Tag Archives: homelesscommunity

Youth writes about the ignored side of the homeless population

By Giselle Alejo, Judy Ly, Jeana Rose Meneses and Pauline Valezquez

Staff Writers

Many of us are guilty of making assumptions about people before taking the time to get to know them; however, Isabella Zou, a senior at Westlake High School in Austin works to enlighten her community about the real people of the homeless community.

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Isabella Zou, 17-years- old, senior at Westlake High School.

She described the overarching stereotype we all seem to buy into: “We often just lump homelessness into one category of people that are all just very similar, but I’ve learned that people are very diverse, and the one thing they do share is the status of homelessness.”

The way that Zou battles this cliche is through her website, Austin Street Humans. This blog gives the homeless population a voice by sharing their stories and providing insight into a community that has been pushed to the side.

The blog is comprised of numerous different articles, each one focusing on a member of the homeless community about their personal story. Zou described the process in which she gets each interview: “We go to community centers where the homeless people gather and are given services in Austin and we sit down with people and have long conversations, just about their life path and how they became homeless, but also just about what their childhood was like and what their future prospects are.”

When asked about why she started her website, Zou replied with, “My life was being changed by hearing these stories, and like that effect could be multiplied if we put it on an online space.”  She later commented in the interview, “The overall goal is to just bring the stories of people experiencing this condition to light and I think the more broadly and deeply we can do that the better.”

She further voiced her motives behind the blog by saying, “I want to prove that homelessness is not always a choice.”

She elaborated on what the stereotype of homelessness being a choice means in our society by giving a personal example about her parent’s original views on the topic. As background Zoe mentioned that her parents were first-generation immigrants and came to America with practically nothing. She relayed her parents point saying, “They were like: it is a choice because they had experience with what it means to build yourself up from nothing; like they had nothing and they could make themselves better from nothing.”

Although her parents might have believed this to be true prior to Zou’s personal work with the homeless community, her mom is now a supporter of her work and leaves frequent, encouraging Facebook comments on her Facebook page that are dedicated to her work.

Her mom is an example of why she started the blog: to open people’s eyes to the reality of the homeless community’s situation.  In light of this realization, she commented, “I guess this work can make a difference.”

Through her interviews, Zou has been able to get to know those she talks to as human beings rather than just members of the homeless community. When asked what she tries to do with each interview she answered, “I always try to find the things that they’re interested in because every person has things that they lean towards … bring[ing] those things to light kind of helps humanize them and kind of make them seem more like people.”

Zou shared an anecdote of a person named Michael who took a remarkable interest in literature and NPR. Zou reminisced about her relationship with Michael by saying, “He got rid of any stereotype that I had of homeless people being not smart.” She shared Michael’s story by telling us his life “involves a lot of tragedies, one after the other.”

Zou commented on his situation by saying,“With him it is just a constant battle with himself, like his drug habit, and for him to make the choices that make it easier for him to make good choices.”

After being sent to jail for 12 years, Michael decided that he wanted to turn his life around and made the decision to get his GED and license to become a truck driver. Zou concluded her thought by saying, “It’s encouraging to me because that’s something that I relate to a lot, like the difficulty of making choices sometimes and the fact that once you made enough of them they sort of like start to build up into the base that can make it easier for you to keep making the same kind of choices.”

In short, Zou made the connection that even though both her and Michael are in two completely different times in their lives, at the root of it, Michael is just another human being that faces the same struggles that she does.

You can read Michael’s story here.

Another personal story that Zou shared was about a man she met on three different occasions named Nawin. Nawin’s story begins after he divorced his wife and a couple years later moved to America. He started out in Mayland where he worked with gas and sent what little money he could back to Nepal for his kids. Finally, he moved to Austin where he hoped to find better job opportunities. This is where his wallet went missing which meant his green card, Social Security, money, ID were all gone. This is what ultimately led Nawin to be homeless.

Zou admitted that Nawin opened her eyes about, “our community’s apathy about the homeless community and also whether the things that I’m doing to try and combat that apathy and raise awareness are actually effective.”

Unfortunately, Nawin passed away last May.  

“Incidentally his death is what sort of convinced me that there is some bear to what I’m doing because after he passed away, I actually found out about it from his sister, …. “ she commented.

