For the past eight months I have been volunteering my time as a photographer to a group called Housing 1000. This is an organization in the Silicon Valley area where I live. The goal of this nonprofit organization is to house 1000 homeless people over the course of two years.
Housing 1000 began their efforts in early 2012. By the end of 2013 their goal is to house up to 1000 of the most long-term homeless people who suffer from chronic health conditions. The project has determined that by housing these folks in low income apartments the government can actually reduce the amount of taxpayer and donated money by up to two-thirds. That is in part because once someone is housed they do not abuse some of the public assistance out there including hospitals and emergency care.
Why did I decide to volunteer my time in this way? One day I began to really take notice of the homeless as I ran my errands. It seemed like every time I exited a highway or got up to the city I would see someone standing there holding up a sign begging for money. Rather than turning a blind eye I started wondering, “what is their story?”
Soon after that I received a newsletter from our local county Superintendent, Mike Wasserman with a very timely article about the homeless. I immediately contacted his office who put me in touch with Housing 1000. After a few meetings with their staff I began working with a journalist who would write up the stories while I took the accompanying photos to post on their website.
What began as a short term project has become a long term cause. The more I have gotten to know these homeless folks the more I began to understand their plight. I see that homelessness is not a choice, not always anyway. It is more often a result. It is the result of being born to teenage parents who are still children themselves. It is the result of being born into a family where the parents cannot provide, who lost their job and cannot find new work. It is the result of having one parent die young, leaving the remaining parent in anguish and unable to function. It is the result of a poor education and the lack of parental guidance we have been privileged to take for granted. And sometimes it is the result of mental health issues that are left untreated.
I have heard so many stories in these eight months as my journalist friend and I go out to interview these homeless people who are on the list to be housed. To date we have met with over a dozen families and learned their story. In every single case they have suffered from being born into a situation they could not prevent. And while they have attempted to get back on their feet something else brought them down. Getting back up becomes harder and harder. They are often too proud or too ashamed to ask family members to help them out. So they take to the streets not knowing how long they will remain there.
Once they become homeless they live under bridges, in waterway tunnels, in make-shift sheds or in homemade tents. One homeless man we met lived in a shed that was on display outside a home improvement store for over a year before being discovered. The homeless become extremely crafty and ingenious finding hidden areas to make shelter and find food. They also learn what businesses discard food because it has an expiration date. Clothing stores often toss out perfectly good clothes because they are several seasons old.
Often the homeless end up becoming drug users or alcoholics. Their downward spiral makes it difficult to climb out of the pit. Sometimes there are children and babies who have never experienced having a home. Just existing becomes a full time job and a full time nightmare.
Teams of county social workers investigate homeless “towns” (complete with designated “mayors”) where multiple homeless people live. They conduct a census and often have to clean up areas where human waste is becoming an issue. The economy over the last few years hasn’t helped. Numbers of homeless people seems to be increasing. But programs like Housing 1000 aim to change the face of homelessness and help these folks who are less fortunate.
I recently wrote about Joanne who was just housed. I could visibly see the physical transformation in her whole being in the two months since I first met her. It is times like this, when I get to experience the “after” photo, that I am so heart-warmed and hopeful about the success of the program.
The most riveting thing I’ve discovered about each of the homeless men and women I have met is they have an unwavering belief in God and humanity. They have hit rock bottom but they still have hope. It’s remarkable.
To find out more about programs like these in your community check out this site called 100,000 Homes. You can help change lives.
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Tina Case is a professional photographer and writer. Besides volunteering at Housing 1000 she also volunteers her time at Shoots for a Cure and PanCan.org. Her motto is “be the change you want to see.”