Just recently I flew to Hong Kong. I wasn’t there to enjoy its delicious Cantonese cuisine, to shop in its endless malls of shops, or to visit the outer islands.
Rather, I flew to my birth city to join the more than a million Hong Kong people who filled the streets in support of a fledgling democratic movement fighting against the world’s second largest super power, The People’s Republic of China. It is really a “David and Goliath” struggle on the verge of futility.
Like my personal calling to help end homelessness in America’s cities, I felt called to go to Hong Kong in support of a people who simply wanted the right to govern themselves.
In the sweltering heat, I discovered that the leaders of this movement were not jaded veterans of a political campaign or hardcore social activists steeped in years of protests. Behind many of the black masks and goggles, were high school and college students who feared for what their futures could become. I spoke with some of the students and I could see their intensity. I could hear the emotion in their voices and I could feel their willingness to do anything to stand up for their rights.
When the throngs of protestors swarmed against a government police line armed with batons, tear gas and plastic shields, who stood between the angry young protestors and the just as angry helmeted police? It was the older generation of Hong Kong citizens — my generation — who felt the same anger, but didn’t want their young people beaten by batons and suffocated by searing gas.
I could see my generation standing on the front line of a democratic battle pleading with the overly armed forces to hold their fire. Their hands raised to the sky, as if to prove they had no dangerous weapons. My generation protecting the next.
I left Hong Kong thinking how California is struggling with its own human rights struggle — the right to housing.
Lining our California streets are tens of thousands of people living in tents and recreational vehicles. Their struggle is not a right to vote, but a right to housing. Without such rights, they languish on our streets. In almost every California city, homelessness has become the hot button issue.
The angry frontline confrontations are on the sidewalks where local law enforcement sweep tents, people and their belongings off the streets. Advocates sue cities on behalf of the homeless to stop the clean ups.
Other frontline confrontations are in town halls and city council chambers where people voice their anger at elected officials and community-based leaders who are trying to build emergency and permanent housing for those living on the streets. People sue cities to stop new homeless developments in their neighborhoods.
The same anger, fearfulness and desperation that I saw and heard in Hong Kong are infused in the vocabulary and expressions of people confronting homelessness in California.
With rising numbers of individuals and families becoming homeless throughout the state, our communities are at a tipping point. Will we build enough housing and services in reluctant neighborhoods for people who are homeless? Or will we steer the future of our communities toward a “third world” state with visible poverty and homelessness?
With state housing bills floundering and reluctant local leaders unable to muster the political courage to create a housing infrastructure that resolves homelessness, we seem to be tipping toward a permanent class of homelessness in our state.
What a gift my generation is handing over to the next — permanent homelessness. What a future for our young people to have to deal with.
Where is the outcry?
Seems that a new generation of philanthropists — angry, desperate and fearful — need to rise up and protest this precarious future.
San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.