Jan's Story

“I am the acting Executive Director of the board of the Gilroy Compassion Center and I’ve been with the Center since it was founded. Homelessness is a really important topic for me. Really personal. In my twenties I spent some time homeless. That definitely informs what I do, and why this project was important to me, why I’m supporting it.

I think there is a misconception. People jeer at the homeless. They think the word homeless describes a person’s permanent state, rather than their housing situation, at that moment. Your housing situation does not describe who you are. It doesn’t indicate, where you’ll live tomorrow or where you lived three years ago. It doesn’t say what you’re capable of.

So, I think, when we can help people who experience homelessness, to tell their stories, we can help paint a bigger picture. When I was in my twenties I went through a career change. I was in a relationship that broke up . I was an artist and I was living in the corner of this quaint hut that I rented as my studio. It was a big metal building without heat, with no cooking facilities and it was leaking. We weren’t supposed to be living there, so we had to hide. I had this couch, where I would hide my blankets during the day. It’s been demolished now for condos. I got to know a lot of people in the same situation. You feel very cut off from normal life.

Going into a regular house feels odd, very much another feeling, like you’re not living as part of the world. At least that was my experience. There were people who helped me, when I was ready to find a real place to live. I started working before I found housing. It was hard to keep a job under those circumstances, sometimes not having eletricity, sometimes coming to work dirty and wet. But I had gotten that job in an agency that addressed homelessness. I found out from the employer side what services were out there, and how to start putting something together.

Homeless women have a strong desire not appear homeless. I hear people at the Compassion Center say, “I don’t want to look homeless. I want to have my clothes. I want to be set up and be treated with respect, wherever I go.” It is important for women to keep up an appearance in front of other people.

I would like to see less attacking of people that are homeless, and more putting emphasis on really practical things that actually help. It is no good to be afraid, to call people names, to make life harder for the people who are already suffering and struggling. It doesn’t solve the problem. What does solve the problem? Year-round shelter with case management, extremely low-income housing, housing you can support on a Social Security check of 900 dollars a month. Right now, people like that are homeless, because there’s no accommodation they can afford to rent. Many of the homeless had been renting successfully for years and years and then the rents got too high. We need places where people can live with very little money. We need compassion. Yes, it is true. There are people on the street that steal. There are people in houses who steal. We can’t tar everyone with the same brush. We can’t criminalize people just because of their living conditions.

I would like to see more extremely low-cost housing for families. I would like to see acceptance. I would like to see people included rather than excluded. That makes such a big difference. We had a whole bunch of people from the Compassion Center walk in the Christmas Parade. A couple of years ago when I was in the Parade with some clients one said to me that this was the first time people smiled at him downtown.

Sometimes the things people need don’t cost money. They just need to be included, greeted with a smile and treated with respect. Clean-ups, sweeps, happen pretty regularly. Citizens ask why don’t the homeless just move their stuff themselves? Well in order to move your stuff, you have to have a place you can move it to. One thing we could possibly find is storage, so that people can move their stuff for the creeks to be cleaned. People lose stuff that they really need for survival, their tents, their sleeping bags, their cooking pots. They lose their important paper work, their birth certificates, their medicines. Anything that’s still there, when the sweep comes through, it gets thrown away. What would be even more compassionate, would be to have a municipal campground.

Nobody should be sleeping in creeks. Children, the elderly, people with disabilities, it’s not appropriate for them to sleep in a creek with no sanitation. As happens after a disaster, we could set up a municipal campground with porta potties and showers and a place to eat. We could treat homelessness like an emergency.

When you look at what’s happening with the fires in Northern California and you see all of these people becoming homeless, you realize they are in exactly the same situation as all of our individuals who are homeless. In Paradise it just happened to everyone all at once. A lot of them are going to remain homeless. If they were renting, no insurance is going to replace their home. If they were staying in RVs and trailers, chances are, they’re not going to be able to replace their home. Even those who had houses and are going to get insurance payments, not all of them are going to be able to replace their homes.

A lot of people without a home have been through many traumas. We do not talk about the trauma that occurs before you become homeless, the circumstances that lead up to you becoming homeless. And then, being without a home is itself a trauma. And then, every time a sweep occurs and you lose all of your stuff, that’s more trauma. And then, if you’re a woman and you’re subject to violence or abuse when you are without a home, that’s yet more trauma. These traumas are all part of the spiral in which homelessness has you trapped.

We are a species that needs a home. We don’t live in trees. Without a home our mental health suffers, our stability suffers, our social situation suffers. It doesn’t have to be a huge home, it doesn’t have to be a luxurious home. It has to be a place where you’re allowed to be, where you’re allowed to leave your stuff and where you can feel safe. Too many people do not have a true home.”