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A pastor’s mobile ministry to Silicon Valley’s underbelly

Pastor Scott Wagers, right, and Mercy Mobile driver Robert Aguirre drive the Mercy Mobile to various homeless encampments in Silicon Valley. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

SAN JOSE, Calif. (RNS) Tucked behind a light industrial area of self-storage warehouses and auto-parts stores is a small encampment of homeless people who live in tents along the banks of a creek.

Few people know or care about this encampment, or an estimated 150 others scattered all over this Silicon Valley capital of 1 million people. But every so often, a beat-up 1985 RV called the Mercy Mobile pulls up along a dead-end curb and a motley crew of homeless advocates bearing water, food, or clothes and shoes hops out.

Leading the pack is Pastor Scott Wagers, a former body builder and trainer who has dedicated the last 25 years of his life ministering to the homeless.

“Hey man, you doin’ OK?” he asks a homeless man waiting to see what the Mercy Mobile might distribute one Saturday in late June. Wagers gives him a bottle of water, some energy bars and his card and encourages him to get in touch.

“Text me and let me know if you’re getting swept up or something’s going down,” he says.

A group of homeless people gather in a clearing beside Coyote Creek in San Jose. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Homeless people gather in a clearing beside Coyote Creek in San Jose. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Among the homeless at the encampment that day are James “Tripper” Turner, a Canadian native who has been homeless for years and makes a living collecting aluminum cans for cash, and Ajanae, a transgender woman from Somalia whose family has disowned her.

Unlike most brick-and-mortar ministries that require the homeless to come to them, Wagers meets the homeless on their turf. He doesn’t urge them to seek shelter or get counseling or even come to Jesus. He simply inquires about their well-being and lets them know he’s there to help.

His larger goal is to get his community — one of the country’s wealthiest — to face up to a gnawing problem: more than 4,000 people in San Jose with no place to call home.

Every chance he gets, the 50-year-old Disciples of Christ minister brings people with him on his rounds, whether it’s fellow clergy, interested scholars, students or business executives.

“What’s driving me is the human crisis,” says Wagers. “People are living under overpasses and going to the bathroom outside in one of the richest nations of the world. The church has to be a witness.”

Like a prophet crying out in the wilderness, Wagers is dogged in his pursuit of justice for the homeless.

California has the highest percentage of homeless people living in unsheltered locations, according to a 2015 homeless study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

San Jose tops the list of the state’s cities with homeless people living outdoors, about 70 percent.

“We don’t have winter, so people are able stay outside,” acknowledges Ray Bramson, division manager for the San Jose housing department.

Santa Clara County, where San Jose is located, also has the nation’s highest median household income; nearly half its residents earn more than $100,000 a year, mostly at high-tech companies such as Adobe, Cisco and eBay, which are headquartered in the city. (Google is nearby in Mountain View and Facebook is in Menlo Park.)

San Jose’s median home price was $980,000 last year. And 16 percent of its residents are among the nation’s top earners.

The disparity created by the tech industry has created an acute housing crisis for people on the lower end of the income spectrum who cannot find affordable housing in a city where renting a single room in an apartment might cost between $800 and $1,500 a month.

For years, homeless people took refuge in the Jungle, a 68-acre homeless camp along Coyote Creek that had the dubious distinction of being the nation’s largest homeless encampment.

Wagers used to visit the Jungle’s 300 homeless residents until the city evicted them and barricaded the area two years ago.

Video produced before the Jungle was closed in 2014. Courtesy of Erika Najarro via YouTube

After that, he bought the RV for $5,500 and together with homeless advocate Robert Aguirre, a former resident of the Jungle and a onetime engineer, began driving it from one encampment to the next.

They avoid downtown, where services to the homeless are more plentiful, and instead drive to remote areas where 20 people typically live along a creek bed below street level, obscured by cottonwood trees, shrubs and other vegetation.

Wagers and Aguirre rail against the sweeps — the city refers to them as “abatement activities” — that have come to define homeless living in the San Jose area.

The drill is all too familiar: As soon as too many homeless people congregate in one area, the city will drive them out — forcing people to trek to a new location, in the process losing many of their possessions. (The city maintains the abatements are needed to avoid environmental hazards or public safety concerns.)

