Saturday night in downtown San Jose. My family is going to watch The Public, a new film by Emilio Estevez. It tells the tale of a group of homeless patrons who convince a few city staff members to help them take over a public library to use as an emergency shelter for a night to avoid freezing to death outside.
It was a packed house at the California Theatre. There was no question who the good guys were in this story and the onlookers applauded as a ragged band of unlikely heroes came together to hold their ground against all odds and celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.
My son sat next to me during the show. After the credits rolled, I asked him what he thought.
“Great,” he said. “Way better than I expected!” Pretty high praise coming from a 13-year old talking about a movie that focused mainly on homelessness and libraries.
As I walked out, still buzzing from my parental triumph, I ran into an old colleague. I asked her what she thought, expecting some nuanced variation of my son’s reaction. Instead, I got something very different.
“The movie was fine,” she said. “But the audience, I mean, what a bunch of hypocrites.” At first, this comment caught me off guard, but it didn’t take me long to realize what she was talking about.
You see, the masses don’t typically show up this way in the public theater when it comes to discussing the plight of folks living outside. They come in mobs, no doubt, but it’s not to cheer. More often than not, they yell, opposing projects being built in their backyards, blaming people without anything for diminishing the quality of life in their communities, and doing whatever it takes to maintain the character of their neighborhoods.
These are the tools people use to tear down structures before they are even built.
Take, for example, a community meeting in Willow Glen one week later. Hundreds of people looking to attend a discussion on the relocation of a small, temporary shelter project to a nearby strip of vacant Water District land. Another capacity crowd, but this time it was pitchforks, not popcorn, that they brought with them to the show.
This new location didn’t make sense, they said. No outreach had been conducted. The price of home values will plummet. There’s already too much crime. It’s unsafe, maybe even illegal. The creek and wildlife need to be protected, too. Helping homeless people is important, but this just wasn’t the right project.
Unfortunately, in this discourse, it’s never the right project, time or place. I’m not saying that this particular initiative was the paragon of transparent community engagement or even a great model for addressing the homelessness crisis, but the residents’ complaints that night had already been voiced a thousand times before in countless neighborhoods throughout our community.
Whether it’s an overnight warming center or permanent supportive housing, the response is generally no, not here, not now, not ever.
What makes this even harder is that almost everyone wants the crisis solved immediately for one reason or another, but that solution must happen somewhere else.
So, when the councilmember announced that the site was no longer under consideration, I’m sure you can already guess the response: Thunderous applause.
Who were the champions in this sad vignette? Where was the great moral victory? Wars are waged over empty patches of earth, but to what end? The divisiveness, rancor and consternation generated over the fate of a few littered acres of gravel along the highway somehow seems misplaced. The energy seems wasted.
I’d like to say there is a better way and that with the right approach of education, outreach and dialogue, every neighbor will welcome solutions close to home, but it just isn’t reality. Over the years, I’ve seen no concrete proof that any data-driven argument or emotional appeal can effectively turn the tide of a popular opinion born out of some combination of hate, fear or ignorance.
Yes, you can eventually prevail and build housing, shelters or service centers, but the time expended in this fight ends up meaning days, months and even years that people remain outside and without a home.
What to do? For those diametrically opposed to anything going up in the empty lot down the street from your house or clapping as people are yet again denied a place to rest their heads, I’ve got nothing for you.
Just know that as long as people live on our streets, our community isn’t going to get any better. The problems that you are so worried about like crime and public safety will actually improve dramatically if we can finally get people housed, and your Silicon Valley property values will be just fine.
Despite what you think about more policing or re-institutionalization, there really is no other viable, long-term option than housing, so either get on the bus or continue to watch things spiral down.
For those of you on the fence or ready to push harder to make a change, the door is wide open.
Efforts like Housing Ready Communities exist to provide you with the tools you need to take action and ensure approval of new supportive and extremely low income affordable housing in Santa Clara County. We need more voices of people who really believe in and understand the value of ending homelessness. We need people willing to say to anyone who will listen that they’d welcome new housing – and the new neighbors it would bring – with open arms.
Feel good stories like The Public are great, and by all means go to the movies with your families and cheer, but just remember you’re the one who needs to act after the curtain comes down.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.