My husband and I lived on the sidewalks of Downtown San Jose for years. I can spot the different places where we made beds and memories as I walk around these streets today. Strangely, I feel nostalgic, as if I was visiting my old high school and seeing my freshman year homeroom. It’s almost like I graduated from something.
Most days we woke up with frozen fingertips and numb toes. Our basic needs for everyday living became one exhausting obstacle after another. Every day, carrying around what was left of everything we held dear, we looked for a safe place where the two of us could warm up and wash up.
San Jose City Hall was usually a good, but unpredictable, option, the Diridon Station restroom was often crowded. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Library was the best option by far — if you could get your luggage through the security officers at the entrance. Sometimes, we would go straight to a fake fireplace on a quiet corner on the second floor and pretend it was our living room.
Many think homelessness is a choice. In my experience, it’s more like a whirlpool. Your only choices are to desperately reach for the surface as the water whips you around, or simply give up and swirl further down the drain. This is a false choice. Most people end up in the same desperate place whether they are reaching and hoping, or giving up. Days blend into weeks. Basic living expectations turn to specific survival tasks and choices. Where will I brush my teeth? When will I shower? Where can I sleep and not get beat up? Who will keep me safe? There exists a complex but functional underbelly of society in Silicon Valley.
Caring about voting while living in the streets did not even register for me. This is not because I was lazy or dumb, it’s because on the streets I did not get informed. While in the streets, I did not see the long-term impact elections would have on my condition.
I made the choice to focus instead on the tasks that would ensure my short-term survival. If I found myself back in the streets, I would probably make the same choice and you would too. Politicians seem to forget that the vote of the poor and downtrodden might not be financially mighty but it does represent a majority — a sleeping giant waking up.
I now have a home and stability thanks to many kind people and institutions focused on getting us out of this crisis. I will vote this year and this is a choice I hope many more people — housed and unhoused — make this March and in November. With local elections like that of San Jose City Council District 4 in 2016 being decided by 12 votes, I have no doubt we could tip the scales in 2020 and beyond. We will continue to work toward this end until homeless people — not just homelessness — become a focus of candidates running for public office.
This March, I am cautiously voting yes on Measure E, the city’s property transfer tax. This progressive tax will go a long way toward building the kind of housing in which my husband and I live. The housing built with funds from this transfer tax will change many lives for the better, the way mine changed when we moved in last year.
All this being said, homeless and formerly homeless perspectives must be represented when the citizens’ oversight committee is formed, if Measure E passes. It is critical that our decision-makers be held accountable and that the revenue from this tax is actually spent on affordable housing and the homeless. The fact that these funds are going to the general fund scares me and should scare you too.
Thank you for reading ‘In Your Backyard’ and allowing us to share our experiences and opinions. I will be back again sharing more in six months. In the meantime, GO VOTE!
Kristine Gardner Ramsey is a resident at the Second Street Studios. She is a leader of Second Street Voices, the new Second Street Tenants Association 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.