The story goes as the following: A couple days later following his death, Nawin’s sister who lives in Nepal, got in contact with Zou after searching up her brother’s name.  “She was asking me whether I had any pictures of him and I didn’t have any pictures but I did

have the audio recording of our conversation,” Zou said.  “And so I was able to give that to her and she was like ‘It is so comforting to be able to hear his voice because I hadn’t seen him since he left for America which was years ago.’”  

This moment shared between Nawin’s sister and Zou made her realize, “Getting people’s stories out there not only helps the public but also might help the people that love that person.”

You can read Nawin’s story from Zou’s blog here.

Later, Zou defined the word “homeless” as, “The lack of place where you have the assurance that there are people that will care for you and accept you.” She furthered this definition by alluding to the magazine, “Household Words” by Barbara Kingsolver and reiterates, “Home is a place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” So, by extension, “Homelessness to me is just the lack of that.”

Following that, Zou found similarities in the people she interviewed and said, “One common theme is just something that went wrong in their family, whether that be in their childhood or even later on.”

She continued this sentiment by adding on, “I think that this is a very potent thing to see because our families are so vital in shaping the people that we become and even if your not homeless from a young age, if you’re exposed to abuse and … just a lack of basic care from that young then it can affect the way you see the world for the rest of your life.”

She continued this note by talking about how we, as a society, could work to help the homeless by arguing, “Instead of treating homelessness as one big problem that needs one big solution, it is like a case by case kind of thing.”

Furthering the statement she explained, “Some people … all they need is like a caseworker to help them reapply for their ID and then somebody else might need like a lot more specialized care, like mental health care or otherwise.”

Zou added that, “For people who aren’t homeless…we have arguably more choices than those who start out with less and I think that ultimately the responsibility that we have is to use the amount of choice that we have access to …. to help those who are less lucky be able to make choices anyway” when asked who she believes should be the people to help those in need.

In regards to her aspirations and hopes for the future, she replied with wanting to expand Austin Street Humans with more staff writers and her nonprofit called After Hello.  “Like one of [the programs in progress] is basically the Austin Street Humans work but minus the writing.  And so you go there, it’s like a safe environment

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To the right of Isabella is Phillip, one of her friends who was homeless when she first met him.

where your parents can feel safe to send you.   And like you have conversations with people,” said Zou.  This would allow people to be in a safe, controlled environment and be able to conversate and connect with the homeless population.  

Zou also mentioned hosting sock drives, where they would collect socks at different schools and also letters that the students would write to the homeless population with thoughtful notes of endearment attached that would be delivered to a number of shelters.

As for other young people who want to make a difference in their community, Zou readily said, “It’s possible to do seemingly radical things at a young age.” She finished this thought by saying, “I don’t think that most adults are able to gain an audience that easily, so definitely age, instead of being a detriment, it can actually be an asset as you try to build connections because people are always very encouraged that youth care about things.”

Zou’s final piece of advice was, “Start doing it now.”

Related:

San Francisco struggles to serve the homeless in the Bay Area

Booming Silicon Valley confronts cold reality of homelessness

Teen uses voice to amend legislation

Teen uses voice to amend legislation

By Giselle Alejo, Judy Ly,  Jeana Rose Meneses and Pauline Velazquez

Staff Writers

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Michael Tracy, senior at Advanced Technology Academy

Contrary to the popular belief that teenagers are unmotivated to help people other than themselves, Michael Tracy is living proof that teens do care. Tracy, a senior at Advanced Technology Academy in Las Vegas, has been developing strategies that will help positively impact the lives of a group targeted by violence.  

Tracy is currently in the process of trying to pass legislation in Nevada that would officially classify the homeless population as a minority group. The new law would officially categorize crimes against the homeless community as hate crimes.

Since the homeless community is so prevalent in Las Vegas, this law would affect a number of people. In fact, as stated by an article found in Las Vegas Now, for every 10,000 people in Las Vegas, 50 of them are homeless. This makes Las Vegas the fourth highest ranked city in the United States in terms of their homeless population.

Tracy recognized that Nevada’s current hate crime laws are perfectly adequate in terms of providing much-needed protection for a variety of different groups like the LGBT community and racial minorities, but expressed his discontent with their lack of support for the homeless and explained, “I think that they’re missing something when they don’t protect homeless people.”

