Tag Archives: homeless

Community Seva Means Many Things

“I just wanted to say thank you again for the portable charger. I need to keep my phone charged in case my kids need me… You really have no idea how much this helps me out,” says Angel, as a Community Seva volunteer hands over a mobile solar charger to her at a homeless encampment.

To most of us, a dying phone battery is a minor inconvenience with an easy solution – we can just plug it in and go about our day. That simple act is an impossibility for nearly ten thousand unhoused individuals living in the Bay Area. The number of difficulties that they face every day is nearly impossible to comprehend, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. With no access to news media or health guidelines, many unhoused people weren’t even aware of the pandemic for a long time. Already lacking proper healthcare, nutrition, and sanitation, the pandemic has exponentially worsened the lack of access to toilets, water, and fresh food. Beyond the direct risk of infection, which is already much higher for unhoused individuals, they have no shelter to ‘shelter-in-place’, and are left with no ability to even maintain basic hygiene. The homelessness problem is increasing dramatically now that many more people are losing their jobs, and hundreds have been recently forced out of their homes and onto the street.

Healthy burrito given out by Community Seva volunteers.

Community Seva, a non-profit organization based in the Evergreen area of San Jose, has aimed to alleviate some of the struggles that these individuals face. Community Seva’s mission is to “Feed the Hungry & Serve the Homeless”. Since 2013, Community Seva Inc. has served over 150,000 meals, distributed over 7,000 backpacks filled with winter essentials, delivered 6,000 hygiene kits, and given over 1,000 showers to the homeless population in the Bay Area. During the 12 weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began alone, the organization has served more than 12,000 healthy, nutritious, and freshly-cooked meals to the people living in 7 different shelters, 5 encampments, and even to individuals who have been forced to live in their cars or RVs. The challenges faced by the homeless community are growing, but as Community Seva founder Nathan Ganeshan says, “Together we can, and we are, making a difference!

Nathan Ganeshan delivering food.

Community Seva has launched a new set of initiatives to respond to the recent needs of the homeless community. As members of the homeless community have lost access to places where they could charge their phones due to the shelter-in-place order, they raised funds to purchase and distribute solar power chargers: giving unsheltered individuals the ability to call 911, use flashlights, and thus better protect themselves.

Further, Community Seva Inc. began a new program to help women in these difficult times. They packed and delivered female care hygiene kits to the nearly 3,600 vulnerable homeless women living in the Bay Area. Volunteers entered homeless encampments in an effort to clean up living spaces, throw out trash, and distribute food, hygiene kits, and backpacks with essentials such as blankets, towels, beanies, socks, and rain ponchos. They also distributed Personal Protective Equipment: 400 gloves, masks, and face shields were given to homeless individuals and homeless advocates working on the frontlines. 

None of these achievements would have been possible without the generosity of Community Seva’s supporters. Bay Area businesses such as Jalsa Catering and Events, 8Elements Perfect Indian Cuisine, Bella’s Bar and Grill, Shastha Foods, and Biryani Bowl have donated their time and resources to help provide daily breakfasts and lunches.

Talented musicians, a youth group, and comedians have participated in fundraisers to help with Community Seva’s COVID-19 alleviation efforts. There has been an outpouring of support from the Bay Area community, whether through individual donations from families or corporate grants and sponsorships from Silicon Valley tech giants and other companies.

Community Seva and countless other organizations have stepped up during this time of need: as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” 

Varsha Venkatram is a rising senior at Stanford Online High School. She has been volunteering for Community Seva since 2017 mainly focusing on social media posts, newsletters, articles and image/video management. She has also cooked breakfast, dinner and led youth care bag sevas for the organization.

The Homeless Count In The Census

Reaching into neighborhoods to count the homeless for the census is a formidable task, given that homeless people are a transitory and transient community with no fixed address. But this year, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic makes that undertaking even more challenging, both for census takers at risk of encountering a lethal virus in face-to-face interactions, and for the homeless who  have nowhere to ‘shelter-in-place’.

Where the homeless are

Squirrelled away in locations that make their whereabouts difficult to pinpoint, the homeless are hard to count to begin with. The places they call home rarely have a mailing address. They live under bridges and in  tunnels, in makeshift homes and shacks, and  are not easy to find unless grassroots community sources can account for them. Those who seek homeless shelters, soup kitchens, social services  or city streets are more accessible to enumerators, but the ‘fluid’ nature of their lifestyle can contribute to inaccuracies in the estimate.

