Victims of Grace Baptist Church Stabbing Join Soaring Death Toll Among Silicon Valley’s Homeless

The two met within months of each other becoming homeless.

Beverly “Bree” Velasco moved back to San Jose the summer of 2016 with nowhere to live after a job fell through in Las Vegas. John Paulson lost his home when he lost his mom, whose death in July that year sent him on a downward spiral and into the streets.

Velasco began staying at the Boccardo Reception Center, a shelter off of Little Orchard Street, while Paulson spent most nights at the Salvation Army’s Emanuel House a few miles north in Japantown. That fall, they wound up on the same van as part of an outreach that transports people from shelters to churches on Sunday mornings.

“It took him a minute,” she says, “but after making eye contact a couple times, he finally got up the nerve to approach me.”

First, she was struck by his “beautiful green eyes.” But what won her over, she says, were his kind words. “I thought he was very handsome,” Velasco recalls, “and very sweet.”

After dating for a year, they married. Despite being relegated to separate shelters and fighting every now and again about Paulson’s drinking, Velasco says they shared a fierce bond and dreamed of one day starting a life under one roof together.

Those hopes came crashing down with the stabbing at Grace Baptist Church.

A Violent End

Beverly “Bree” Velasco with the remains of her husband, John Paulson, who was one of two homeless people to die in the Nov. 22 stabbing at Grace Baptist Church.

On the evening of Nov. 22, police say, 32-year-old mentally ill transient Fernando Lopez went on a brutal rampage that wounded three and killed two—including 45-year-old John Wesley Paulson, who came to the downtown shelter that night for a warm meal and place to sleep.

The second fatality was another homeless client: Kimberly Susan Fial, 55, a transgender woman who’d become an exuberant presence since she began staying and volunteering at the facility a few months earlier.

Their stories became known because of the extraordinary violence of their demise, and the fact that it happened in a place where people sought refuge from the perils of street life. As part of the South Bay’s soaring death toll among the unhoused, however, they join a list of names typically relegated to obscurity.

Though somewhat of an outlier in manner and place, the tragedy at Grace Baptist points to the same dangers driving the 122 percent jump in homeless deaths Santa Clara County has seen so far in 2020 compared to all of last year.

“It speaks to how people aren’t getting enough healthcare and how they’re all fighting for, like, 10 detox beds,” says Shaunn Cartwright, founder of the Unhoused Response Group and a regular presence at Grace Baptist. “It speaks to the fact that people have nowhere to go and they’re fighting for less shelter space.”

After a years-long ascent, deaths among the unhoused skyrocketed during the first nine months of 2020, according to coroner data—rising by 40 percent and 33 percent in Alameda and Santa Clara counties, respectively.

A small share of those fatalities owed to Covid-19. Far more stem from chronic illness such as diabetes, drug overdoses, exposure and ailments worsened by lack of healthcare. A growing number, at least in San Jose, involve suicide and homicide.

Fast Friends

Like many people on the streets, Paulson carried a knife for his own protection. But friends say his affability generally proved a better defense.

“He was a cool guy,” recalls John Rodarte, who spent most of his formative years under the same roof as Paulson. “He was just so easy to talk to.”

Called “J Dubb” or “JW” by his inner circle, Paulson never fell out of touch with his childhood friends—even after lapsing into homelessness. Rodarte says he started out as a neighbor but became family by moving in after his dad’s death in 1989, when Paulson’s mother took him in as her own.

“We’re not brother-brothers, we’re friend-brothers,” Rodarte says. “We had the same first name, were born in the same year and had birthdays a month apart—his on March 13, mine Feb. 10. His mom was basically my mom.”

They grew up in San Jose’s South Side, in a neighborhood off Blossom Hill Road and Almaden Boulevard known by locals and authorities alike as “The Crime Zone.” With a core group of about 20 kids, J Dubb and Rodarte would spend their days fishing at Valley Water’s percolation ponds, swimming in the local public pool, playing football and waging pellet gun wars in the nearby hillsides.

On a recent afternoon, about two weeks after J Dubb’s death, a handful of his lifelong pals—cousin Jeramie Bryan, friends Herbert Mah and Alex Escobedo—convened at Tucson and Calsbad drives, one of their old haunts, to reminisce.

“Those memories will never be forgotten,” says Jeramie Bryan, J Dubb’s cousin. “He was a good guy, had his ups and downs after losing his mom, but he always made us laugh. He loved his music and car collection, always dressed sharp. He loved his wife.”

On Dec. 1, when Grace Baptist Church held a candlelight vigil to honor the lives lost nine days earlier, that same cadre of J Dubb’s friends showed up to mourn his passing and comfort his widow. Rodarte, who lives in Oregon, couldn’t make it. Instead, he says he’s been trying to process his grief by going through old photos of Paulson and clips of the cameos from some of the rap videos they worked on together.

Velasco—who spent the ensuing two weeks quarantined in a hotel room after potential Covid-19 exposure at the shelter—has been going through old photos, too, trying to remember Paulson as he lived to cope with the way he died.