When asked about his predictions for the effect of his bill if it is passed, and how this will impact not only the homeless community but also those of a higher privilege he clarified that “Hate crime laws aren’t meant to eradicate hate, that’s just not going to happen.

This hashtag is used to support tolerance.  PHOTO CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

There’s no way for a law or a piece of paper to just completely abolish hatred.” He continued to explain that although hate will still very much be an issue, the importance of his bill still stands as he concluded: “It’s symbolic for the people in that group, that demographic, and the people outside that demographic to know that it’s become a problem.”

Although Tracy has a heart for the homeless community now, he touched on how he, and many others, were not aware of the how serious the issues surrounding the homeless community are. In fact, he mentioned that prior to starting his legislative journey he hadn’t given much thought to the homeless at all.

“I pretty much thought about them like any other normal teenager would, being that I didn’t think much of them,” he said, adding: “They weren’t really a part of my life, I didn’t have to encounter them very often, but I tried to help out when I could. To me, they were just another people.”   

Although Tracy admitted to not always being as empathetic or aware of the situation as he currently is, after his meeting with “the masked man” that he referenced in his essay and doing a bit of research on the forgotten group, he had a drastic shift in perspective. He proudly exclaimed, “Well, I really humanized them; my research with them, it made realize that what happened to them really isn’t necessarily their fault, and I really began to be more sympathetic to their plight.”

Using his own personal experiences as an ideal example of a positive change in the right direction, Tracy hopes that through his legislation more people will be able to see that homeless people are just that: people. He explained that just simply talking to them and making the effort to get to know them as human beings can change people’s perspective on the community.

Tracy identified the stigma and problem, not as a form of dislike, but rather fear. He began this argument when he explained that, “There’s not much of a difference between us and them, and the fact that we see it as an ‘us’ or ‘them’ is part of the reason that we tend to fear and hate the homeless people, because somewhere within our subconscious, in the back or our minds, we have this inherent fear that we could become like them.”

Tracy further illustrated his claim by adding that homeless people are people just like we are, and one day the tables might turn, and we could find ourselves in their position. He confidently stated, “The only difference between us and them is a few bad decisions or bad luck.”

Not only are we neglecting an entire community of people because we are scared to be in their shoes, but Tracy went deeper and shared his suspicions that another reason we push these people to the back of our minds is that we are ashamed to admit that we might just have been wrong about them this whole time. “When we see them it’s like they’re holding up a mirror and reflecting back on us that A) as society we haven’t done enough for them and B) we could be them not getting enough done for us,” he said.

Even though currently we may not be doing enough to help the homeless population, Tracy believes that if we start humanizing them and seeing “them” as part of “us” then we could make a real impact on a number of lives.

This issue, however, won’t be solved overnight and he believes that this problem involves all of us, no matter our own current social standing. Tracy expressed this belief by

emphasizing, “We’re all connected to each other, there’s a web of interconnectedness that a lot of us seem to take advantage of or just overlook. And if you consider how their lives affect our lives, then you realize that there is an obligation to help those people.”

Furthering his argument, Tracy acknowledged the fact that while the government is split into two main political parties and these parties usually tend to take two completely different stances on important issues, this is not the case in regards to his bill. He defended his bill by saying, “It affects all of us whether we are Democrat or Republican.”

Continually, when asked what congressional representative he wants to sponsor his bill, Tracy quickly responded with, “It’s a nonpartisan bill so it doesn’t matter what side of

These are the known symbols that represent the two major political parties: donkeys for Democrats and elephants for Republicans. PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr

the line they fall on. The homeless problem is more of a human problem than a partisan problem, so just someone that has that sympathy for the homeless.”

 

Tracy also acknowledged the fact that “there is a lot of support for people who are more needy than others.” However, he finished this thought by saying, “There’s a lot of people going out there to try to help, but I don’t think it’s ever enough.”

His reasoning behind this is: “Our work is never done because there will always be dissenters, I don’t think it’s ever going to be something that we can just say we’re done – we’re finished.”

When asked how the adults in his life reacted to his interest in this subject and his bill, Tracy responded with how fortunate he was to have a support system by his side but added that “It’s my project and that is sort of how they’ve handled it. If I can get it done they’ll support it, but they’re not going to get it done for me.”

