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OpEd: Stop the cruel vilifying of our unsheltered neighbors

The following OpEd was co-authored by Raul Peralez and Jennifer Loving. The piece was originally published by the San Jose Spotlight.

We must put an end to the persistent and horrific vilifying of our unsheltered neighbors.

In a recent San José Spotlight article, we heard one person call to “rid the world of these parasites.” In an email received in response to this article, we heard another person say: “It IS us vs. them” and go on to characterize our unhoused neighbors as “violent, psychotic, drug-addicted vagrants defecating on our streets, destroying our public parks, and stabbing/beating preschool’s pet tortoises.”

This sentiment has been louder and louder since the COVID-19 pandemic, ironically coinciding at a time when people are suffering more than ever. And while we are similarly frustrated and angered by the depth of this humanitarian crisis, it is simply unconscionable to talk about our fellow human beings in this way.

Let’s set the record straight — there is no us vs. them. We are all part of the same community.

Eighty-one percent of homeless individuals lived in Santa Clara County when they became homeless, and more than half lived as our housed neighbors for more than 10 years before becoming homeless. The person you see on the street is somebody’s family member, loved one or friend, and one day it could be you. And while it may be convenient to think of our unhoused neighbors as some type of “other” with great personal failings, the true cause of this humanitarian crisis are the long-standing inequities that push vulnerable individuals to the streets.

For one, a history of systemic racism plays a key role. Recent data shows people of color are dramatically more likely to become homeless than their white counterparts in Santa Clara County and across the country. The average white household has seven times more wealth than the average African American household, in part due to decades of discrimination in the housing market preventing people of color — particularly African American people — from building generational wealth through homeownership.

And contrary to popular belief, the most commonly reported causes of homelessness are economic. Even before the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, wages for workers at the bottom rungs of our economic ladder have been on the decline for more than a decade, while the highest earners in our community have enjoyed an enormous boom. For the growing number of our neighbors who are just barely scraping by, homelessness is often just one crisis away — whether it be an unexpected medical bill, car repair or temporary break in employment. The lowest income families who have been surviving on less than $40K a year pre-COVID have seen their incomes drop as much as two-thirds since March.

An extreme lack of deeply affordable housing is further exacerbating our homelessness crisis. For decades, our region has failed to produce enough housing to meet our population’s needs. With just 34 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households in our community, households who manage to secure housing are forced to devote a larger share of their income toward rent, often paying 70%, 80% or even 90% of their monthly income on rent, making it more and more difficult to rebound from an economic shock, let alone get ahead. A persistent siphoning of social safety net resources nationwide further contributes, as just a quarter of the households who qualify for federal housing assistance receive it, simply due to a lack of resources.

Instead of vilifying those less fortunate than ourselves, we must remain focused on the hard work of ensuring that all members of our community have a safe and stable home.

So what IS being done?

Since 2015, a broad coalition of government, business, nonprofit and philanthropic partners have come together to connect more than 16,000 homeless individuals to permanent housing, forever dispelling the myth that people do not want to be housed.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the county and the city of San Jose have added close to 800 temporary shelter beds, built four new interim housing communities and vastly expanded our outreach to encampments. These efforts helped us connect 4,000 homeless individuals to temporary housing or shelters, and ensured almost 3,000 individuals obtained permanent housing.

In San Jose’s District 3, which is home to the city’s largest population of unhoused residents, we have brought stakeholders together to champion a number of solutions to build more affordable housing, to protect families from entering homelessness and look creatively to provide interim housing solutions.

In the last 4 years alone, District 3 has welcomed the city’s first permanent housing developments — Second Street Studios and Villas on the Park — the first Bridge Housing site, motel conversions and safe parking sites. Mostly recently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Hall added an additional 285 beds, and a motel purchase of 76 units will continue to house the most medically vulnerable unhoused residents. Altogether we have created over 700 units of housing, permanent or interim and counting, in District 3 alone.

While we have made great strides, we know this is not enough. People who are experiencing homelessness are victims of a failed system that’s left them in the streets to suffer. We are all susceptible to one day experiencing homelessness and this greatest time of need should be met with compassion, not fear.

We have a long road ahead of us to reverse the actions that have pushed thousands of individuals onto our streets in San Jose, but we — as elected officials, as neighbors, as business owners — must recognize that we all have a role in solving this crisis.

So rather than dismissing your homeless neighbors as “parasites,” do something. Join us in advocating for affordable housing in your neighborhood. Join us fighting for adequate state and federal resources to meet the scale of this crisis. Support the acquisition of hotels and Bridge Housing communities. And most importantly join us in acknowledging and addressing the root causes of systemic racism and rampant income inequality.

And if you don’t want to be a part of the solution, the very least you can do is to remember you’re talking about another human being, and one who is certainly living in a far more horrific situation than you. It’s easy to be cruel, and far harder to be a part of the solution.

Raul Peralez is a San Jose councilmember first elected in 2014 to represent District 3, which spans downtown San Jose. Jennifer Loving is the executive director of Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. She also serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.