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San Jose: New Willow Glen housing facility for unhoused people welcomes first residents

For Frederick Peña, who has been homeless on and off for 15 years, his new home is life changing

Frederick Peña walks around his temporary home in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, May, 17, 2021. Peña has been mostly unhoused for about 15 years and will eventually be moved to a permanent home in Santa Clara. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)

SAN JOSE — A year and a half of sleeping in a car has been “murder” on Frederick Peña’s legs and back.

For about two weeks last year, the recliner of his seat inside a 2001 Honda Accord was broken, leaving the bearded 60-year-old man with the uncomfortable bedtime routine of falling asleep upright. Though he managed to find a safe place to park at a church in Mountain View, Peña said he never tired in seeking help from anyone who would listen.

But after a while, with the Bay Area housing crisis and growing homeless population putting pressure on already taxed human services agencies, Peña said it became demoralizing to ask for help. Everyone seemed to listen, he said, but no one could do much to help.

“I always heard the ‘oh, we’ll call you back’ and they never call back, or they say they’ll help but for whatever reason they can’t,” Peña said. “I’ve heard it all before.”

Now after 15 years of being homeless on and off, sleeping in his car, shelters or even “riding the Hotel 22” bus line to keep out of the elements, Peña was giddy, jolly and anxious on Monday as he sat outside a non-descript Spanish Revival building in Willow Glen — his new home inside a safe haven housing development for unhoused people in San Jose.

(Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)

Previously home to the Atria Chateau Gardens assisted living facility, the vacant building at 1185 Pedro Street has been recently repaired in a partnership between the city and Santa Clara County to provide housing for individuals who are in the midst of obtaining permanent supportive housing.

Just days before the Bay area enacted the nation’s first shelter-in-place to curb the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to sign a $20 million agreement to lease the building at 1185 Pedro Street through 2041 and approved a $19 million contract with Adobe Services to operate the housing site.

The facility will accommodate 83 people in single-occupancy rooms with a twin bed, a small tv and a bathroom, including Pena, who is among the first five people to call the place his temporary home before he moves to permanent supportive housing in Santa Clara.

Cracking jokes and hardly containing his booming laugh and smile, Peña quickly signed his lease and walked through the old assisted living facility into his room, taking a peak into the closet and exclaiming “I wasn’t expecting it to happen like this, I was expecting a tent in a parking lot.”

“I feel like I’m floating upwards,” Peña said. “I just can’t believe this. I heard this would happen from so many people before but now it’s real. I can finally lie down — in a bed! It’s going to be quite a change.”

Pena’s place inside the new development, and the haste with which he was given a temporary home, is largely thanks to his advocate within the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing Richard Perez. Perez said Peña will be living at the new facility for several months until he moves inside a residential project on Calabazas Boulevard in Santa Clara which is set to finish construction in the fall.

Seeing Peña at the final stage of his housing journey is what makes the job worth it for Perez, he said.

“This man is resilient,” Perez said of Pena. “To be able to have this day for me is an honor and privilege for me to be a part of. We meet them and get them all ready to go for their housing and all you hear is ‘this isn’t real’ and then it actually happens. The look they give you is priceless. It makes every minute of my job worthwhile.”

From living in his car in Mountain View to now being able to call a place his own in Willow Glen, Peña said he will now finally have the stability necessary to think about finding a job, getting more support from community agencies and sleeping on something soft that will keep his back healthy.

Every day, five more people like Peña will move into the facility until all 83 spots are filled, said Supportive Housing Director Consuelo Hernandez. For Hernandez, this new facility is a great opportunity to move people quickly into housing after years of massive waiting lists and little availability.

“This is a proven approach,” Hernandez said. “It demonstrates what we can do in the community when we partner together. There’s such great wealth and resources here, there’s no reason we should still have so many people in our community at risk of homelessness and homeless. Our goal with this new facility is to make sure that people who live there have a pathway to housing.”

Throughout his intake process, Peña kept saying he was speechless. He said he never thought he’d get to live under a roof of his own this soon.

“I’m looking at this place and I’m thinking, this is killer, this is really nice,” it’s gonna be quite a change. I guess I’ll be sleeping  on a bed tonight. That’s going to be an improvement over my chair in my car. It’s going to be flat either way. It’s gonna be night and day. It’s going be different — different in the best way possible.”