Roberts: The year of the essential homelessness worker
Homeless tents line up near a train crossing at Autumn Parkway near the Guadalupe River. File photo.

    Who would have imagined that nurses and doctors would fall into the same category as grocery store clerks and meatpacking workers? They all became essential workers, a term we used rarely before March.

    Of course, who would have imagined a worldwide pandemic would arrive on the shores of America, shutting down society?

    I remember when the California governor announced a stay-at-home order in March, there were also rumors that airports would all shut down. Our team members work across the state; many were scrambling to get home. Freeways were eerily empty, restaurants shuttered, parks vacant, and beaches hollowed out.

    It felt like the start of a coming war. A battle against an invisible virus that attacked our bodies via a mere breath, a virus that preyed on vulnerable people, older and chronically sick.

    Community-based organizations, such as PATH, Abode, HomeFirst, LifeMoves, and others, set up war rooms of their own to protect a population that fit the parameters of the most vulnerable to this deadly disease — people who are homeless.

    Within days of the state executive order, frontline homelessness workers were also deemed as essential workers. But to make our workplaces equitable among all of our nearly 1,000 team members, we asked everyone to come into work periodically so that outreach workers and case managers would feel supported along with finance clerks and human resource associates. Everyone was an essential worker in our world.

    And how does a person living on the streets comply to a stay-at-home order when she or he has no home? We had to redesign our interim housing facilities where beds were closer than six feet to protect against this airborne virus.

    And what about the people living on our sidewalks, alleys, riverbeds, and beaches? How would they access healthcare if that sniffle turned into a deadly invasion of their lungs?

    Our essential homelessness workers became counselors, health care workers and even food shoppers for people afraid to go to the grocery store.

    The need for emergency beds was paramount. The fear of a wide community spread outbreak among the homeless population was great. So in the span of 10 months we set up 13 temporary and permanent facilities to house people on the streets vulnerable to this deadly disease.

    Honestly, I don’t know how our teams did it. Probably it was out of sheer adrenaline, overwhelming compassion, fear that they would lose people on our streets. The fear also included anxious worry that they could bring this virus back to their loved ones who were sheltering at home.

    And then George Floyd was brutally murdered.

    The equity marches, and at times violence, occurred outside of many of our 50 facilities across the state, with demonstrations, tears and tear gas, looting, shouts for equality, home-made banners demanding justice.

    Some of our essential team members feared they too could end up like Floyd. They feared driving home from work in the dark, the fear of being pulled over by police. The images of a law enforcement officer brutalizing an innocent man brought back their own experiences of abuse, insults, racism.

    A civil rights movement occurring in the middle of a deadly health pandemic, in the middle of a homelessness pandemic across the state. Meanwhile essential homelessness workers continued to perform heroic services with a mask on to protect those nearby, and also hide their personal fears.

    We end this year with no conclusion.

    The virus still rages on. Some regions have stay-at-home curfews in place, except for those living on our streets with no homes. The hope in a vaccine campaign has commenced although it will take months for it to be effective.

    We end this year worried about the next.

    Will limited eviction moratoriums end, starting a flood of more people ending up on the streets? Will people decide not to be vaccinated, for personal reasons, slowing down the effectiveness of the vaccine campaign? Will those who were furloughed from their jobs at restaurants, hotels, travel businesses end up losing their jobs permanently? No job, no ability to pay rent, possible homelessness as the result.

    Thank God for the homelessness workers among us who have been so essential, who have saved lives. It has been quite a year.

    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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