A little ways outside of San Jose’s Japantown, pressed up against the walls lining the Winchester light rail tracks, lies a homeless encampment. Tarps and tents stand in stark juxtaposition to the apartment complexes towering above the wall that divides them.
In the fall of 2018, Matthew Jiang ('20), who, at the time, was volunteering at Loaves and Fishes Family Soup Kitchen, ventured out past his workplace on a whim. It led him to the homeless encampment along the light rail.
“As people they were approachable,” Matthew said. “They were, I would say relatively open to speaking about their experiences. A lot of them lived lives that honestly weren’t that different from ours. The only thing that was really different was that I was of a higher socioeconomic status than they were.”
Spending the day in the camp and witnessing how their situations brought them together in a sort of brotherhood, Matthew learned of the circumstances that drove everyone there to homelessness.
“They were all brought together by their circumstances,” Matthew said. “They all referred to each other as friends, even brothers. They spent a lot of their time working with and talking to one another, because I think as a homeless person, there isn’t really much of a community to really fall back upon, given that you’re on the streets and really just sort of fight to live, so they just sort of found that sense of belonging among their peers.”
Worn-out children's shoes lay in dry leaves in a homeless encampment near San Jose's Japantown in February. (Provided by Matthew Jiang)
Armed with his camera and an assignment from his Advanced Photography class, Matthew set out to document his experiences with these people. While they didn’t allow him to photograph them themselves, Matthew was able to capture some snapshots of their lives, from the possessions they owned to the spare bike parts littering the camp for the bike repair business they worked for spare change.
I wanted those photos to serve as a kind of reminder of their existence and their value as human beings, like these objects sort of serve as sentimentals. I guess one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I know that’s kind of like a cliche phrase, but I feel like that accurately describes the stuff I took pictures of," Matthew said.
This experience has influenced much of his current photography.
“From then on my concentration in photography has largely been street photography, just capturing subjects in the moment and in a way that I guess speaks about them and also the environment around them and how they interact with that environment,” Matthew said.
As he progresses in his career as a photographer, Matthew hopes to further remind society of its humanity through his art.
Be the change you wish to see: Arusha Patil (12) alleviates struggles of homelessness in Sunnyvale shelter
Just across the South Bay Freeway, not even a mile away from the expansive Microsoft and Google campuses in Sunnyvale, stands an old, weathered building, notably different from the new corporate offices that surround it on all sides. Here, the Sunnyvale County Winter Shelter, run as a collaborative effort between Santa Clara County and the nonprofit organization HomeFirst, welcomes individuals and families in need of year-round shelter and provides them with beds, meals and supportive services.
As part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project, Arusha Patil (12) has been visiting this homeless shelter since the summer of 2019 and is currently working with administrators to install two new rooms in the building: a computer library and a quiet area for mindfulness.
“I chose [to work with] the homeless community because of my experiences with them as an individual, like the people that I’ve talked to on the street or people that I’ve run into on the bus or airplane,” she said. “That made me a lot more curious about the homeless experience and how I could help alleviate their struggles and pains.”
After speaking with residents of the Sunnyvale County Winter Shelter, listening to their life stories and the challenges they face on a daily basis, Arusha hoped the rooms she will help create can not only improve the standard of living for the over 100 people there, but also provide them with the opportunity to get back on their feet and recover from past hardships.
“I think one of the most important aspects of [addressing] homelessness is to give [people] access to the Internet or a constant source of information, as well as job postings. It will empower people to seek out and find resources and opportunities,” she said.
These resources can help put people on a path to more stable housing.
“Giving the Internet as a tool to homeless individuals will definitely increase their chances of landing a job that will allow them a stable salary that enables them to pay for the ridiculous housing costs in the Bay Area,” Arusha said.
Arusha added that she has seen children and teenagers living at the shelters being forced to study on their mattresses, with their homework and textbooks piled next to them, because there is nowhere else they can study.
She hopes establishing a meditation or silent reading room could provide a distraction-free area for residents, away from the overwhelming clamor of conversations or the television set.
I work on a desk, and I still have trouble focusing — can you imagine working and being tested on material in an environment where everyone is talking, where you may not even feel completely safe? So, how can we create an environment to allow people to feel more comfortable, even when they’re homeless?" Arusha said.
Arusha hopes to also spread a more pervasive message among others in the Bay Area through her community service — that the negative perceptions and attitudes surrounding homelessness are incorrect and need to be abandoned.
“One thing I’ve observed is that the identity of an individual when they experience homelessness is completely conflicted and divided because — at least if you’re on the street — you’re passed by people who often don’t give you any acknowledgement,” Arusha said. “There’s no way that’s going to feel good if you’re standing on the street and you objectively don’t look like you’re doing well, but no one stops to say anything to you. It’s like you’re no longer a person, which is clearly just wrong.”
In response to such harmful stereotypes, she encourages others to do their part in addressing homelessness in their local community.
“The first step is to care. Talk to people, learn how to care. I feel like the homeless community is a community of such deep individuals; all of us are missing out if you don’t talk to them,” Arusha said. “The second step is a lot harder: [it is] to invest. Invest in people that you meet, whether that be emotionally with your time or even as a sponsor.”
Visual arts teacher Joshua Martinez lends filmmaking skills to San Francisco’s North Beach Citizens
Visual arts teacher Joshua Martinez was interviewed about his filmmaking work with homelessness organization North Beach Citizens by Eric Fang ('20) and Nina Gee ('20) in January. (Eric Fang, Nina Gee)
Four years ago, a friend of upper school visual arts teacher Joshua Martinez introduced him to North Beach Citizens, an organization in North Beach, San Francisco, that helps people experiencing homelessness navigate their economic and employment situations.
Clients who come in are offered jobs in North Beach Citizens cleaning, organizing or helping out other people based on their skill sets. Volunteer workers will help them navigate finding a spot in a shelter and securing more permanent employment.
In this way, North Beach Citizens functions similarly to San Francisco’s “navigation centers,” which the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing set up in 2015 to provide places for unsheltered people to have a meal and meet with case workers while finding more permanent housing.
“They will sort of break it down and they’ll say, okay, in order to get a job, you need a driver’s license, or you need a mailing address, and that will help people get those things so that they can eventually start to be able to access a little bit more security,” Martinez said.
Although Martinez doesn’t volunteer at North Beach Citizens regularly, he and his wife Christina, a filmmaker, have helped them make promotional fundraising videos.
We need to figure out ways to do what North Beach Citizens is doing on a larger scale and everywhere,” Martinez said.
Two years ago, Martinez’s advisory and Director of Business and Entrepreneurial Programs Juston Glass’s advisory visited North Beach Citizens to decorate a Christmas tree for the freshman service trip.
Martinez appreciates that North Beach Citizens provides a unique strategy to combat homelessness.
“Very often people will go out and just hand out a bunch of stuff. And very often that doesn’t really help because the person who receives it doesn’t know what to do with it or doesn’t have an immediate use for it, and then it can’t get stored somewhere. So this sort of systemic approach seems to be a much more viable approach," Martinez said.
Prominent film director Francis Ford Coppola helped start the organization in the spring of 2000, and he now hosts annual fundraisers to raise awareness about North Beach Citizens and the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area.
“[Christina and I] would come out with the dinners, and then we would attend and make some donations,” Martinez said. “So it’s not like we’re there all the time, but we try to promote it as much as possible.”
North Beach Citizens operates on a small-scale, so Martinez hopes that more neighborhoods take the initiative to start similar organizations that help ameliorate the growing homelessness problem in San Francisco.
Bike trail for some, home for others: Life in the 2-mile-long Santa Rosa trail encampment before it was cleared