Op-Ed: Solving Homelessness Requires Empathy, Collaboration

Every opportunity to shine the spotlight on the plight of homelessness—no matter the season, no matter the weather—is not only welcome, it’s necessary. It is far too easy to make assumptions about the people who are living unhoused and about those who have chosen to work on solutions. It is counterproductive to trivialize the work we do with barbs such as “Little Torture” and “PR stunt.” It is impossible to demand empathy.

The original op-ed began asking the reader to image the conditions on the streets right now. We don’t have to imagine what it is like, because it a reality we face every day in our work. HomeFirst outreach teams were out every day, all day last week to warn anyone living along a potential flood zone of the impending danger of the forecast storms. The ideal outcome is to bring the individual or group (with beloved pets) back to the shelter—to a safe, warm space to sleep along with meals and access to supportive services.

While those defined as “chronically homeless” are but a small percentage of the total number of unhoused, the reasons for chronic homelessness are highly individual, sometimes, but not always a result of mental illness or substance use, sometimes a result of abuse, sometimes a fear of living in close contact with strangers. This is the stereotype.

We, along with the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County and a long list of service providers, choose to offer services and shelter in the hope that consistent contact may build trust. We make wellness checks, offer water, snacks, hygiene kits, dry clothes, blankets and more.

That is why HomeFirst has hosted a memorial service every year since 1999, the heart of which is the reading of the names of everyone who died unhoused the previous year. On February 13, we read 158 names and birthdates.  Each name represents a whole person, no matter how long or short their life.  For each there is a life story and where possible we included an anecdote to focus on that life, that story.

Petre Strezoski was remembered by a coworker as “truly a joy to work with. He was always happy and positive. He was quick to smile and offer a joke or a snack if you were tired. He was even patient enough to put up with me trying to learn Macedonian.”

Max Zizumbo was born in San Jose, graduated from Yerba Buena High School and joined the US Army in 1989.  He served in the Gulf War.  He was a fan of the SF Giants and the Dallas Cowboys.

Jake Maldonaldo (b. June 29, 2018) and Bernadette Pereira (b. April 24, 2018) died as infants, infants without a place to call home.  This is not acceptable in our community.

It is, frankly, obscene that 94-year old Florence Leung and 88-year old Gunter Barth, died homeless at such an advanced and vulnerable age. We can do better.

All 158 were remembered, because all 158 mattered.

We are proud that six of our board members volunteered to be readers this year—proud of their passion for the mission and for any opportunity to be of service. This is a moving and meaningful experience for each of them. Because we work hand-in-hand with local elected officials on solutions such as the Bridge Housing Project, the elected officials who enact policy are always an integral part of our public events.

The day of the service was cold and rainy so overnight guests of the Boccardo Reception Center on Little Orchard where the service was held, were invited to stay indoors all day.  (Typically, shelter guests vacate the Boccardo Reception Center (BRC) in the morning and return in the late afternoon, enabling staff to complete the vital daily deep cleaning and disinfecting that keeps the facility safe for our vulnerable population. Only those using the veterans center or too sick to be up and about are inside for lunch which is served at noon to preserve the routine.)

Every guest of every shelter HomeFirst operates is welcome to attend the memorial service, as are volunteers, community leaders, fellow service providers and anyone who is homeless. Save-the-date postcards and numerous on-line reminders were sent to more than 1,000 individuals. Numerous announcements were made throughout the day at the BRC. There were, in fact, homeless guests in attendance, but we gave everyone the choice of whether to participate or not.

As one guests said, “Honey, I face death every day. There’s no way I want to sit here and have it in my face.”

Among the suggestions we’ve already received are to distribute flyers and posters at all shelter facilities, to offer transportation to and from the BRC, and to begin the service at 2pm rather than noon.

San Jose’s Overnight Warming Locations (OWL) are managed by HomeFirst on a day-by-day basis but activated by the city. Originally there were four sites with one just for families. As of Jan. 13, no one had visited the Alum Rock family site so we focused on the remaining three locations: Leninger, Bascom and Roosevelt. Since Dec, 24, the OWLs have been activated for 30 nights with a total of 1,699 overnight stays. The maximum capacity of 30 beds per site has been reached seven times at the Bascom site and 18 nights at the Roosevelt site.

Last year, a guest at one of the OWLs told me, “This place saved my life. It was so cold last night I thought I’d freeze to death. Thank you for making this a warm, safe space.”