Except for the vigil, one of Velasco’s only forays outside has been to the morgue, where she confirmed Paulson’s identity in part by pointing to her nickname tattooed on the back of his neck. The other, a trip to Irvington Memorial Crematory in Fremont to retrieve a brown-papered box containing his ashes.

Next month, for her 50th birthday, Velasco says she wants to ink Paulson’s name on her own skin. She has yet to figure out where, exactly to lay him to rest, and whether enough donations will trickle in through a fundraiser by friends and another through Grace Baptist to cover the costs of a proper burial.

There’s at least one more place Paulson’s name will appear in the coming weeks.

Jeramie Bryan, Alex Escobedo and Herbert Mah (from left)—all friends of the late John Paulson—reminisce about their childhood friend by a concrete inscription of their childhood crew: The Hoffman Old School Gangsters. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

Leaving a Mark

Just an hour before the Grace Baptist Church stabbing, some volunteers met in the building’s gymnasium to make tombstone replicas commemorating homeless lives lost.

Come Dec. 21—the longest, darkest night of the year—the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council will place those markers in front of the County Government Center as part of an annual memorial for the unhoused.

Many of the deceased named in the somber display will end up scattered at sea, their remains unclaimed and identities all but forgotten. Had Fial and Paulson died almost anywhere else, that might have held true for them, too—as it has for homeless victims of a slew of other homicides to plague San Jose in recent months.

“For quite a few people on that list, the cause of death is some kind of violence,” says Andrew Bear, a pastor who launched the annual homeless memorial seven years ago. “When people are out on the streets, they’re more exposed to those risks.”

Bear says he hopes any sympathy sparked by the Grace Baptist tragedy will extend to the scores of others who shared Fial’s and Paulson’s struggle with homelessness.

“By calling attention to the fact that so many individuals are dying without homes,” he says, “I hope people can find it in their hearts to find meaningful solutions to homelessness in our community.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

11 Comments

  1. > Victims of Grace Baptist Church Stabbing Join Soaring Death Toll Among Silicon Valley’s Homeless

    Victims of Grace Baptist Church Stabbing Join Soaring Death Toll At The Hands of Silicon Valley’s Homeless

    There. I fixed it.

  2. Facing homelessness in the oh so great Silicon Valley is absurd.

    Being homeless must be one of worst things: stigma, hunger, despair, rejection, cold…

    Being homeless and undocumented? Is v. difficult to imagine how hard that could be. We are just understanding the mental stress that homelessness and being undocumented can cause. It is inspiring and compassionate that Grace Baptist Church prayed for everybody without blaming or focusing in a single person.

  3. This is only going to get worse…. the numbers are doubling and by next year I can only image what things will look like….

    At the moment there are “NO” shelters in Santa Clara County, except for the Armory in Gilroy, that are taking in new clients (Referrals) The barn door is closed….

    The VTA 68 bus that goes out to Gilroy can only carry 6 people due to COVID and you will more likely get left at your pick up spot. Nothing is worse then when you are cold and wet waiting for a bus to arrive that you will never be able to board.

    This video below is absolutely heartbreaking and shows what happens when the people that run the show do not pay attention.

    This man did not have to die on the streets of San Jose.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHfgwOvLNpk&t=567s

    FYI = All overnight warming locations are closed and this includes the Library’s / Rec Centers.

    So folks….. anyone got a Heat Lamp with a Propane Tank?? Tents ?? Gloves ?? Lights?? Blankets??

    It’s more then time for “YOU” the public to start doing the right thing and help save lives…. Please get involved before it is too late…. GOD is watching you turn away…. so is Santa…

    I know there are still some good people out there that cannot look away…. I hope you are the one…

  4. In 2015 Miram Zuc and the UDP came on the scene like a banshee in San Jose. Raul Perelez, Sandy Perry, Shaunn Cartwright, Dr. Wayne Chen, the crew over a De-bug and Working Partnerships, the Law Foundation, an assortment of tenants rights white liberals, and of course local propagandists Ms. Wadsworth and Ramona Giwargis thought they would be clever and try to implement Dr Zuc plan to suspend property rights in San Jose by passing stricter rent control and causa justa.

    They wrote one-sided narratives, skewed statistics, chanting “8% every year, 8% every year”, bused in lumpenproles to dance intimidating marches through the meeting rooms and get on the 11 o’clock news of course (but not stay for any meetings), hauled out crying eight year old kids, passed rumors of landlords not letting parents potty-train their kids, conjured up eloquent arguments like “I want to be a human being, not a human doing.”. Oh yeah, with the false mantra of Asymmetry of power being the governing dynamic in every tenant/landlord relationship, as if the government having a gun to landlord’s head isn’t Asymmetry of the Power.

    To their credit, they had the CAA backpedaling from the start. I would argue the CAA laid a trap and wanted the regulation to push the mom and pops out to make room for the Equity Internationals of the world, but who knows. Probably even cut a deal with good ol’ Sam. Any way, they got it all passed. Over and over landlords said, this will only result in higher rents and more evictions, Economics 101, you can’t lower rents by reducing supply. And of course, being they think they know how business works even though they have been living off the largess of other peoples work their entire lives, the activists, the propagandists, and the progressives on the city council wouldn’t listen.

