A muscle T-shirt wearing, bodybuilding rabble-rouser may not be the typical image of a church pastor, but Scott Wagers said he had a calling to help the homeless to bring him closer to God — and get him arrested from time to time.
Wagers, 55, has worked on behalf of San Jose’s homeless for three decades, handing out food and even opening an illegal shelter against the city’s wishes.
Fellow advocate Robert Aguirre was living in the Jungle — San Jose’s largest homeless encampment — when he first met Wagers. Before the city tore down the Jungle, Wagers was a frequent visitor, bringing food and clothes.
Aguirre and Wagers started talking about how they could help San Jose’s homeless and the two have worked together since. Wagers asked Aguirre to drive a van he calls the Mercy Mobile to dole out food, conduct prayer and spread gospel.
By sharing his lived experience, Aguirre helped Wagers understand life from a homeless perspective and introduced him to many of the sites he visits today.
While Aguirre works with Wagers less today to pursue his own advocacy, he said he appreciates Wagers for the work he’s done for the community.
“He’s not profiting from others. He’s not living in a mansion or anything,” Aguirre said, adding Wagers’ greatest strength is his knack for mobilizing people to donate and volunteer.
Wagers formed the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry (CHAM), which provides services to unhoused residents in San Jose. The pastor said he always lived a spiritual life, even in rough times.
A rough upbringing
Wagers grew up in Arkansas in what he described as a dysfunctional nuclear family. His father, a charismatic “player,” hustled the race track and sold jewelry. At home, Wagers said, his father’s proclivity for drinking fueled abusive tendencies, terrorizing Wagers and his mother.
“That was the beginning of my ministry right there: Learning how to love people, even when they’re messed up,” Wagers said.
Wagers’ watched in awe as his father quit drinking and went through a number of spiritual changes after Wagers moved out. While his father’s reform didn’t make up for his transgressions, Wagers empathized, confessing that he, too, felt lost and struggled to find a purpose.
In his younger years, Wagers was laser-focused on playing football, as a defensive back. He went to the same high school as Bill Clinton and knew the Clinton family — a fun fact he likes to share— before attending college in Louisiana. He was a competitive bodybuilder with dreams of moving to California and working as a personal trainer.
His high school football teammate, Ed Goines, now the senior vice president of the Seattle Seahawks, was a dorm attendant at Stanford University and let Wagers crash on his couch. Goines helped him land a gig as an undercover security guard and a job at the campus gym.
“I didn’t have a conviction or direction other than sports,” Wagers said. “Watching my dad change got my attention and looking back, it’s underneath a lot of what I do.”
Wagers wasn’t your average gym rat. He pursued a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology at San Jose State and studied the inequality plaguing San Jose in the 1990s. For one sociology paper, Wagers visited residents living under a bridge on San Fernando Street.
“On a human level — on a visceral level, I remember connecting with them,” Wagers said. “They told stories of police throwing their belongings into the river during sweeps. That injustice will always make me mad.”
Wagers felt a sense of duty to empower people who were unheard and overlooked. He invited those living on San Fernando Street to come to San Jose State. Thus began the Student Homeless Alliance.
The student group studied systemic causes of homelessness — Wagers would later write his master’s thesis on the topic — and began advocating for policy changes and housing opportunities.
Wagers described his activism in the early 90s as radical and intense. The Student Homeless Alliance would shake up City Council meetings, protest across the city and some members, including Wagers, were tossed in jail for civil disobedience. Wagers said his activism has gotten him arrested 15 times.
Beyond his bulky and disruptive exterior, Wagers said a deep passion for public service and his Christian faith was brewing. He cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an admirable example of how religion and activism can meld.
“I know my calling is involving the unhoused. I feel it. I’m so passionate about it still,” Wagers said, his voice rising in excitement. “It’s just in me … I had that awakening way back then.”
In 1997, in the middle of a cold El Niño winter, Wagers opened an informal homeless shelter at First Christian Church on South Fifth Street. About 100 people came in to sleep, according to Wagers, so he didn’t flinch when San Jose threatened to fine him $2,500 for keeping the shelter open.
“They call me and say, ‘You know, Pastor Scott, you can’t have a shelter there. It’s not legal.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll do what God wants me to do,’” Wagers said. “We’re going to do our best because the homeless problem is out of control. We want to make sure that people are taken care of.”
The city loosened its grip after advocates and media attention generated support for the shelter. The “quasi-legal” refuge, as Wagers called it, remained open for 14 years. Police would drop people off, local leaders would visit and the city ultimately invested $950,000 to create a program that placed 70 shelter residents into permanent housing for life.
Wagers said he owed his success to Sandy Perry — now president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County — and Adrian Lawton, who is an associate pastor at Wagers’ ministry.
Perry, also an outreach minister at CHAM, called Wagers a deeply dedicated pastor, a serious servant of God and one of the most committed people serving homeless residents year after year.
“There’s a lot of Christians who never make it outside the walls of their churches,” Perry said. “But Scott’s understanding of the gospel is that you meet people where they are at, and you bring God’s love to people directly through not just your words, but through your actions.”
The two met in 1991 when Wagers was studying at San Jose State. Wagers was serving food to families in need at the Cecil White Center on Montgomery Street. The pair has worked together on homelessness and housing issues ever since.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Wagers can be found in a mask and a muscle T-shirt distributing food out of his Mercy Mobile, a van he uses to shuttle supplies to encampments and unhoused residents across the city.
“He’s just a remarkably consistent advocate,” Perry said. “I’ve seen a lot of advocates come and go but but very few stay right there on the frontlines the way he has. He’s never pulled back.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.