With more than 7,300 homeless people in our county, we need people and organizations to work together to drastically reduce this number. We need creativity and cooperation.

The way the Valley Transportation Authority’s Route 22 (aka Hotel 22) has been used by many unhoused people seeking overnight respite is truly creative, and for that we are grateful. HomeFirst has aligned with others to lobby for the continuation of this service, yet ultimately it is the VTA’s decision.

The number one reason for homelessness is job loss and the longer the episode of homelessness the longer it takes to get back on one’s feet. Among the recurrent reasons that unhoused people eschew shelters is past experience with domestic violence, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other conditions that makes a large, loud facility with strangers especially threatening.

For those who believe homelessness is solely the result of laziness, a desire to work the system, or such, we are unlikely to dispel those notions. Yet, we are grateful for the many who are solution-focused and will continue to work with them until our resources meet the need—the need to find affordable housing for those who are literally priced out of Silicon Valley and the need for shelter designed to meet the various levels of care needed by our most fragile and vulnerable neighbors.

Every day I see the enormous empathy that drives so many to work tirelessly on this issue. There are stereotypes to dispel, misinformation to address and personal agendas to consider; but if we are generous enough to acknowledge one another for efforts—large and small, the odds of making a lasting difference will be greatly increased.

To anyone who wishes to be part of the solution, please feel free to contact me.

Stephanie Demos is the chief development office of HomeFirst. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

6 Comments

  1. How much time did this employee of a contractor that receives tons of public dollars every year spend writing this defensive point by point essay rather than accepting the criticism that is valid, acting like an adult by ignoring the criticism that isn’t, and just doing the work?

    You know that your shelters aren’t accessible to people who have suffered trauma and violence or have mental illness issues, which accounts for almost every single homeless person? FIX IT. Don’t be mad at the people pointing out that you have a problem or try to finger point about their tone. Sometimes the truth hurts. So fix it. Or give the money back. But this denial and childishness? Knock it off.

  2. > Op-Ed: Solving Homelessness Requires Empathy, Collaboration

    First of all, for the umpteenth time, “homelessness” is a “term of art”. It doesn’t mean anything, except that it is a manufactured problem for which various political racketeers have “solutions” which involve someone else’s money going into their pockets.

    The racketeers can blubber, they can cry, they can tear up, they can look horribly distressed at the seriousness of the problem. But so can an hambone actor or sidewalk mime who spies a dollar bill in the wallet of a passerby stooge.

    The PROBLEM that the racketeers try to characterize as “homelessness” is that some human beings CHOOSE to live outside of or are incapable of living within the universally accepted conventions of civilization. Don’t steal. Don’t defecate on the sidewalk. Don’t try to have sex with whoever whenever you feel an urge.

    The solutions are:

    A.) REQUIRE all capable human beings to live within the conventions of civilization which means PROVIDING FOR THEIR OWN NEEDS including their housing needs.
    B.} Institutionalize human beings who are incapable of providing for themselves at a place and under circumstances determined by civilized society. And civilized society is fully privileged to decide that the place of institutionalization is “somewhere else”, far, far away.

  3. We are all a hair’s breadth away from homelessness. Fortunes can be lost overnight. A job can suddenly disappear. A medical event can lead to dependence on painkillers. A traumatic family event can try the strongest of coping mechanisms, yet can result in drug addiction. Everyone thinks they have what it takes to pull oneself up by their bootstraps and survive and regain what they once had, but in reality, by the grace of our Maker, most do not suffer this fate. Count your blessings. Do you really think you have what it takes? Without help?

    We used to rely on religious institutions to help those adrift and on the streets-now it’s the government. Governments by their very nature are clunky and slow to make meaningful reform, however, this is our reality and our hard earned tax dollars are spent by the tens of millions by Santa Clara County alone on programs to combat mental illness and substance abuse. Is it really working?

    I challenge Supervisor Chavez, an amazing person, to bring in experts in the field of delivery of community mental health services to study the effectiveness of the many outside mental health and substance abuse treatment providers that contract with the County. As far as I know, there are no deliverables or measurements of success these mental health providers and substance abuse providers are required to aspire to, and the data made public consists of the number of “beds” available intermixed with anecdotal stories of successful outcomes.

    Is the current provision of services effective? I don’t think anyone knows for sure because the delivery of these services is very difficult for the lay person to understand. Hence the outside experts.