This being said, he believes that the youth is capable of using their voice to make a difference and when asked what advice he has for aspiring young leaders he replied with, “If you have a purpose and you have a passion and you’re driven to do something, everything is clear.” He elaborated by mentioning that if you also have a skill or talent, like writing or videography, then that is a tool that should be used for your advocacy to help other people.

In order to solidify his point even further, Tracy brought up a story that he was told when he younger which brings up the idea that if we continue to wait for others to make the change that we want to see then it will never happen. If we want to change something, then it is up to us to make it happen and age has nothing to do with it. The story itself is about how when we are small children we are given a box crayons and are asked to color outside the lines in order to express ourselves. As we get older though, our crayons get taken away from us and we’re asked to stay inside the lines and color the picture already created for us. He concludes the story with another piece of advice saying, “So I think it is time to let that little kid out and do what it is you think you need to do.

Related:

San Francisco struggles to serve the homeless in the Bay Area

Booming Silicon Valley confronts cold reality of homelessness

Youth writes about the ignored side of the homeless population

Booming Silicon Valley confronts cold reality of homelessness

By Giselle Alejo, Michonni Hughes, Judy Ly, Jeana Rose Meneses and Pauline Velazquez

Staff Writers

Shantel Montoya, a rapid rehousing case manager at HomeFirst, reminisced fondly on the time she reached out to a woman who was resistant of getting assistance from any services. While she tried endlessly to gain the woman’s trust, she was met time and time again with hesitation. Instead of giving up though, she found other ways to try to get this woman to open up.  She discovered the woman likes coffee in the morning.

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Shantel Montoya, a rapid rehousing case manager at HomeFirst

With this in mind, Ms. Montoya bought her hot coffee, using the McDonald’s $1 coffee deal, every morning in hopes of gaining a trusting relationship. After several cups of the warming beverage, the woman complied in getting and seeking shelter alongside the help of Ms. Montoya.

“Sometimes it’s just about that. It’s gaining their trust and letting them know that you care. So building that relationship with them. Sometimes, with like [the homeless woman], I had to go out there sometimes in the morning and talk to her and she became willing to come in for services, check out the shelters, willing to go to the other places like Sacred Heart for other resources,” Ms. Montoya said.

Ms. Montoya has been helping the homeless population of San Jose. This includes finding landlords who are willing to rent out spaces for clients and making payment plans. Depending on the status of the client and their needs, HomeFirst can pay up to nine months rent and two years of support. Additionally, they give help in overcoming addictions, finding sources of food, and locating job opportunities. From there, Ms. Montoya and the HomeFirst team finds the needs of the client and tackles them together.

When asked about his reaction to the huge population of the homeless community, Program Coordinator at HomeFirst Sani Momoh exclaimed, “I didn’t know there was a high amount of homelessness in Santa Clara County, especially on behalf of Silicon Valley.”

The current grad student, who is working on getting his masters in social work, went on to explain, “Who would ever think that an environment like 

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Sani Momoh, a program coordinator at HomeFirst

this or a community like this, that is full of technology, still has a high amount of homelessness? If you go around you see Google and Facebook and all these big companies making communities look good, but again there are still problems of homelessness that people aren’t talking about.” 

To elaborate on Mr. Momoh’s comment on the high number of homeless people in Silicon Valley, a study by Harvard University and the AARP stated, “587 of the 7,394 homeless counted in Santa Clara County this year, 43 percent were over 51 years old compared — a 23 percent increase since 2015. It’s a trend that’s occurring across the country as Baby Boomers, particularly those born between 1955 and 1965, grow old.”

It’s not just adults who are struggling, but also the youth.  A report by the Mercury News showed the growth rate of the youth homeless population in San Jose: “a 185 percent increase over 2015 in the number of people under age 25 who are homeless, nearly double the previous high set in 2011. People under 25 now make up more than one-third of the overall homeless population.”

These numbers are so large for multiple reasons. According to Mr. Momoh, one reason is that people fall through the cracks in our society. He stated, “In grad school I am writing a paper on homelessness among families and children, and one of the reasons that I include in my paper is capitalism.  Again, people are really into making profit and making money than actually paying attention to things that actually affect individuals and affect society … but not everyone will see that as a reason.”

A statistic from the organization Democratic Socialists of America reads, “… poverty under capitalism is largely maintained by a skewed distribution of wealth and services, not by lack of a work ethic.”

