HomeFirst responds to letter from a local homeless activist

Op-Ed: Solving Homelessness Requires Empathy, Collaboration

By Stephanie Demos

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 jenniferw@metronews.com.