After Decades Without Shelter, San Jose Woman Finds Home of Her Own at Second St. Studios

Frank Ponciano recognized her straight away. How could he forget Cecilia Martin?

As a San Jose city policy aide, Ponciano rarely met the people behind the statistics he read in reports and cited in memos. So when Martin shared her story at her Highway 87 camp one May morning last year, it struck him as “refreshing, but sad at the same time.”

Now, he realized that the woman he met on a roadside and never expected to see again, would be one of his clients at the city-financed Second Street Studios, San Jose’s first long-term apartments entirely reserved for the most vulnerable chronically homeless.

That was in March. Martin and other prospective tenants were still holed up in motel rooms awaiting the project’s completion. Ponciano, 26, had just left his job at the city to become a community liaison for Abode Services, which would offer case management at the five-story, 134-unit facility on Second and Keyes streets.

“I was shadowing somebody else when we walked into this motel room and there she was,” he says. “I knew it was her because that meeting last year was salient in my mind. It marked the beginning of this gradual shift in my perspective.”

Even though he had no control over San Jose’s policy of incessantly sweeping homeless camps, he says it pained him at the time to represent the same agency carrying out the traumatizing practice. And when she mentioned being on a waiting list for affordable housing, Ponciano says he felt hampered and hopeless.

“Slim chances at best,” he recalls thinking.

Long Odds

Martin’s life fell apart before she ever got to piece it together.

For as long as she could remember, drugs and alcohol gripped both parents and all of her siblings. At 4 years old, she says her mom and dad got her liquored up for the first time on bourbon and coke. She snorted her first line of meth at age 8 and developed a weed habit two years later. By the time she hit 14, crack cocaine had become a daily fixation.

“I became an addict before I even knew what that word meant,” she says.

Aside from a five-year prison stint, the occasional jail stays and a brief tenancy at a subsidized studio in 2009, Martin lived outdoors her whole life—on roadsides and riverbanks, under tarps or in tents. She says she felt so tired, especially at her age, closing in on 50. All the packing and moving, the relentless sweeps and citations took a toll on body and mind. After so long on the margins, she felt unseen.

“It seemed like I wasn’t young enough for anyone to care to help, but not old enough for them to feel sorry for me either,” she says. “I kept coming up against a brick wall.”

But on a spring morning in 2018, she heard Councilman Don Rocha and his aide Ponciano would stop by the camp to meet with her and her peers as constituents. She anxiously prepared for the visit by picking up litter, squirreling away stray belongings, arranging folding chairs in a circle and slicing up watermelon for her guests.

With nothing to offer but a first impression, Martin figured it better be good. She never expected to make such a lasting one on Ponciano, whose sense of powerlessness that day set in motion a series of decisions that eventually led him to his new job. And he never thought he’d meet her again—let alone to welcome her home almost exactly a year later.

A view from an upper-floor courtyard at Second Street Studios. (Photo by Dan Pulcrano)

‘I’m Home’

About a month after that meeting, things began to fall into place for Martin.

On June 15, 2018—her 47th birthday, she’ll never forget it—her case manager called to let her know that she’d been approved for a brand new apartment complex. Funded by the city, developed by First Community Housing and subsidized with rent vouchers from the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, Second Street Studios would house tenants identified in field surveys as the neediest of the needy, the persistently unsheltered.

“If I see an unfamiliar number, I don’t usually answer it,” Martin says. “And I was just like, ‘Wow, what a birthday present.’”

It would be a long time still before she moved in, though. Despite assurances that the modular units comprising the project would speed things up, construction delays kept pushing back the completion date. She got tired of hoping.

In the fall, Santa Clara County’s Office of Supportive Housing, which was tasked with providing services for the project, offered motel stays to Martin, her partner and the scores of others on the waitlist to at least keep them off the streets as the weather cooled.

