Watsonville police and detectives cordon off a Jeep Grand Cherokee Tuesday morning on Second Street after a man flagged down police to report a dead man in the front passenger seat. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian).
WATSONVILLE — A homeless man displaced by the recent closure of the Salvation Army shelter in Watsonville died Tuesday morning in an SUV, according to the man’s friend, Bob Withers, who was driving the vehicle.
Withers, 79, said he met the man, whom he knew only as Bill, after the Salvation Army on Union Street closed its shelter in August and displaced about 40 people.
The man was identified Wednesday as Bill Jones by Salvation Army Captain Demetrio Villarreal, who oversees the Watsonville branch.
“We are saddened by the news that (Bill) passed away on Tuesday,” Villareal stated in a prepared statement. “On behalf of The Salvation Army, our condolences go out to the many people in Watsonville who had the privilege of knowing Bill.”
Villareal said he has known Jones for about 10 months.
“I first met Bill about 10 months ago,” he stated. “My earliest memory of him is that he liked to have fun and would joke around with people when visiting the Salvation Army shelter or when he would join us for dinner. Not many people had the opportunity to get to know Bill, but what I learned in my short time of knowing him is that he was a genuinely nice man: always grateful for the help and support that we offered him.”
Villareal said a private service will be held later this week for Jones.
Withers said he met Jones at the Salvation Army shelter.
“When the shelter closed, I told them I’d take care of Bill,” he said.
The death saddened workers from Pajaro Rescue Mission, which is hoping to take over the Salvation Army shelter. The takeover has been in legal limbo as the details are still being hammered out, and it is still unclear when a decision will be made.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Pajaro Rescue Mission Program Support Assistant Manny Uriarte. “This is what we feared would happen. We really hope the negotiations will come through, and we can be a part of the solution.”
Withers said Jones was either 61 or 71 and had a medical condition that led to paralysis in his left leg, which made it difficult to get out of Withers’ vehicle, a white Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“He’s better off dead than how he was,” Withers said.
Withers said he and Jones would drive to the Pajaro Rescue Mission on Railroad Drive in Pajaro, but chose to sleep in the Jeep.
During the day, Withers said, they tried to escape the cold by finding sunny places to park.
Uriarte confirmed the men would shower and eat at the rescue mission, but was unsure why the men did not sleep there too.
“It has to be tremendously uncomfortable to come to a new place,” he said. “People fear change.”
Withers said he was driving in the downtown area when he noticed Jones drooling. A short time later the drooling stopped and Jones became unresponsive. He then pulled behind a California Highway Patrol officer on Second Street on the side of Watsonville Civic Plaza.
“I pulled behind him and said, ‘I have a dead person in the car,’” Withers said.
Police said there did not appear to be suspicious circumstances, but they were investigating the death.
As police cordoned off the area, the drinks and sandwiches Withers had purchased for their lunch were still on the dashboard. He declined an offer by a reporter from this newspaper for a cup of coffee.
Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano, who serves on the board at Pajaro Rescue Mission, said the need for a quick agreement is especially important with the cold winter months fast approaching.
“I think (Jones’ death) brings to light the serious need for emergency housing,” Solano said. “We expect the Salvation Army to give us an answer soon to reuse their building,” he said.
Chuck Allen, who has been active with the Salvation Army, said the organization has asked for a one-year lease with a 30-day cancellation provision.
“There’s no way to build a program around a structure like that,” he said.
According to Salvation Army spokeswoman Lanie Hendricks, the final proposal is currently being mulled by the legal team at the Golden State Division headquarters in Long Beach
Hendricks said she expects an answer “in a day or two,” but said she couldn’t give a definite date.
Other details being considered are a new, portable shower facility as well as insurance and liability issues, Hendricks said.
The one-year term, she explained, was not an expression of doubt of Pajaro Rescue Mission’s ability to run the program. Instead, it was a way to give both sides a chance to make changes after a short period.
“This is not something we’ve done before,” she said. “We’re just trying out how the situation would work.”
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