Understanding homelessness

Research shows that mounting an accurate count of homeless people is complicated. “Counting the homeless population is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear definition of homelessness, the mobility of the population, and the cyclical nature of homelessness for many individuals. In addition, homeless people are often reluctant to be interviewed, and many of them remain invisible even to the most diligent of researchers.”

The NIH study reported that attempts to count the homeless in order to extend funds for emergency shelters or  food distribution nationwide has produced data that must be interpreted with great caution because “the everchanging and fluid nature of the homeless population presents great methodological challenges in obtaining an accurate measure of its size. ”

Who counts as homeless?

A key issue is defining who counts as ‘homeless’. The label itself has come under fire from advocates who demand a redefinition what it means to be homeless.

The push-back on the label “homeless,” rises from the complexity of living situations that people experience.

Nonprofit organizations working with the  homeless in San Francisco prefer to use the term ‘unhoused’ because “most individuals experiencing homelessness are doing so because they’ve had one, two, three—or more—strokes of bad luck that led to their current circumstances.” In a study conducted by Stanford professor Thomas Wasow, one participant objected to the term homeless explaining, “ the reason is, ‘I have a home, it’s Palo Alto. I’m unhoused.”

Researchers in the  NIH study also called for better definitions to be developed “concerning who is considered homeless  and defining Subgroups, such as homeless families.

Given this context,  how will the Census Bureau go about the business of  accounting for this marginalized community,  even as in-person outreach efforts are scaled back due to the pandemic?

Revising Outreach Plans to Count the Homeless

An integral part of the Census Bureau’s outreach efforts has been to create a network of local nonprofits and trusted messengers at the grassroots level to administer the enumeration.  For example, in California, the United Way Bay Area (UWBA) is implementing a census outreach initiative called Bay Area Counts 2020 with local non-profits and community partners.

That investment has earned a 63.2 % self-response rate for California (as of July 13), just ahead of the national rate of  62.0%.

However, health and safety concerns with COVID-19 forced the Census Bureau to delay counting people experiencing homelessness in the 2020 Census.  But, in renewed operations  scheduled between September 22 and 24, the Census Bureau is adjusting its operations for vulnerable, homeless and transient communities.

The Census Bureau is coordinating with local service providers and consulting with advocacy groups and other stakeholders to adjust its approach and boost outreach into this hard-to-reach population in response to COVID-19. Census takers will follow the latest local public health guidance regarding the use of personal protective equipment and social distancing.

The Census Bureau now plans to send specially trained census takers to count people at shelters, service providers and locations which the Census Bureau has identified as places where people are known to sleep. They will also work with local groups to identify these locations.

Census takers will count people in person at previously identified potential outdoor locations such as under bridges, parks, wooded areas, designated beach areas, tent cities, alleys, and under highway systems as well as  all-night businesses ( transit stations and 24-hour laundromats).

They will obtain data from emergency and transitional shelters with sleeping facilities for people to stay overnight,  such as “missions, hotels and motels used as shelters, and places for children experiencing homelessness, neglected,  or who have run away from home. Census takers will work with the administrators at different service provider locations including soup kitchens and regularly scheduled mobile food vans, to utilize rosters to ensure a complete count of this population.

People experiencing homelessness will be counted where they are staying when census takers visit between September 22-24. People experiencing homelessness who are not counted in households or other operations will be counted where they stay or receive services when census takers visit.

In its message to shore up support for the homeless count, the Census Bureau reiterates, “Census statistics are crucial to programs and service providers that support people experiencing homelessness. A complete and accurate 2020 Census can ultimately help organizations provide better services, more food and improved shelter options to those in need.”

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

Sachin Helps Homeless by Stepping “In Their Shoes”

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

 

 

Governor Newsom: One Year of California for All

There’s no state in America quite like California. In troubled times for the Nation, California is where the American Dream is alive and well. The most diverse state in the world’s most diverse democracy, California is big-hearted, thriving, inclusive and bold.

This year, we’ve been working to build a California for All. Governing by our values of growth and inclusion, we have made principled yet practical investments in our people and our future.

Making sure that those investments are built to last, we have budgeted responsibly for the years ahead. Our balanced, on-time budget created the largest rainy day fund in state history and paid down California’s wall of debt.

That budget addressed the biggest challenges we face. Today, I will share our work to tackle the high cost of living in California, prevent and prepare for emergencies, and combat homelessness.

First, we’re working to confront the state’s affordability crisis. It is our state’s foundational economic challenge, which threatens lives and threatens futures. The things that make it possible to get ahead – housing, health care, saving for your kids’ college or your retirement – are getting farther out of reach for Californians.

