Sachin Radhakrishnan, the co-founder of the San Jose non-profit In Their Shoes was recently honored by AACI (Asian Americans for Community Involvement) for his work with the homeless population. “Through his work, Sachin reminds us that our actions speak volumes. His many accomplishments are a shining example that any ordinary person, like you and I, can change lives.” A high honor indeed for this self-effacing young man but when you read his journey of how he got to this point, you will not be surprised.
When Sachin was in college during the economic downturn of 2009, he was aghast that “the first thing that our state cut was colleges, community colleges.” It became an issue because he and his fellow students could not get their required classes. So, he fell into community organizing and started lobbying with professors in Sacramento to effect change. He switched his major from engineering to politics because “I wanted to get into and learn as much as I could about how do you solve a problem.” The rest as they say is history.
After college, Sachin was working in City Hall in San Jose, when homelessness was becoming a challenging issue. In December 2014, the city decided to dismantle San Jose’s massive homeless encampment known as “The Jungle” which set off a chain reaction. This encampment was thought to be the largest of its kind in the US. Many people had been living there for almost 20 years and had built waterproof but non-traditional homes for themselves. While the city found other housing for some residents, many others were left with few viable options when their encampment was dismantled. Sachin started fielding calls from city residents when homeless people started moving into their neighborhoods.
Sachin realized really quickly the ramifications of the city’s actions. Instead of solving the problem of homelessness, their policies were only moving it around. “Just imagine your state of mind when you’re constantly being moved around. You feel like you’re breaking no law, but you’re just poor. You have no control, you lose your medication, you lose your identification. So, I started learning like that.”
Homelessness is not just a humanitarian issue for Sachin, but a deeply personal one. A close friend suffered from mental illness and was homeless himself. “His family did not know how to deal with that. And so, my friend was homeless just because relationship-wise, he was not doing a great job of respecting his parents. And at the same time, his parents didn’t really know how to talk to him.”
Sachin tried to make sense of his friend’s struggles, “Because he had money, his parents had money, but how does he end up homeless? And, he is intelligent and he has a lot of stuff going for him. How does he end up homeless?”
It has been a long journey but this story has a happy ending because his friend is now in the army and is doing well and. But that experience had a profound effect on Sachin and helped him better understand this complex issue.
Sachin and his friend Jamie Foberg had long conversations about homelessness and came to the conclusion that one of the key components that most of us take for granted – strong interpersonal relationships are completely missing for the homeless. They co-founded In Their Shoes to do just that – be a buddy and support the homeless. “To be one positive relationship that hopefully would spark other relationships. Maybe it would get them to heal relationships they had burned in the past. Because if they keep the relationship good with us, we’ll continue to help them. We advocate for them. We’ve been to the hospitals advocating for people, we’ve gotten people back on the list for housing.”
It started very organically for Sachin and Jamie. They would befriend the homeless in San Jose by bringing socks, water etc and start a conversation with them. They built relationships with them. They did not even pretend to have any understanding of their situation but just try to “step into their shoes” to really understand what their life is like and what they are dealing with.
Sachin recognizes that his unique background at City Hall helps him see the issues from both sides. One of the biggest aha moments for him was when he realized that the government can try to solve the cases while blaming homeless people for drug use etc, but “when you are working for the government, you should see the effect of your own policies.”
“Jamie and I, we would go and help people. When the city came in and kicked them out, they would lose their phones. It wouldn’t be so hard to find that same person who maybe we have a bed for at the shelter. The city needs to understand that you’re making social work harder.”
One of the myths of homelessness is that drug users end up on the street, but the fact is that people who end up homeless, often resort to drugs as a way to cope with their feelings of despair and hopelessness.
As inequality grows in our society, people are actually becoming homeless faster than before. Silicon Valley is the poster child for this problem but the right to a secure home is a universal right under international human rights law. Sachin is not the lone voice who thinks the policies guiding homelessness nationwide lack empathy and actually criminalize it. A United Nations expert on housing has called the Bay Area’s treatment of the homeless “cruel and inhuman”.
Sachin believes that “ it would be great if we could focus on that housing part, but at the same time, stop kicking people around. You know, I can’t imagine someone’s mental health after a year of being homeless. I’m actually so surprised when I see people happy in the streets, they have some sense of pride, they still have hope. I don’t know how they have it. They’ve been kicked out so many times.” But when they are moved around so much, they lose that pride, security and sense of self and that leads them down a spiral.
Today at the Bill Wison Center, Sachin is doing outreach and case management for youth and loves being a part of this endeavour. He plans to go back to graduate school for business, concentrating on finance. He has seen first hand the effects of not understanding basic finance and learning to budget. “You’re easy prey to other people that may understand it. If people just even know a little bit, they may be able to stop the cycle of poverty.”
When I asked Sachin what we could do as a community to better understand the problem and be a part of the solution, he shared this point of view.
“So much of our culture is philanthropic and service . But there’s also another side of it that is very, very callous. Really disrespectful to people and their experiences. And yeah, that’s something in our society that we need to really think about, on how we talk about others. How we may even perpetuate certain stereotypes.”
He also urges all of us to get rid of the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality. Sachin would like us to get involved in our community and be a proponent for solutions for low income and subsidized housing. There are many reasons people become homeless. Being empathetic and trying to understand them instead of criminalizing and stigmatizing them would be a start.
Changemakers: Individuals making a difference in all walks of life
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor, India Currents