“The homeless are like refugees, moving from spot to spot,” Wagers says. “Nobody wants them anywhere.”

The roving ministry takes in donations from churches, nonprofits and individuals.

Those, say Wagers and Aguirre, are easy to come by.

Pastor Scott Wagers outside his Mercy Mobile in San Jose. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Pastor Scott Wagers outside his Mercy Mobile in San Jose. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

“I can fill the RV three or four times a day if I wanted,” says Aguirre. “People will donate food, water, hygiene kits. We need to get people to understand there’s a financial need.”

That financial need is steep. The longer people live outside, the more likely they are to show up in emergency rooms, in the county jail or in need of acute psychiatric treatment.

A recent study showed that persistently homeless people cost the county $13,661 per person per year. But frequent users of medical and other public services can average $100,000 a year.

The city’s government recognizes the problem. In November it will ask residents to approve a $950 million bond to pay for the construction of housing, the vast majority for the homeless.

Meanwhile, various church ministries are pitching in.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph allows homeless people to use its address as a way to receive mail.

Grace Baptist Church allows homeless people to shower, do laundry and lounge indoors in its downtown sanctuary. Last winter, it got a permit to house 15 homeless people overnight for 35 days. This year, the congregation won permission from the city to house 30 people for 90 of the winter’s coldest nights.

“What we’re doing, honestly, is putting a Band-Aid on things,” says the Rev. Liliana Da Valle, pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “We’re feeding people today but saying, ‘Sorry. Tomorrow we may not be able to.’”

Wagers is more blunt in pinning the blame. He has few kind words for tech executives such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Tim Cook of Apple.

“Their policies create an environment of survival of the fittest,” says Wagers. “The people who built the valley can’t afford to live here anymore.”

In Silicon Valley, the theory that tax incentives for powerful tech companies will “trickle down” into middle-class wealth has not played out.

Companies such as Apple are not averse to charitable giving. They, and other tech giants, are often willing to match employee donations to an ever-expanding group of nonprofits, for example.

But they have yet to fully realize the problems they’ve created for middle- and lower-middle-class families.

“Companies need to open their eyes and take responsibility for pushing people into homelessness,” says Da Valle. “Asking for their charity is not enough.”

The behemoths may be slowly awakening to the reality. Last month, Facebook agreed to construct 1,500 new housing units, of which 15 percent will be reserved for low- and middle-income residents, regardless of whether they work at Facebook.

That’s just a drop in the bucket. But it’s a start.

Meanwhile, Wagers will continue his Mercy Mobile rounds.

He’s committed to giving the most politically powerless class of people in America a voice.

“I’m not a socialist or a capitalist,” Wagers says. “I’m a Christian. And this is shocking to me. What’s our role as Christians? ‘What you did to the least of these you did to me.’”

Reporting for this article was supported by the Living Religions Consultation at Santa Clara University with funding from the Wabash Center for Teaching Religion & Theology and a Hackworth grant from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

16 Comments

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  • I do not feel guilty or sorry for the homeless in Silicon Valley. There is such a thing as choice, and these individuals are freely exercising theirs. The back-story is, this area–like most technological centers, is no doubt strewn with “Now Hiring” signs for low skill-level service jobs. These people choose to inflict themselves on the area businesses to generate guilt, and–in the end, live at the expense of others. That by far is the easier way.

    This preacher and his sidekick should be dispensing some tough-love and counseling discipline, conversion and character to rebuild these broken lives; otherwise nothing changes. They could follow that up by distributing shaving kits, bus tokens, free haircut coupons, and directions to the nearest Goodwill where the homeless can receive training in how to present themselves for job interviews. They can also obtain a fresh, clean suit of clothing for under $25.

    Again, RNS is seeking to inflict white success-guilt on all those who have it better by working, and they’re inviting us to subsidize the poor choices of these homeless. I’m having none of it, Thank You!

  • Religion is what created the homelessness in the first place!
    Right Wing Christian Republicans decimated the progressive tax system and cut funding for hundreds of educational and vocational programs across the United States.

    Deregulation and low taxes on the rich have destroyed America. Christian Evangelism has always led to poverty.

