As I approach a year of experience as the community liaison at Second Street Studios, the city’s first permanent supportive housing project in downtown San Jose, I have been equal parts amazed by the knowledge and creativity our residents display and confounded at the subtle ways in which our elected officials and decision makers continue to disregard their experience and what solutions they have to offer.
In the context of our housing and homelessness crisis, it is insanity that we have come all this way, tried so many things, theorized about solutions and never thought about — let alone invested in — uplifting the voices of the very people affected in order to glean valuable insights about solutions, big and small.
That’s why I’m excited to introduce ‘In Your Backyard,’ a new monthly San José Spotlight column and the only steady media source of commentary directly from folks affected by homelessness south of San Francisco. The columns, which will be published every third Thursday of the month, will feature the voices of four powerful residents who have all experienced and survived homelessness in Silicon Valley.
You won’t read quotes filtered through a journalist’s notebook — instead, you’ll hear firsthand from the people who lived outdoors. I encourage you to read with interest what perspectives are offered by the authors who have lived through the worst of this crisis, falling into homelessness, surviving through it and now thriving in the face of continued societal stigma.
Elevating these voices has never been more important. Homelessness is not a problem unique to California or the Bay Area, but it’s progressively getting worse.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, last year there were 553,000 homeless people across the nation on any given night. Today that number is higher as the federal government continues to prioritize the welfare of the rich at the expense of the growing masses of desperate Americans struggling to survive in our cities. This is a system that needs reform nationwide. Having said this, there is much we can do and need to stop doing locally to address this crisis.
Here at home, the number of homeless residents has risen dramatically. The latest homeless count found 6,172 people on the streets in San Jose, a 42 percent increase from two years ago, and 9,706 homeless individuals countywide, a spike of 31 percent.
You’ve already heard the numbers, but the stories behind them are much more gruesome than you can imagine. Every day, San Jose engages in taxpayer-funded torture and illegal seizure/destruction of property by way of relentless encampment sweeps that come without realistic shelter options as alternative. The city spent upwards of $2 million playing a cruel game of whack-a-mole with folks who simply have nowhere to go. Undoubtedly, this practice inflicts trauma that leads to depression, drug abuse, violence of different kinds and suicide.
I am not one to lecture on this — as a former City Council staffer, I reluctantly participated in this barbaric system, not knowing the level of human suffering I was inflicting.
For the last eight months I have been listening to those affected, and what I have learned has changed me. Thanks to the courage of Second Street Studios residents Ralph Duran, Michael Eckhart, Cecilia Martin and Dorie Larson, as well as the creativity and partnership of San José Spotlight, you too will get a chance to listen.
Frank Ponciano is a former San Jose City Council staffer, community liaison at nonprofit Abode Services and an advocate for formerly homeless residents living in the Second Street Studios in downtown San Jose.