When I took office last January, I got to work to make life more affordable for all. Together, we expanded healthcare subsidies to middle-class Californians. We took on rising prescription drug costs by seeking to establish the nation’s largest single purchaser system for drugs. We helped put higher education within reach of more Californians by providing two free years of community college to first-time, full-time students and negotiated tuition freezes at California’s universities.

We also put money back in the pockets of California parents by doubling the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and adding a $1,000 credit for families with children under the age of six. We eased the financial burden on parents by repealing the sales and use tax on diapers.

Second, we are making sure that California is ready for the next natural disaster, and that communities still recovering from catastrophic wildfires have what they need to rebuild.

We invested $1 billion to build disaster resiliency, response and recovery – including funding the pre-positioning of emergency response teams in times of high-risk wildfire conditions. We launched Listos California, a statewide network of community organizations that build disaster resiliency in vulnerable communities.  We also moved the state toward a safer, affordable and reliable energy future by drafting wildfire safety and accountability measures and working with the Legislature to create a $21 billion wildfire fund.

Finally, we’re working nonstop to confront the statewide crisis of homelessness, which impacts 130,000 Californians in every corner of our state.

We’re pursuing solutions that work. We made a historic $2.75 billion investment — the most California has ever spent — on programs to fight homelessness and build more housing. That amount included $650 million in Emergency Homelessness Aid to cities and counties so that they can implement the best local solutions for their communities. We’re also striking at the root causes of homelessness, including the unacceptable lack of housing construction and unscrupulous landlords who price-gouge their tenants and unfairly evict them. We negotiated and signed the nation’s strongest statewide renter protections and worked with technology companies to secure $4.5 billion towards California’s housing crisis.

We’re “all in” on tackling this crisis because it is a major quality of life issue not just for the person sleeping on a sidewalk, but for everyone in their community. We recognize that every homeless individual is someone’s child, parent, or friend. Many times, they are our service members, who served honorably in our military and fell onto hard times after they got home. These individuals are often struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

They deserve better than the reckless rhetoric and heartless cuts to the social safety net that Washington is offering. They deserve the thoughtful solutions that we are pursuing in California, in partnership with local governments, the private sector, and philanthropists statewide.

Make no mistake, we have so much more work to do. There are still too many Californians who do not get to share in the prosperity that they help to create. For them, and their children – and California’s continued leadership in the nation and the world – we must boldly confront our remaining challenges. These challenges demand bold solutions, and above all, the courage for a change.

Fortunately, we have no shortage of courage here in California, a state of dreamers and do-ers who are not afraid to take risks for what’s right.

In the year ahead, we’ll continue to work hard and aim high on behalf of all Californians, and everyone who looks to our state as a beacon of hope.

 

Catholic Charities Celebrates!

“Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & The All Stars, the 1990s pop song, filled the street as community members, volunteers and employees of Catholic Charities assembled, sheltering under rain canopies. February 26, 2019, was the first anniversary of Catholic Charities Bayview Access Point, and the jovial crowd made sure that there would be “no raining on this parade.”

The Bayview Access Point provides multiple services targeting the needs of San Francisco’s homeless families. Through rental assistance, legal referrals, childcare, and even housing subsidies, the nonprofit has helped numerous families and individuals in finding safe housing options for the past 25 years.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, world-renowned actor Danny Glover, and Reverend Amos C. Brown, graced the stage in honor of Black History Month and to express their gratitude towards the community members and employees of the Bayview district — highlighting the fact that San Francisco’s homeless population is disproportionately African American and LGBTQ.

Mayor London Breed zealously stated, “As Mayor of San Francisco I, too, stand on the shoulders of so many incredible leaders from the Bayview Hunters Point. A place that has a rich history, a rich tradition of African Americans… the folks in this community played a critical role in [the building of this city].” Mayor Breed continued highlighting a call to action, “We have work to do, to change some of the things that exist in San Francisco! [However] thank goodness we have an amazing community willing to wrap their arms around [struggling families] and ensure their success.”

Nothing about the perennial crisis in the Bay Area is easy, with more families getting pushed out of the city center,  scaling rental prices, and competitive buyers. However, honoring Black History Month, the speakers challenged the audience to work constructively towards common community goals with dignity, respect, and love for one another. And with the right political investments, compassion from residents, and the support of an organization like Catholic Charities, society can prevent family homelessness and ensure individuals receive the assistance and care they need.