  • Now that is real Christian ministry that Jesus would recognize. Taking care of the least of these – widows, orphans, sick and lame.

    The majority of homeless have untreated mental illnesses or physical conditions that make it impossible for them to work. Without health care they cannot get the consistent, persistent treatment they need. Many are extremely poorly uneducated. Illiteracy is not uncommon. Educational opportunities are frequently too distant and transport too expensive to access. Businesses are not interested in hiring dirty, smelly employees with no address, phone number or email.

    It’s encouraging to hear of a Christian ministry that really really is “ministry,” rather than a thinly veiled attempt to gain political, social or economic hegemony. Kudos to Rev. Wagers and all others doing similar boots-on-the-ground ministry.

  • There is much more to the back-story. This was a wonderful article that accurately captures the ministries that are working to help the plight of the homeless. “What you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.” No success-guilt was intended, I’m sure. It is jarring, however, to live amongst such wealth and see so much poverty. Thank you to RNS for shining such a Light on this issue.

  • And the back story of the homeless: what are you championing that will CHANGE their lives, rather than merely maintain them in their current pathologies, and give liberal Christians like yourself, their requisite feel-good? I love the scripture you quoted! It’s about stepping in to provide food, clothing, presence and comfort to those suffering short-term deficits. The long-term needs of the homeless involve interventions to their lifestyle choices, subsidized by others.

    You’re not proposing any solutions here; you’re merely maintaining the status quo, hoping that potent success-guilt stick you’re wieldilng, keeps funding this enterprise with nair a hint of change. Everything about the Gospel demands change, and provides the spiritual support for it. I suggest that you–and RNS, get better acquainted with this path. It’s essentially what the Christ-story is about!

  • OK, so you ride the buse from a less expensive area, or you double up or live communally until you get the raises that will let you pay for better housing. The “working poor” are doing that already, and that’s a proven upward path. At least there’s change and upward movement.

    Churches can pitch in and provide temporary housing in the church basement; church members need to be challenged to get hand’s-on with these needy individuals, rather than merely write checks for “feel good,” then blithely go their way

  • We welcome you to come and help us in the trenches of Christ’s ministry. This isn’t about politics or liberal vs. conservative. We are sharing Christ’s message of Good News the best we know how. Spend a few days with the homeless; you will have your eyes opened. There are no easy solutions here.

  • Your first sentence makes me think you did not read the article. Where do you live? You do not seem to understand the realities of living in the Bay Area.

  • I know the realities of living in Santa Clara and Marin Counties, and the Bay Area in general. I think there’s room for a discussion of the ethics of planting one’s self in an upscale area, then demanding that one be housed, fed and cared for.

  • Please consider two things:

    1) Many–if not most–of the homeless that we work with in Santa Clara County are natives. Some have been priced out or evicted and have no where else to go. Some are disabled or infirmed with no family who can help.

    2) Where would you suggest our janitors and the “low-skill level service job” workers should live if not in our “upscale area”? Should they have a prohibitively expensive commute of 40-50 miles to get to affordable housing? Often they cannot effectively use public transportation in this scenario. Where should our teachers and ministers live?

    Please prayerfully consider your outlook on the human beings we are talking about here. The situation on the ground is much different than the impression you have.

  • Among the teachers and ministers and other low-earning service workers, new Immigrants are another class of human beings who take those jobs and ride the bus, and live communally to get by until their grasp of English and their skills buy them better accommodations. It happens here in the Denver area all the time, where identical conditions persist in an expensive rental market. (and where our homeless hang onto the money they beg, to pay for recreational marijuana!)

    New immigrants don’t demand to live among the wealthy they serve; they’re not burned up with envy and hate, because they see having a job and a livelihood as a rich blessing. They are humbly grateful for the opportunities they find here, that other Americans–including the homeless, consider beneath them

  • Again, I will invite you to join us in this challenging ministry so you may see Christ in the faces of those you will meet.

  • More ignorance. What a shame. There but for the grace of God go you my dear. I hope you’re never faced with such a Horrible experience.

  • It is very obvious that you have no idea about the homeless population. Your ignorance is astounding.

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