“I told my fiancé, ‘Whether you go or not, I’m doing this,’” Martin says. “I’m tired of being out there homeless, tired of the dirt, tired of washing my hands and getting dirty all over again, tired of going to the bathroom in a bucket. I wanted running water, I wanted to take a shower without using a solar bag. I was tired of taking three hours to get ready for anything. I was just ready to be inside.”

Still, every month, for several more, they relocated.

The county and its nonprofit cohorts shuffled all 140-plus clients from one ramshackle inn to another, racking up a cumulative $1.2 million in lodging costs due to holdups.

“Being in the motels, I think I encountered even more trauma there, to be honest,” Martin says. “They’re not nice. One time, I wound up flat on my back in a pit bull attack. They’re not safe. But at least we had somewhere to go every night.”

Moving day—“for reals this time,” she says—arrived on May 9.

Ponciano pulled up with a U-Haul to pick up Martin and her fiancé, along with totes of clothing, bicycles, bike trailers, a one-burner stove and their adorably corpulent Jack Russell terrier-Chihuahua mutt Mr. Speckles.

Abode staff served tacos to the new tenants, who marveled at the newness of the twin buildings kept spic-and-span by John Stewart Company property management—the shared upper-level patios, the bright sunlit hallways and the privacy of their own space.

“That’s when it really hit home for me,” Ponciano would later reflect. “That is the week I’ll remember for a very, very long time. It’s very clearly in my mind when these numbers—the thousands of people we know are homeless out there—became specific people, names, stories and families to me.”

Ponciano led Martin to her third-floor studio, where the gravity of the moment finally began to sink in. This was hers, to share with her dog and her partner. The toilet nobody else had sat on, the floor no prior tenant’s feet had touched—“I can get in the tub without my shower shoes!” Martin exclaims—and the spacious balcony where they could still take in the fresh air they’d grown used to from decades withstanding the elements.

“I can get ready and go somewhere in 30 minutes now,” she says, recounting the moment at a patio table beside Ponciano on a recent weekday morning. “If something happens to pop up—something urgent, or an appointment—there’s no excuse. No matter what I have to do for the day, at the end of it all, I can say I’m going home.”

Tears spring to her eyes. She stops to fight back a sob.

“‘I’m going home’ feels good to be able to say,” Martin says.

She pauses again to regain composure.

“That’s the first time I’ve said that.”

Frank Ponciano, Cecilia Martin and her canine companion Mr. Speckles. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

22 Comments

  1. > Even though he had no control over San Jose’s policy of incessantly sweeping homeless camps, he says it pained him at the time to represent the same agency carrying out the traumatizing practice.

    Was Ponciano traumatized by San Jose and Santa Clara County’s policy of incessantly sweeping taxpayers for cash to put vagrants in high-priced housing units in sunny, balmy California?

    I know a few hundred million other houseless people who might accept free housing in San Jose if the virtue signallers certify that it’s good enough for them.

    • Wow, can I have some of this free housing, 3 squares and a cot and not have to go to work everyday? I guess I will never get this stuff. I have to feed myself and my family, I don’t have the luxury of living off other people……for nothing.

  2. How to get housing when you have no money. Go to Valley Med every day and run up a huge bill. Be a chronic drug addict. Just get out of jail or prison and then you get reentry housing. Be such a burden to society and then Santa Clara County gets you housing because it is cheaper to house you.

    How NOT to get housing on no money or low income. Try to get a job, stay off drugs, don’t get into trouble. Do whatever (legally) it takes NOT being a burden to society e.g. You WORK at a throw away job such as McDonalds, work as a construction helper, etc. THEN you won’t get any housing help at all.

    That’s the way it works folks.

  3. Good for her! I want my tax dollars to be spent in these projects and not paying City and county employees way high salaries they do not desreve. Kissing the A$$ES of supervisors, LICCARDO, and other corrupted officials do is not a merit worth on pay increase!

    • FEXXY:

      What is the value of a rent-free-for-life apartment in sunny, balmy San Jose, California?

      $300,000?

      $500.000?

      $800.000?

      And Frank Ponciano just GIVES it to Cecilia Marlin? Cecilia is a friend, I take it.