    And now you see the results. Rents hockey-sticked after the regulation was passed for many good reasons. But worse, and really the most heartbreaking, was the skyrocketing of evictions. If you, by design, define the only remedy between landlord and tenant to be eviction, you are going to have ALOT of evictions. And this was not some sort of oversight, it was the plan to push all negotiations into the courtroom as any “side” deal was unenforceable as it could only be a result of oppression. And, as predictable as the sunrise, evictions went from what was an unacceptable 500 a year to 10000. That’s what 25000 people evicted a year?

    Eviction is a necessary but blunt object. Once evicted you have a mark on your credit that only the most desperate landlord will ignore. Hotel stays and then the streets are not far off.

    So when these articles come out and propagandist like Ms. Wadsworth try to play the narrative card once again, it should ring hollow to you. Because Ms. Wadsworth has blood on her hands, as she and these misguided activists have put more people on the street than any one landlord.

    Now you would think time and information would inform Ms. Wadsworth of the limitations of her experience and knowledge, but her rapturous support of defunding the police and her zealous loyalty to the leaders of this city county and state around the business and school lock-outs tells a different story. Police keep poor people safe and lock-out destroy poor people’s lives. These eviction moratoriums, written in this rag as secular miracles, will destroy even more poor lives. Is there no end to the damage Ms. Wadsworth creates?

    The continued chirping of “lil ol me” alt paper, my professor told me the fairness doctrine was dead, its not really news even if I’m the news editor, is utter malarkey. Ms. Wadsworth, you have enormous effect on these ordinances and the business of the city council, you can and have destroyed many careers, you are not a “lil ol me”. These people’s lot is on your hands as much as any others and you continue sit on your high horse proclaim everyone else wanting.

    Shame on you.

  5. Anticipate more bad news with the smart money leaving Silicon Valley – Tesla Oracle, etc. and the permanent work-from-home dynamic. Fewer people are needed to perform services.
    Yet, construction of housing blocks that mirror prisons and glass cages continues. Who will pay for all that empty space and their constructions loans?
    What is the population saturation number in terms of infrastructure, jobs and services like hospitals, schools, cemeteries? Who will pay for this? High taxes and the lack of competent government services are driving people and business away from here. We pay more for less service due to automation. Jobs are gone and they are not returning.

  6. > Bubble,
    > You seemed to have dropped your humanity along the way. I’m sad for you.

    I’m just a tiny little inconsequential pissant. My thimble full of humanity won’t be missed in California.

    I’m currently under house arrest and required to keep a covering over my face. I am prohibited from going to church. I’m not even allowed to sing.

    There really isn’t much I can do with my thimble full of humanity.

    Gavin Newsom, the California Democratic Party state legislature, Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Sam Liccardo and the San Jose City Council are now responsible for humanity.

    Enjoy.

  7. How has it worked for San Francisco spending millions on the homeless population there? First, it has created another government
    bureaucracy and is a full employment act. Secondly, the handouts have enticed even more homeless to SF and clearly made the problem much worse, not better. The “programs” do nothing aside from a few anecdotal cases, but have exacerbated the problem. Which program and how much needs to be spent to successfully deal with the homeless, because after many programs and hundreds of millions spent it has so far not worked, unless the goal was to turn San Francisco into a third world city and caused productive residents and businesses to flee San Francisco.

  8. Evidently:
    a. Ms. Velasco has been homeless since 2016. No mention of abundant free job training for unskilled, completing a degree, or anything else to improve her plight.
    b. Returned to SJ after a job “fell through” in Las Vegas during one of the largest periods of low unemployment rates in 50 years.
    c. Las Vegas housing is appreciably less costly than SJ.
    d. Mr. Paulson was an alcoholic and moved in with his mother. No mention of seeking treatment – including a free residential treatment program operated by Santa Clara County, or abundant free outpatient ones. As is often the case, he became homeless after his failing to get treatment and his enablement ended.

    “anything goes” shelters are at or near capacity as Mr. Largent comments. But space is available at those that provide and require sobriety, work, and self-help. The SJ City Auditors report on our homeless programs details many of the shortcomings and absence of accountability. Many programs like those at Grace perpetuate the problem.

    “Tough love” isn’t a silver bullet, but has proven more effective than enablement. Area homelessness will remain a significant problem until fundamental management issues are addressed. Example: Salvation Army’s metrics v. those of San Jose funded programs.

    It would be refreshing to see an in-depth article on this.

  9. 122% increase. And to think that Cindy Chavez tried to run Major Tollerud and the Salvation Army out with her, “eminent domain and blighted’”nonsense when she was a D3 council person and running for Mayor. The elected officials who have moved into San Jose to play politics have exacerbated the homeless problem. Mooches like Cindy and Sammy and Raul should be put in the hall of shame.

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