t know.”
On Fourth of July, the group donated a new tent to Gutierrez. She said most homeless people need new tents because city officials destroy them during sweeps.
“They throw out our stuff. They say they’re going to save it, and they don’t do it,” Gutierrez said.
She wonders why the city and county struggle to provide people with shelter such as tiny homes and basic necessities.
“A lot of people, they like to talk,” Gutierrez said, then gestured to Garcia. “Not like him.”
“He knows what we want sometimes, and I believe God instructs him on what to help us out with,” said Marcrese Lewis, who’s been homeless for seven years.
Lewis said he is most in need of water, food and socks, as well as a place to call home.
When it comes to donations, Garcia said the group can use tents, summer clothes, shoes, used cell phones and sleeping bags. Cash donations help Garcia purchase supplies and fund the furnishing of tiny homes, he said.
Garcia is also looking for private property to house the tiny home villages. For more information, visit the Sleeping Bags for the Homeless Facebook page.
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.