      I wonder how Frank got the free apartment to give to Cecilia?

      Oh! Frank is a campaign worker for Don Rocha!

      I know lots a people who would like a free apartment in sunny, balmy San Jose, California. Half of the population of the state of Illinois for starters.

      Why didn’t Frank or Don offer a free apartment to any of my friends, or any of the fine, suffering people of Illinois?

      I wonder who Cecilia Marlin is going to vote for the next time Don Rocha is up for election. Call me a suspicious paranoid, but I’m guessing it might just be . . . Don Rocha.

      Now, I have noted in the past, FEXXY, that you have expressed some degree of dismay over apparent instances of political corruption. Do you think that this might POSSIBLY be an instance of political corruption?

      Or, is giving away $800,000 apartments to friends of campaign workers just “democracy in action” in for San Jose?

  4. You are SO right!

    Middle class gets f$#@* There is no middle ANYMORE. Just when I think I’ve landed the perfect job, something goes awry and poof! I’m back at it but with no assistance!!!! Whatsoever… We can’t get ahead and we don’t qualify for these “so-called” benefits or assistance…. So then what? I guess move out of the bay area. Sadly, it is looking like an option.

    • Gee Wizz MR Bubble, I remember when you could by a vote with a bottle of Ripple and a pack of cigarettes.
      Do you think this guy might be getting something more than a black pencil line?

    • Here’s another interesting study:

      Digging small holes and filling them up wastes less money than digging big holes and filling them up.

      But, why are we digging holes and filling them up?

    • The problem here is LA didn’t spend that money they took it from the tax payers, who didn’t save a dime.

  5. Wow, I’m glad for her! It’s a shame it took so long, but at least she has a place to stay now. Hopefully the city expands programs like this so people are able to get back on their feet much sooner.

    • What should we do if they NEVER get back on their feet? Should we continue to house and to feed them? If that’s the answer then i think the people lining up to get in (both this housing unit and the country) will only get longer and longer, never shorter.
      Perhaps we should have some back-up plans for what to do with the people who refuse to help themselves?

  6. A 134 unit building filled with (recovered?) addicts, (cured?) mental patients, and (rehabilitated?) felons. I think it’s a good humane idea to get them off the street, but if they relapse they should be thrown out immediately.

  7. I’ll never forget that day I brought Rocha and Frank to the encampment to meet the folks living there. We walked through the camp and meet with folks at Ceclia’s camp. She even had watermelon the pass out. Both Don and Frank stayed for about 1/2 hour and listen to folks. Frank didn’t know that Ceclia moved into Second Street Studios until he became her case worker. I am so proud of Ceclia and all her accomplishment.
    Gail

  8. I paid into a system that has failed me to this day I am disabled and 56 years old and can’t even get a caseworker so I’m glad she’s off the street this doesn’t help me much I paid into a system that has failed me and continues to fail me it’s a shame just because that I’m not as homeless as this individual but still need housing that I’m overlooked and I’m disabled this is disgusting. And they’re giving Apartments to everyone I hand out that hasn’t even worked so what about people like me or disabled can’t even get a caseworker

  9. Everyone who is saying “she is so lucky, must be nice, I’d like a free apartment” did you actually READ the part that said she has lived outside her whole life other than stints in jail or prison? That her parents got her hooked on drugs as a CHILD?! We are not talking about someone who lived a carefree life swindling honest taxpayers and living fat off the government teat. This poor woman basically had no chance since the people who were supposed to care for her and protect her as a child were the ones exposing her to harm. Society failed her and now it’s attempting to make up for that. The LEAST they could do is give her an apartment. So you want a “free” apartment? Sure, go live outside for 47 years then you’ve got it. Lucky you, right?

    • > The LEAST they could do is give her an apartment.

      THEY?

      How about YOU.

      You’ve got an apartment. Give her your apartment.

      I have a big heart, and my heart says she would LOVE your apartment. AND, I will feel very good for helping her out.

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