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Santa Clara County hosted its seventh annual free health fair in San Jose for unhoused, uninsured, low-income residents.
The line for the fair, held at San Jose’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, stretched from the gates on the side of the cathedral to Post Street, and organizers estimate between 300 and 400 people attended the four-hour event Nov. 15.
Participants had access to dozens of local service providers, get their feet washed, free haircuts and studio-quality photographs, a free lunch at noon and much more.
Participants could also be tested for HIV, hepatitis A, B and C for free at the fair.
Free backpacks with cold-weather gear like gloves, blankets and hats were given to those living on the streets.
Maria Aguilar, a 39-year-old homeless San Jose mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 6, was able to get her kids’ hair washed and gather some supplies, like the free backpack, for the nights they spend in her Mitsubishi SUV.
She said if she needs to wash her hair, she normally goes to a friend’s place, her daughter’s father’s place, a shelter or even out of a bucket out the back of her car.
Having been living in her car for three years, she said the fair was helpful, but there’s something else she needs instead.
“Housing,” Aguilar said.
Same goes for John Stryder, 30, who went from paying $1,500 rent for his own one-bedroom apartment a month ago to living on the streets today.
After a month of being homeless, following the loss of his job as a software designer, he has either sold all of his possessions or consolidated them into a single backpack — the free backpack he got at the fair last Friday.
He’s lived in San Jose about six months, and before that in San Francisco doing the same work he did in the South Bay, working in the tech industry as a contractor. He said he found himself in the same circumstances in San Francisco — homeless without a job.
Now that he’s unhoused in San Jose, without a cellphone or family or friends to lean on, he said he mostly sleeps in the local parks at night.
“I lost everything and now I’m slowly getting it back together,” Stryder said. Moving forward he said he doesn’t quite have a plan to end this bout with homelessness, but right now he’s trying to “get my stuff together, get a phone and get my I.D. so I can get a job. I don’t really know, let’s see what the market’s like.”
Sharon Miller, the director of Social Ministry at Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, was on-site to assist the program.
“We’re preparing the homeless and the seniors, those that are vulnerable, for winter,” Miller said, adding that a major takeaway from the event is that “tangible needs are going to be met in terms of health care.”
The fair started seven years ago when “Dave said ‘let’s do this,’ and we said, ‘yes,’” Miller said, referencing county Supervisor Dave Cortese, who also attended the fair.
Miller said Cortese invited the faith community to get involved, and the Catholic Church opened its doors for the fair.
“My regret, my serious regret, is that we’re not doing this every day,” Cortese said at the event Nov. 15. “It’s heartbreaking to give somebody medical screening, flu shots, haircuts, wash their feet and then send them right back into the same circumstances that they came in from. We’ve got to do a better job sheltering people and giving them these kinds of safety net services, 365 days a year.”
The county’s homeless population is on the rise, according to the recent biannual census, which showed an increase to 9,706 individuals in 2019 from 7,394 individuals in 2017.
Nearly 8,000 of those individuals, or about 82 percent, live outside of homeless shelters.
“I have a lot of concerns for the unhoused during the wintertime,” Cortese said. “And yes, we do open up cold-weather shelters when it’s actually freezing, but I don’t think the general public fully realizes that we don’t have a shelter system that can house the 8,000 people that are out there in tents right now and we need to deal with that.”
He added that he thinks the county has “an obligation to put all these folks into temporary shelter and to give them these kinds of resources while we’re sheltering them” while the county focuses on building permanent supportive housing with funds from its $950 million affordable housing bond passed in November 2016.
Cortese wants there to be more access to homeless health services like those offered at the fair, and more regularly throughout the county in the near future. He also expressed regret in the 157 unhoused lives lost on the streets of the county between Dec. 1, 2017, and Nov. 30, 2018 — news released by the county’s medical examiner’s office in December.
“The good news is we’re helping them today,” Cortese said. “The bad news is we’re sending them right back into harm’s way, and it’s just very troubling.”