Roberts: The demonization of homelessness
Tripper, a man living at the "Jurassic Park" homeless encampment in San Jose, is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

Four years. Four long years of demonizing the opposition. Sadly, this has become part of the “new normal,” just like Zoom video calls, take-out fine dining, mask wearing (at least for some), WFH (work from home) and demonizing anyone who disagrees with your personal, righteous worldview.

You don’t agree with my progressive political agenda? Then you are pure evil, worse than the fictional Hannibal Lecter who ate his murder victims.

You don’t agree that California has too many taxes that push good businesses out of the state? Then you are an evil, corrupt Communist who supports handing out government cash — my taxes! — to lazy people.

Gone are the days when compromise was valued, when the volume of public discourse was low. When there were no social media platforms where anyone with an iPhone or laptop can become a social influencer broadcasting their philosophies to their tens of thousands of followers.

Whatever happened to the cordial handshake as a confirmation of a deal, a compromise between two competing parties?

Four years? Actually, those of us seeking to build homes for our homeless neighbors have experienced this community warfare for decades.

I remember my first public neighborhood meeting to share this wonderful solution to homelessness — an apartment building with social services. What an amazing answer to a person who is homeless… a home!

It is designed like the other residential buildings on the block, and fits snugly into a quaint, tree-lined, Mr. Rogers neighborhood. Who would oppose such an idea? It’s not a warehouse shelter filled with a hundred bunk beds. It’s a real home.

I walked into the auditorium with beautiful renderings under my arm, and a stack of flyers explaining how people living on their streets would finally get a home. I expected smiles, laughter, even a standing ovation. A Nobel Peace Prize even flittered across my mind.

Reality hit me and our team hard. The auditorium overflowed with eyes shooting knives at us, as if we were planning to bring in a busload of criminals.

No smiles, arms crossed, and two hours filled with cries of hatred.

“This building will ruin my home’s value!” (Our building design was the best looking structure on the block.)

“There is a school down the street. I fear for my child’s safety!” (As if our residents will be lurking on every corner ready to kidnap school children.)

I felt like I was Satan coming into their innocent neighborhood to wreak havoc. And here I thought I was an angel bringing dignified solutions for the most vulnerable neighbors in their community.

The cavernous room was filled with two diabolically opposing groups. Those of us trying to build homes for people who were hurting. And the rest of the group trying to defend their neighborhood, their home values, their sweet children from a demonized group of people — hurting people who are homeless.

I left that evening dejected. I felt I was ambushed by armed neighbors ready to kill the Satanic beings entering their beautiful world.

They didn’t understand that a building full of homes for the very people living on their streets is better than rows and rows of tents filled with people who are homeless.

I wish President-elect Joe Biden were there asking the question he proposed to the nation during his victory speech, “Can we end the grim era of demonization?

There is something wrong with a society that treats the most vulnerable, hurting people in our communities as if they were demons. To assume that a woman on the street who was kicked out of her house by an abusive spouse, or that young guy kicked out of his childhood home because he was too feminine, are murderers or predators? Are demons?

Maybe that attitude is demonic.

The “new normal” should really mandate that all of us appeal to the angels within.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. He also is a board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home.

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