Shaw: No one chooses to be homeless in Silicon Valley
A homeless encampment in downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

There’s nothing good about being homeless.

It’s a hard and exhausting way to live. Most people aren’t able to imagine what living on the streets is like. Lately there’s been an uptick in the number of clients residing at the Sunnyvale shelter, as solutions to the pandemic increase. I’ve seen individuals come in from hospitals, from vehicles, and literally right off the streets. Different people from different circumstances, seeking food and shelter.

The physical exhaustion and emotional weariness is readable in each and every one of them (except the children, of course). And I wonder how people think that a person chooses this for their life. No one chooses to be cold, hungry or thirsty. No one chooses to NOT have a kitchen, toilet or shower.

Things happen in people’s lives everyday and some of these things cause life changing devastation. The type of events that most people aren’t even able to imagine if they haven’t been abused and neglected (as a child or adult), aren’t a foster child, haven’t  been raped or molested, don’t have a psychological or physical disability, don’t struggle with addiction, or have been affected by numerous other life events that can’t be controlled.

The COVID pandemic has placed a lot of people perilously close to being homeless, and forced many into actual homelessness.

It shows how circumstances beyond one’s control can have a tremendous impact on your life, and I hoped that the pandemic would allow people to understand this. But I still observe the homeless being vilified as drug users while the corporations responsible for creating the ability to abuse drugs, just pay fines and admit no wrongdoing.

Homeless people are portrayed as drunks, even though more than 10,000 people die in the U.S. each year by drunk drivers, hundreds of thousands more are injured and tens of thousands of people die from alcohol-related circumstances. It’s as if addiction and abuse are only wrong if you’re homeless and can’t afford to attend a $30,000 a month treatment center.

The faults that people call out in the homelessness community are a microcosm of the faults within every state in the nation.

And the homeless are not bad people because of these faults. They’re just people, with circumstances no one knows about or cares to try to understand. Many of us have done things or been in circumstances that could have been tragic, but they weren’t. But if those events had been tragic, no one knows how that would have affected them.

Yes there are some people who have overcome tragic events, but everyone is not able. Just like not everyone is able to be an entertainer, or business owner, or oil tycoon or be the founder of a billion dollar corporation. Your circumstances in life allow this. People are not the same, and expecting someone to conform to an ideal way of life is ridiculous.

Life is hard for regular people, unless you are lucky enough to become rich through brilliance (then you aren’t really regular), stock options, inheritance, home appreciation, or some other form of unearned income. And not having devastating events torpedo your life.

The problem of homelessness isn’t going away anytime soon, in fact, it’s apparent that it is increasing, which causes a tremendous amount of angst, because of the visibility. Homelessness can be seen just about everywhere, but there’s so much more that is not seen.

And that’s why advocacy for the homeless is needed more than ever and it will continue whether it is liked or not. It’s often easier to look down on those who have less, to avoid looking up to see how many actually have more than you do. There are many more closer to the bottom than top.

Jerome Shaw is 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.

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