    Sometimes it helps to bring in someone from the outside, someone who is far removed from the region and area of operations to take a look and make hard recommendations. Private businesses and corporations do this all the time…to survive.

    Our homeless and mentally ill community need this.

    • > I challenge Supervisor Chavez, an amazing person, to bring in experts in the field of delivery of community mental health services to study the effectiveness of the many outside mental health and substance abuse treatment providers that contract with the County.

      A successful businessman once told me that the surest way to get an “F” in business school was to propose any solution that began with “hire a consultant”. (“If your recommendation is to hire a consultant, why do I need you”?)

      Believing that there is some genius out their who has the answers to all the hard questions is the same as believing in the tooth fairy or rainbow unicorns.

    • The taxpayer cost is well into the Billions in SCC.

      Over $175,000 per “homeless” by some estimates but at least $125k per hobo as a result of the last election.

  4. I challenge anyone to live outside for, 48 hours. As a homeless person. No cell phone. No vehicle. No money. No food. No help from friends or family. Start with nothing. Where would you go? How would you get there? What will you eat? When will you eat? Where would you shower?

    It sounds too easy to do, right?

    Sure. How hard can pulling yourself out of homelessness be? With all the resources and shelters that are available there is no way on earth you could spend one night outside.

    How about really playing the role of a homeless person with mental health problems or even a drug addiction. Where would you go for help? How would you get there?

    With no cell phone to contact anyone, what payphone would you use?

    Assuming that those who are helping the homeless community would be very busy doing so, where can they contact you when they become available? I am more than sure you will need to leave a message with your name and a number to be reached at. Remember NO HELP FROM FRIENDS OR FAMILY.

    Where would you sleep during the evenings? How would you productively spend your day so when the 48 hour challenge is up you will be housed temporarily or permanently.

    It will take more than 48 hours to really grasp the real true reality that homeless people face every single day.

    Just food for thought. Try the homeless challenge for however long you can last. This is not something someone who has never had a mental health problem or drug addiction could fully comprehend and be able to come up with a solution. Walk in those shoes for a mile.

    FYI and in case you are wondering, i am not homeless. I am an. Native American Citizen of the USA. But i cant afford to live inside a structure that is complete with running water and heat and electricity. I have PTSD and its gotten worse since i have been without a place to call my own. With a key to lock the doors, walls to keep out the cold, a safe place for me to live without my things being taken from me. Without my safety being a risk. Free from being vulnerable and taken advantage of.

    I may not have homeowners rights or renters rights until i either have a mortgage or a rental agreement/lease. However, i do have the right to be protected from discrimination. I have the right to be protected from hate crimes. I have the right to the pursuit of happiness.
    It almost seems as though you waive these rights along with many others because you do not have a safe place to live. Its almost as though those who work and pay taxes reserve those rights. More like privileged.

    I do understand those productive members of society who are completely disgusted by all the trash, crimes, drugs, and having to see all this everyday going to and from work. I do see how this issue of homelessness is impacting the lives of those who are “housed”.

    I have been sexually assaulted while i was sleeping inside my tent. I have been cursed at and flipped off by people driving by. I have been robbed. I am a victim of identity theft. I have been harasssed by other homeless people and by the police. I was shot at by a man who was recently proven to be incompetent to stand trial and is being sent to a mental hospital for treatment. I was being chased by a “housed” / “tax paying” citizen because he tried to rape me. When the police arrived nothing was done. I was given an incident card and was told to stay away from him if i saw him again.
    I do not pay taxes to have my rights protected. I dont work because of this PTSD. I have a dog wbo is like a son to me. He was given to me and i trained him so he trusts me and he protects me. I was told “your animal shouldn’t be out here. Have you thought about giving him to a good home?”
    Yes i have. But my 3 year old German Shepherd has been in my life for all of his life. He was a puppy when we met. To think if that gunman shot and killed me or my dog, tbat man would have gotten off by proving he was incompetent. Where is the justice?

    Politically speaking, ok well, i dont know politics. I am a God fearing woman who has not lost all hope in humanity. I still have my life, my dog, my health, and my faith.

    Are you willing to do the challenge? Become homeless for 48 hours and see where you end up? Or for however long it takes to become accepted and have the same rights or privileges?

    Other than your narrow mindedness and perhaps your negative perception, what do you have to lose?

    Lets see how you go about it. Try it. Bucket list it: experience homelessness.

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