Another reason that Mr. Momoh identified for the large number of people without homes is the way the government decides to spend money. He stated, “If you look at it right now, the federal government is spending way more money in defense and military action in other countries around the world, millions … versus homelessness and poverty, a single mother, a child or at-risk youths. So if you ask me, why aren’t we spending those monies in social work, social development instead of spending all these billions and billions of dollars in getting military equipment and invading countries?”

He continued to talk about the stereotypes that the homeless community face from an outside perspective by explaining, “Definitely a lot of stereotypes about homeless individuals … according to the conflict theory, which suggest homeless individuals are seen as lazy, and seen as … lacking motivation to get a better life.  So that’s a stereotype, and when you see a homeless man around the corner of a sidewalk, you’re not thinking about how this society is affecting that individual, but what you’re thinking about is ‘this person is too lazy to get a job or get a place?’”

Although the large number of people looking for help can be intimidating, HomeFirst does what it can to help folks when they come to them, and they are not the only organization that works to eradicate homelessness in our community. While working downtown, we found a number of different businesses, ranging from Starbucks to the Martin Luther King Jr. library, also doing their part to lend a hand to people in need.

When walking into Starbucks, one of the organizations that do what they can to help, we were welcomed by the warm air and inviting scent of espresso. When we asked Brandon Tiretta, a Starbucks barista, how he would describe the community of downtown San Jose he said,“Underprivileged community if I do say so. On a real note, underprivileged and a less appreciated community and open for potential.”

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Brandon Tierrita, a local Starbucks barista in Downtown San Jose

Mr. Tierrita furthered his description of the community and what he sees by saying, “When you turn this corner you can see tens of thousands of homeless people, and honestly that is probably the worse. You see like hundreds of homeless people, with no homes, sleeping on the corners and girls looking like you, and you, and you, coming to me with blankets.”

Finally, Mr. Tierrita explained what Starbucks does to help the people he sees on the street by saying, “Whenever they need food we have free water …when we have extra food we give it to the homeless whenever we can.”

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Jeff Frank, a university access service coordinator at the MLK library

Another organization that reaches out to the homeless community is the SJSU Public Library System. Jeff Frank, a university access service coordinator at the library, commented on the workings of the library’s services.  Mr. Frank said that there is a career center on the third floor of the MLK library. This career center does what they can by offering a job search program and hiring people to work with others looking for a job one-on-one.

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Phil Reyes, a former war veteran

Phil Reyes, who is a Vietnam War veteran and was homeless himself for some time, commented on the fact that there may be services out there for people, but they may not be aware they can get help. Mr. Reyes states, “A lot of them can get help but they don’t realize it. They don’t understand the policy – like veterans like us, we get compensation from the Vietnam War…” He continued, “It’s just so sad to see them laying there. It’s not that it ruins the community, but it ruins people’s lives.”

In contrast to the facilities that are trying to help when they can or to create programs, there are definitely others that recognize the seriousness of the situation but do not do much to provide support.

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Joanna, a Safeway checker in downtown San Jose.

When asked what Safeway, a popular grocery store placed in the center of downtown San Jose, has done to help the otherwise forgotten homeless community, a checker at the store who asked to be identified only by her first name of Joanna said, “It’s really hard to help them, but they do come in here and they do shop for their food and what they need.” In short, as of this moment Safeway is not doing much to help the homeless community other than offer groceries when they find the money to buy food themselves.

Further in the interview, Joanna commented about the customer’s reactions when the homeless do make their way into the store saying, “Some people feel uncomfortable. Some people, if they need help and they see it, that they’re really trying to buy food, they’ll lend a hand or help them out with what they need.” She elaborated on her answer by saying, “It depends on how people are, I guess.”

For those concerned with the issue of the underrepresented homeless community, Mr. Momoh enthusiastically gave examples of what we as individuals can do by saying, “Just keep doing more interviews and spreading the word on homelessness and encouraging people to help … encourage senators or congress to increase more funding for homeless population and speak up for this population. Advocate for them and let them know what is going on.”

Here is a Story Map of all the places discussed in the above column.

Related:

San Francisco struggles to serve the homeless in the Bay Area

Youth writes about the ignored side of the homeless population

Teen uses voice to amend legislation