Shaw: Words are powerful
A homeless encampment established on the corner of Branham Lane and Monterey Road in San Jose. File photo.

    Words are powerful. They transform everything about us, through us. I remember hearing the phrase “keeping your word” when I was a kid, and that used to really mean something. If you agreed to do something, then you did it, no matter the circumstances.

    But nowadays, words seem to just be a means of expressing information, and whether that information is truthful or not, seems to not even matter. There was such a “concern” for the plight of the homeless, just a year ago, and now that concern seems to have been turned into irrational indifference.

    Ideas for easier, more affordable and more immediate solutions have turned into no solutions at all. The “housing pipeline” is clogged with Measure A funded housing that is years, if not a decade away from fruition. That won’t stop all the candidates from lauding how they championed all those projects though.

    Homelessness is a crisis in this country. Everywhere. Travel through the United States and you will see homelessness everywhere. And it continues to grow as the population grows, and that will remain the case until there is permanent and affordable housing available for everyone.

    Here in San Jose, the city housing department actually came up with a whole new category of housing—permanent affordable housing—to evict our most fragile unhoused and bring in those who can pay nearly $700 rent, which for many may end up being nearly 70% of their income. Is this really permanent or affordable?

    And since people are aware of this, why are people being kicked out of hotels and why are encampments being swept, when it is obvious where these people are going to go?

    The Spring Street camp, perhaps the largest in California, estimated to be several hundred people—including families—was swept Sept. 27 and the residents were offered no real place to go. No tiny homes, hotel rooms, actual housing, just “go somewhere else.” Where are they going to go?

    The city has spent countless dollars putting restrictive parking signs up all over the city, primarily in commercial areas where vehicle dwellers could reside away from homes. Now the city has taken that option away. They are going to end up in your backyard. At stores or parks because there are not enough shelters available. On your side street because there’s no safe parking available. On your sidewalk because the encampments have been swept yet again.

    Even if they could end up in safe parking, the neighborhood would likely end up turning out with their pitchforks and torches, led by some planning commissioner who works for a nonprofit that serves the unhoused. She’d lather the neighbors up to scream hateful things to the unhoused, confront them and make them cry.

    Homeless individuals are people. Human beings who hurt and bleed just like everyone else, and that was seen during the COVID-19 compassion period. But now the homeless have once again been dehumanized. They are looked at as objects, commodities and tools.

    The county continues to send individuals to the Sunnyvale shelter, so HomeFirst can cram them in, even if the individuals have no reason being there. And now the county is standing by as hotels rooms are being discontinued, encampments are being swept and the homeless are dispersed even more throughout its borders, while the cities just twiddle their thumbs and nonprofits secure lucrative blood money contracts.

    The irony is when the nonprofits complain or get defensive in media that they’re doing the best they can with essentially bad contracts, but nobody is forcing them to take these contracts.

    Back to shelters for a moment. Does anyone know how many times the shelters have had a COVID-19 outbreak/case? Or how many times the hotel Apple is paying for after the sweep at their Component property has had COVID outbreaks? These things happen when you keep mashing up people from different areas. So yeah, let’s keep sweeping people and see how it goes.

    The contrast of the homeless conversation from a year ago to now is drastic and absurd, but maybe not so unexpected. The homeless communities were just provided with the words that people thought they wanted to hear. Words of concern and understanding. Words promising empathy and compassion. Words that said homeless people are people too. Until the nation got back to the business of making money. Now those words are about property value, rather than the value of human life.

    And here we are again, scattering the largest encampment in the state, perhaps the country, with no plan, evicting elderly seniors from hotel rooms, inept nonprofit outreach and communities unprepared for the influx of cars, RVs and tents that are coming to a neighborhood near you. And there’s still a pandemic with a new variant stirring up trouble.

    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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