Larson: Snake oil solutions to homelessness and a child’s lesson in empathy
Homeless tents line up near a train crossing at Autumn Parkway near the Guadalupe River. Photo by Kyle Martin.

Becoming a mother a few decades ago and a grandmother recently, I’ve come to appreciate considering the world through the eyes of a child and listening to words out of the mouths of babes. We could all learn a few things if only we would take the time to listen.

But listening deeply is easier said than done. The hustle of our “normal” lives keeps us too busy oftentimes — I know this because I used to live a “normal” life with privilege and self-centeredness. Worried for my family, of course, but also worried about my property, my finances — me, my, and mine — The aMErican dream.

Prior to the financial crisis of the late aughts, I owned a four-bedroom house with sizeable front and back yards in a nice neighborhood, with cars in the garage, a good job and all the trappings of a comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs of San Jose — much like how you might be living today. As you might assume, given my writing in this column, I lost it all when my mortgage went underwater taking along with it that life and all of my big plans.

I became homeless and joined the ranks of thousands looking to survive in the streets and parks I used to drive by without much of a thought.

While homeless, I often thought back to my once “normal” life. Sometimes I felt regret at the memory of opportunities not taken, moments gone by. Yet I often felt fleeting bursts of happiness from memories of what seemed at the time a stranger’s life, the old me. What follows is one such memory of the time my granddaughter taught me to be empathetic — to be human.

The day was clear and cold, the way San Jose mornings in January can be. I was playing catch in my front yard with the grandchildren when a ball went overhead and into the bushes behind me. I checked the garage to find a broom to pull back the ball and protect us from spiders. The bushes dividing my home from the next were six feet wide, as tall as the structure and as long as the driveway.

I am of small stature so I laid flat into the bush to get the most extension. What I found shook me to the core.

Someone had hollowed the hedge out and had been living there, as made evident by opened cans of food still there and not yet moldy. There were blankets, clothes and personal items. But I really lost it when I saw the remains of what seemed like a campfire: A circle of rocks, ashes and charred cans of soup.

It was not a big spot, but there had been a fire in the bushes — on my property, right beside my garage door. “How dare they put my home and family at risk like that?” I asked. I never thought about what they must have gone through.

The next day was Saturday and it was sweeping day. I started gathering my yard tools to head out front.

My 7-year-old granddaughter came running up to me with her gloves on, ready to help me in the garden. We got to the driveway and started hacking away at the hedge. I asked for the big garbage can and grabbed my first handful of what I considered to be garbage. When I turned toward my granddaughter with that handful, she was red-faced and with an angry expression.

She pulled off the gloves and yelled, “NO! NO! NO! STOP! NANA!” She threw the gloves on the cement with full force.

“What are you doing? That stuff isn’t yours. They are coming back,” she said with her hands on her hips. I tried to explain, as adults like to do, that this individual’s problem is not mine nor hers, but by then she was crying, shaking her head and asking, “Where are they gonna sleep tonight? Please, Nana, stop.”

I could not describe how I felt right then. I can still hear her voice asking me that question.

Eventually, we worked out a deal: I would not throw away the stuff and we would instead write a kind note giving them a week before I cut the bushes down. I put the tools away and she finally calmed down, hugged me and handed me her McDonald’s coupon book of freebies she’d received as a birthday present so I could clip them to the note. Three of four days later, we found everything was cleared and a written response was left behind.

In the note, written on the backside of our original note, the person wrote as follows:

“Sorry for intruding, and for any trouble. This place has been the safest and best sleep I have had in many months as I have been looking for places to avoid an abusive person. Thank you for the McDonald’s food and again sorry for the inconvenience”

-Rhonda

Truth be told, I never fully understood her plight until I found myself on the streets. Having now had the experience she shared through that quick note, if this happened to me today, I might have invited her into my home instead. Many times while living on the streets, this memory would bubble up as both happy and sad.

How could I have been so selfish? So self-involved?

It’s January in a year that’s sure to bring a dose of ugliness to the public discourse. Looking to get re-elected, Donald Trump will dredge up the hate within us to divide based on racial, ideological and class lines. According to the online outlet CityLab, homelessness will be a feature in Trump’s plan to divide and conquer California.

If the strategy was for the federal government to invest significantly in building long-term housing, short-term shelters, creating jobs and eradicating homelessness, it would be welcome news. But Trump is simply selling snake oil to the masses for votes.

The snake oil is appealing to many — it might have been to me back when I was a homeowner. But my experiences have taught me something we would all be wise to learn: The only way out of our homelessness crisis is through it.

Instead of homeless sweeps, have empathy for your fellow humans and push for more shelter and permanent supportive housing. Policy without empathy is a hamster wheel that will keep us running in place, doing nothing as our society grows tired, less vibrant and more indifferent. In 2020, let’s try something different.

Dorie Larson is a resident at the Second Street Studios. She is a leader of Second Street Voices and is part of a group of formerly homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.

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