Shaw: One person can make a difference when you’re homeless
In Your Backyard columnist Jerome Shaw is pictured in this file photo.

Holidays became meaningless to me some time ago when I became homeless—especially the heavily commercialized ones.

I saw them as glorified weekends that unrelentingly remind the homeless of what they’ve lost or what they don’t have. Thanksgiving to remind you of not having family or friends to break bread with. Christmas to remind you of not having anyone you’re willing to spend money on, or not having any money to spend.

This week we had Valentine’s Day to remind you of all those who don’t love or care about you. I try to make these days feel as good as I can for my son when I have him for holidays, but some of those days were hotel rooms with pizza or burgers. And I was resigning myself to be comfortable with that.

I always want to make sure that my son feels and knows he’s loved, but I was OK with not having someone reciprocate that intention with me. When I spoke to some clients at the Sunnyvale shelter about their feelings surrounding holidays, my thoughts were often echoed in their words. When you have no home, self preservation outpaces the need for genuine personal connections. Even though we as people, homeless or not, want to feel cared for by someone. Someone that allows you to exhale and be yourself, and still accepts who you are. Someone who simply makes you comfortable.

The COVID-19 pandemic that changed our lives forever provided me with the opportunity to reconnect with my college girlfriend Teresa after 15 years. The reconnection began through the Words with Friends game, which I had no interest in until COVID gave me an unlimited amount of idle time. I still don’t know what possessed me to invite her to play with me, given I was still dealing with shame and emotional numbness, like so many other homeless individuals.

I was content with just playing the game and didn’t reach out beyond that because I had nothing good to say. It was awkward for a long while until she started a chat in the game one day, asking why I hadn’t said hi. I had to shed some of my shame and let someone into my world. I had to shed even more when I agreed to visit her when she took a road trip with her niece to visit Napa and one of her former students in Sacramento. She had been teaching journalism and graphic design at a STEM high school in Seattle for almost 10 years, and worked at the Seattle Times for nearly the same amount of time. She’s a career-driven workaholic that excels in whatever she does and she would’ve been teaching journalism workshops that summer, if not for COVID.

That Sacramento trip was a life-changing event. I saw she was genuinely concerned about making sure that I was OK. She was willing to have me and my son move to Seattle and live with her to help me out of homelessness. If I wasn’t beginning my second year of my apprenticeship, I probably would have tried to do it. But restarting a five-year apprenticeship during COVID wasn’t feasible and moving my son would’ve been a struggle. But her gesture said it all. We’ve been able to weave our way back together since that summer, even though we have both changed over the years.

The growth and changes that have occurred are nearly unimaginable. I understand that 99% of homeless individuals have not been as lucky as I have. Like them, I felt abandoned by those who (supposedly) cared for me in the past. I felt judged and shamed by people who didn’t want to even attempt to understand my circumstances. Emotional withdrawal was the easiest thing to do, even though it wasn’t healthy mentally.

I’m sure my son and I would’ve been OK in the future economically, as I completed my apprenticeship and obtained a living wage, but my emotional well-being would not be intact. I would’ve accepted not being cared about, and that would’ve been tragic. I see a lot of homeless people who were just one caring person away from having their lives changed for the better, rather than having to suffer their current tragic circumstances.

I am blessed because Teresa has provided me a hope in a future that I thought I had lost by simply caring about me. The things that she has done for me and my son over the past year and a half are utterly remarkable. I wish everyone, homeless or not, had someone like her in their life, because one person can make all the difference.

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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