I can’t remember many holidays as a little girl. So much has happened since then, I often struggle to remember much at all about that period in my life.
I remember homelessness much more vividly. I recall the holidays on the streets felt particularly lonely, filled with dark sadness, deep despair and nagging hopelessness. Days and nights full of shame were intensified by the constant reminder that I would once again be far from my family, unable to celebrate.
Outside of Target or Walmart, Mr. Speckles (my dog) and I sat on the sidewalk as people went on their way to do some holiday shopping. As they went on, many glanced at us as though we were the scum of the earth — like we had caught Ebola.
Every year, I couldn’t wait for the holidays to come and go. The quicker it went, the better.
One year, I was fortunate enough to be in an apartment living with a friend for a few months. During that holiday season, I came up with the idea that I would make Thanksgiving dinner and take it out to an encampment. I resolved to make the holidays a little better for a small group of people whose experience I intimately understood.
I decided to visit the people living in an encampment behind a nearby Safeway. Little did I know not long after my first visit I would be living there as well. From the start, most welcomed me with open arms and open hearts into their homes (camps). There were a few who were a bit standoffish as is to be expected.
It was during that time that I met so many people who I now consider family. Some of the most wonderful, kind-hearted people you could meet. Unhoused people who, like me, struggled every single day to keep their heads above water. Helping each other stay alive through the sweeps, and the cold, and the rain, and the hate hurled our way every single day.
I cooked and prepared food there two Thanksgivings in a row, telling myself it would help me keep my mind off the fact that I missed my family so terribly much. My children (I have six), my sister, my three brothers, and most of all my mom and dad who are now deceased.
I thought I was helping others, all the while they were actually helping me not to be so sad and lonely. They gave me so much more than I could’ve ever given to them.
Cooking Thanksgiving dinner, putting it all in a shopping cart and then pulling it alongside my bicycle (because that’s all I had) kept me busy and numbed the pain and sadness of the holiday season. When I arrived out in the field where we lived, we all stood in a small circle to say a prayer before serving the meal. We each went around and spoke of the things we were grateful for. Some of us smiled as we spoke, others became emotional — painful tears welling up in their eyes and rolling down their faces.
As Thanksgiving passed, I was anxious for Christmas to come and go.
This year, I was afforded the opportunity of a lifetime — a permanent home and a second chance at life. Immediately, I thought about bringing back the Thanksgiving tradition to old friends in the encampments. With help from neighbors here at Second Street Studios, we made it happen and then some. It was bittersweet to see familiar faces and spend time reminiscing.
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I tagged along with other volunteers as we made our way to different campsites with food, tarps, gloves, beanies and other life-saving gear in the frigid and wet conditions of a San Jose winter. What happened that day has stayed clear in my mind for weeks.
As we pulled up at our last location, a row of individual tents on a San Jose sidewalk, I got out of the vehicle and called out, “Hello, is anyone here. Anyone home?” With a pained tone, an elderly woman cried out, “Yes! I’m here. Please, help me! Lady, help me, please! I’m scared.”
As I approached her tent she began weeping and pleading with me to help her. She finally got her tent door open some. As I knelt down to look in her front door, the smell of urine and mildew hit me right in the face. As I peered in to look at her, I saw this poor elderly woman and her little pooch both shivering from the cold and freezing rain that had left them soaking wet.
This frail woman was sitting there rocking herself and her little dog. Her tent was flooded and soaked, as was everything in there — including the clothes she wore and her blankets, which she would have needed to keep warm on a dry night.
I handed her a couple of McMuffins as the rain continued to pour on her and her belongings. Over and over she told me, “I can’t be out here no more. Please ma’am, help me.”
The best I could offer her was information about the Roosevelt Park Overnight Warming Location Center, which would open that night at 9 p.m. but close at 5:30 a.m.or 6 a.m. the next morning to ensure the neighbors aren’t burdened by the sight of homeless people in their neighborhood when the sun rose.
I told her she and her dog could at least stay in a dry, warm place for one night. That is if she could walk about two or more miles to Roosevelt Park. That is if she could carry her belongings to prevent them from being taken or otherwise destroyed. That is if she could survive the day.
It was more than I could handle. I asked her to excuse me for a moment as she told me her name and age and began begging me again for help. I returned to the vehicle and sat there and cried for a while. I realized that I simply did not have a solution for this elderly lady, nor do I have the kind of resources that she needed.
I felt helpless, the way I had felt so many times before.
This Christmas, I want to use this platform to share my wish list:
- That the city of San Jose would open up more Overnight Warming Locations where people can stay warm earlier than 9 p.m. and later than 6 a.m. in the morning.
- That Councilmember Maya Esparza allows for Tully Library to once again be an Overnight Warming Location which can save the lives of many sleeping along the creekside (when Tully last served as a warming location two years ago, it was the most heavily used in San Jose).
- That Councilmember Johnny Khamis stop his campaign of misrepresenting what Laura’s Law would do for the city of San Jose and Santa Clara County.
- That our county supervisors stop dragging their feet on establishing sanctioned encampments and safe parking locations on county lands.
- That you, the reader, never feel what I have felt or experience anything I’ve seen surviving on the streets of San Jose — in your backyard.
Merry Christmas and a happy 2020.
Cecilia Martin 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.