I like to book a hotel room some weekends to rest up and get a quick break from life at the Sunnyvale Shelter. It’s not that the shelter is not well run or that I don’t like the people I live with — it is and I do. Anyone who’s ever lived in any kind of communal arrangement, whether at a camp or with roommates, knows that it’s good for the soul to get away every now and then. I work as much as I can during the week and earn my keep to be able to afford this small privilege.
My last booking was at Courtyard Sunnyvale off El Camino, where I happily received an upgrade to a junior corner suite on the top floor. A beautiful, modern and stylish room with big corner windows, two televisions, a recliner and a comfy couch. I sat down to watch TV, sinking into the recliner in bliss when I looked at the desk area and saw a power strip and various cords on the backdrop off the wall. This was no big deal to me, but every time I sat down my eyes would be drawn to this slight imperfection in an otherwise perfect room.
I pondered how many people in society feel about the homeless the way I felt about this wiring. Imperfections their eyes are involuntarily drawn to, triggering vague feelings of discomfort. A nagging thought that the world would somehow be better if they were hidden, tucked away and out of sight where they would not be able to mar an otherwise picture-perfect arrangement.
But where exactly are the homeless individuals supposed to be tucked away?
The majority of homeless people in Santa Clara County are native residents. And to the extent that there are those who came from elsewhere, it helps to realize they are here now. This is the guiding principle we’ve adopted as we’ve organized the Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative — the only union of homeless shelter residents in the region.
Every step has been a struggle, but we have achieved great things together. It is worth mentioning the Sunnyvale Shelter, which currently operates all year, was only a winter shelter when we started organizing. Those fellow shelter union members who sacrificed much to advocate for this change before the Board of Supervisors and the executives at HomeFirst made all the difference. We now face our latest struggle.
HomeFirst recently implemented a 120-stay program for all shelter clients, including seniors and families with young children at the Sunnyvale Shelter. These include single mothers and fathers who are attempting to provide some sort of normalcy to children living anything but a normal life. These are the homeless people who aren’t in plain sight.
HomeFirst agreed to strengthen certain support systems as conditions for this change. These conditions included robust case management, a computer lab, properly functioning facilities and healthy nutrition-based meals. At the present time, no such changes have been brought to bear. Even if they were realized (and I hope they are), these supports would hardly mitigate the biggest challenge of them all: The clients will have nowhere to go after 120 days.
The Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative surveyed 40% of the shelter’s population — 55 program participants — and found not a single subject who at the time of the survey possessed a housing voucher. It also found that no one had any idea where they would go after the 120-day period expires.
To be clear, enforcing the 120-stay limit without exemptions of any kind will put vulnerable seniors back on the streets and mothers with elementary school-aged children back in their cars. These people experienced enough trauma in the streets and had allowed themselves to start forgetting.
The only place they should go from this shelter is to permanent housing — not the streets.
The 120-day stay policy amounts to organizations kicking the virtual can down the road. When we found ourselves out of options and in the streets, we were left with this shelter as our only chance to climb out of that situation, starting at the very bottom rung of the ladder.
The lack of steady employment is a major problem when attempting to find housing. I’m not sure how many people have tried to find a job while not having a home, but it’s one of the most difficult experiences anyone can go through. Of course, you have the obvious lack of resources (transportation, adequate clothing, proper documentation, etc.), but you also have to deal with the stigma (societal and personal) of being homeless, and the unjust biases employers and employees have against the homeless. I’m fortunate to have a position as an apprentice in the sheet metal workers union, but it hasn’t been without struggle.
I am fortunate to have better than average health, as I don’t smoke anything, I rarely drink alcohol and the only drugs I take are prescribed by my doctors. But, as I was speaking to a fellow worker about the lack of permanent housing solutions for homeless individuals, I still received the ‘I wouldn’t want those people in my neighborhood’ talk, which for me translates to, ‘I don’t want you in my neighborhood.’
I’m fortunate to be physically capable of performing the job that I do, but there are many people at the shelter who are seniors and/or disabled. These are individuals who may be trying to obtain social security or social security disability benefits, a process which can take years to complete.
These facts are also magnified by the coronavirus outbreak in Santa Clara County. Kicking the most vulnerable people back out to the streets (displacing seniors and disrupting children during the school year), while they are sitting on waitlists for apartments (with rarely any openings), won’t help with this and future epidemics. Until we understand we are all links on this chain, we will all share risk.
Jerome Shaw is a homeless and living at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s a leader in the Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative — a union of homeless shelter residents in the region — and is part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.