In my experience, community organizers, activists and entry-level employees of community-based organizations age like dogs.
I’ve been all three, and I feel like a modern-day Methuselah just five short years later. In my time here, I’ve shared in the joy of significant policy wins. I’ve marveled at the absurdity of the inequity in our community. But mostly, I’ve become cynical and exhausted.
Several years ago, as an organizer for People Acting in Community Together (PACT), I was a small part of the successful effort to strengthen rent control and introduce a “just cause” eviction policy for our most vulnerable tenants in San Jose.
I also visited Standing Rock to join representatives of indigenous nations from across North America and beyond in the protest against the commodification of natural resources at the expense of future generations. The display of unity and resilience I saw there inspired me. The brutal response of the state to peaceful protests in the service of profit terrified me.
Despite that experience, I later worked for the city of San Jose for a tremendous councilmember.
Now I was in government. Though we did great things in pushing progressive policies, I was also responsible for something that wasn’t so great. Our constituents were constantly complaining about the nearby homeless encampments, and it became my job to notify the housing department which ones needed to be cleaned out.
I had a map in my cubicle with pins of different colors: red for hot spots that were awaiting sweeping, blue for ones that had been recently cleaned up and white for former encampment spots that had since gone dormant. I did not intend to use the colors of the American flag, but the irony is not lost on me now. I did my job with excellent efficiency, but I didn’t recognize then that the brutality I was helping to unleash was akin to what I had seen at Standing Rock.
After that experience, I decided to work more directly with the unhoused and recently housed communities. I reckon I was subconsciously atoning for my sins. I joined the crew of amazingly talented individuals that were tasked with opening up Second Street Studios, Santa Clara County’s first 100% permanent supportive housing community. I was finally part of the solution.
Working at Second Street Studios was inspiring — and disheartening
The most beautiful part of working at Second Street Studios was meeting the people living there.
I don’t say that as some curated proofread public relations statement. Every day I looked forward to interacting with the people living there, learning new lessons, hearing more stories. I laughed and cried with people who had gone through more consternation and pain than I will hopefully ever experience in my life. I am forever grateful for them. Though I no longer work there, I still keep in touch with many of the people who taught me so much.
I also got to see the everyday trials they experienced and how impossible those could be.
Neighbors called our offices because they didn’t want to see our residents walking around the neighborhood. Some patrolled the surrounding building, looking for things to report. Residents reported neighbors meeting them with rude stares. After one resident greeted a neighbor from the community with “good morning” while on an early walk, the neighbor said in response, “You don’t belong here.” Meanwhile, the police responded to minor issues in the building with tremendous force.
Such experiences brought once again to mind my past sins. These neighbors were the same kind of people who were pushing for more ruthless and draconian removal of homeless encampments in their neighborhoods. We prioritize the complaints and demands of such people, because they own property and have wealth.
One time a prominent tech company asked me to accompany a production crew it was sending to homeless encampments in San Jose.
The company wanted to get shots of homeless people for a video about the company’s contribution to solving a problem it helped create. I told the company I’d be up for it. But when I arrived, it was clear I was there to serve as a sort of homeless-whisperer for the crew. My job was to approach individuals at places like St. James Park to ask if they’d be up for an on-camera conversation and some candid shots. Why the crew didn’t feel comfortable doing this themselves wasn’t immediately clear, but became obvious later.
The company’s all-white production crew was accompanied by four Black people: a driver, a security guard, an actor and me.
The actor was playing a homeless person. In a lonely section of Bassett St. in downtown San Jose, the production team set up a tent for him as a prop, placing dirty rags around it. The black security guard and I exchanged bewildered looks. With our eyes, we asked each other, “They needed someone to act homeless in San Jose?” As the Black driver took me back to my car at the end of the day, we cry-laughed for 15 minutes straight at the absurdity of it all.
The unhoused want and deserve to be treated as people
The problem is the more privilege, power or status we enjoy, the less we speak the language of humanity.
The tech company’s production crew looked at the homeless people in the park as dangerous props, like cheap fireworks. They brought me along to be their daring handler. The neighbors of Second Street Studios looked at its recently homeless residents as an infestation in their neighborhood. While I worked in government, homeless people were red, white and blue pins on a map for me — another task on my to-do list.
For none of us were the homeless or recently unhoused real people — flesh-and-blood, fully human people.
I hoped more than anything that “In Your Backyard” would show you the humanity of these inspiring individuals. Are they flawed? Yes. But they’re people all the same, just like you and me. They’d be the first to tell you they’ve made mistakes — they don’t need your reminders in the comment section. They just want to be seen by you as people.
Cecilia Martin, Ralph Duran, Michael Eckhart, Dorie Larson, Kris Ramsey and Jerome Shaw are just such people. They’ve changed my life for the better. I know there is so much more ahead for each of them, and I look forward to reading what lessons are next. My advice to each of them is to run for something, get involved, keep speaking out. But whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, read the comment section.
Thank you, columnists, and thank you, readers.
Frank Ponciano is a former San Jose City Council staff member. He is also a former community liaison at nonprofit Abode Services and an advocate for the formerly homeless residents living in Second Street Studios in downtown San Jose.