Politicians, tech execs rappel off Adobe building to help end homelessness

Mercury News September 9, 2017

SAN JOSE — One-by-one they rappelled off a landmark Adobe building downtown Saturday, carefully descending 16 floors as onlookers cheered and snapped photos from below.

Some, looking to add a bit of flair to the tricky challenge, did so in full costume (there were a few Spider-Man sightings). It’s not something you see a local politician do everyday, let alone a tech executive.

There was good reason for the early morning spectacle: The first-ever Downtown Drop Down “rappel-a-thon” benefited Downtown Streets Team, a San José-based nonprofit that runs a program aimed at giving homeless volunteers work experience.

More than 90 people, including four local mayors, rappelled the 16 floors — 236 feet — to support the nonprofit, which was trying to raise $275,000 for programs supporting homeless people across eight Bay Area locations.

Participants included state Assemblyman Ash Kalra, San José Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, San José Councilman Raul Peralez and Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff.

“I feel a bit betrayed because I was told that 19 of us would be scaling down 16 floors — and I figured that would just be one floor for each of us,” Liccardo joked after he reached the ground.

“As long as you’re not looking down, everything is just peachy,” he added.

Amid soaring rent costs and an unforgiving housing market that has pushed thousands of people out of the Bay Area and others onto the streets, the event was a reminder of the expanding ranks of the homeless in Santa Clara County.

The latest census of the county’s homeless population was an estimated 7,400. According to the census, there was a 185 percent increase over 2015 in the number of people under age 25 who are homeless. People under 25 now make up more than a third of the overall homeless population.

“Obviously we’ve got a crisis on our hands like every city on the West Coast,” said Liccardo, who credited the Downtown Streets Team for creating pathways to self-sufficiency for many homeless people.

The nonprofit sends dozens of homeless volunteers out to beautify their community in exchange for case management, employment services and a basic-needs stipend.

“We’re going to need an all-of-the-above approach,” Liccardo said. “And that means everything from converting motels to creating more apartments for homeless as well as building micro-housing buildings.”

Among the volunteers Saturday were Ana Hernandez and Christine Gonzalez, two Downtown Streets Team leaders who were once homeless.

The 47-year-old Gonzalez, who struggled with drug addiction and was homeless for nine years, said she recently received a housing voucher to have a home of her own. She held back tears when she thought about what Downtown Streets Team has meant to her.

“This organization has given me confidence,” she said. “The team members, they’ve helped me through a lot of things. It’s made me a better person. A productive person.”

Hernandez, 59, lived out of her car for several years before eventually taking refuge at a shelter. The women met at the Julian Street Inn, which provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless adults struggling with mental illness.

“Before I came to this organization, I was really depressed,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t have value as a person. They gave me back my dignity. I’m important now. I’m a person now.”