Silicon Valley: Riches all around us. One of the most expensive cities in the US to live in. Over 2500 homeless youth living on our streets. Can you imagine? Our Director of Training, Mario Rocha, took on the adventure of being homeless for four days. Here is his story.
I decided to do something that I never thought I would experience in my life. I chose to go homeless for four days. No shelter, no food, no liquids. I did this in order to gain a better understanding of what our homeless youth have to endure day in and day out. I wanted to humanize a dehumanized group. It is one thing to have sympathy because I genuinely want to help, but it’s another thing to know what it FELT like to be homeless. I knew it would be hard, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I knew it would be scary, but what I didn’t know was how experiencing all that daily can make one feel. There are so many elements rooting you on to become mentally unstable.
The first night we were on the street it started to rain hard, was extremely windy, and as you can imagine cold. Myself along with three others had to walk in the rain carrying our sleeping bags hoping to find somewhere that we could possibly sleep that was safe and dry. The dilemma with that is you are on the streets and there really is nowhere safe and dry to sleep. We finally were able to find a spot that was in front of an old bank that had lighting and enough of an overhang that there was a small space beneath it that was not wet. By this time, it was already one in the morning and we were cold and tired, but no matter how tired I was the fear of falling asleep on the street kept me awake. This fear that one feels nightly while on the streets is not easy and I can now see why someone would turn to drugs in order to stay up at night out of fear for their safety or get so drunk they are able to pass out without fear.
As the night slowly crept along I noticed a man walk up the side of the building around 4 am. I sat there with a million thoughts going through my head as to what this guy was up too. Twenty minutes passed and I see him peek his head from behind the wall by where we were sleeping and we locked eyes. I just kept thinking to myself “please don’t do anything, please just go away.” That fear was so real. It wasn’t like a scary movie or roller coaster type of fear, it was literally life and death type of fear. I then thought to myself how can a young lady do this on her own, and it brought tears to my eyes that my girls, let alone any of our youth at the center have to experience this. On top of trying to find comfort while sitting on wet and cold concrete you are left to try and find comfort in your thoughts while surrounded by the lurking dangers of the homeless world.
After being up all night we started our day at about five in the morning having to move from our spot before people started to arrive for work. We packed up our belongings and hit the streets to find somewhere to wait until the library opened at 8. We sat around bored, hungry, and still wet. It was so unbearable I was quickly losing my happy go lucky spirit I normally have. We made it to the library right when it opened and I have never been happier to enter a library before in my life! It was quiet, warm, and safe inside, something I was longing for all night. I was able to take a nap inside as my mind was finally at peace knowing I was in a safe place. I then thought to myself how can one get and keep a job while living in this conditions? How can you possibly focus on getting to work, being well rested, and presentable when you spent the night before trying to find somewhere to sleep and was up all night. It is near impossible to get up and go to work when you do not have adequate shelter to reside in at night.
We spent all of Friday going without food and all day Saturday going without any liquids. I couldn’t imagine having to do this longer than the days we did. Going without food all day Friday was extremely hard. I already had no energy from not sleeping the night before and from walking around ALL day that all I kept thinking about was food. My stomach was growling and I felt myself start to get grumpy or hangry as people call it. I would see people walking in and out of restaurants smiling and happy while I sat there in envy. Not only did they ignore me when I said hello, but they would look at me as if I was not worth a hello. I felt less than and almost not human, but I had to remind myself that this was just a simulation and not a true reflection of myself, but for people on the streets they do not have that option and are left to deal with being treated as less than on the daily. I was already miserable by this point and all I wanted was an act of kindness from someone to be able to feel happiness during my time of misery. When I was finally able to eat I did not sit and enjoy the food, I inhaled it because I was starving. I have never experienced that before because I have always been able to eat food to enjoy it, not scarf it down out of starvation. Not being able to eat or drink on top of the other elements you are dealing with makes the life of a youth on the streets that much more difficult and I can see why it’s so easy to just give up.
Every day we spent trying to figure out where we could use the restroom. When we found the very few places we could use, we tried to stay around that vicinity. A daily struggle for our youth that people who are not homeless do not even think about. My body was aching from trying to sleep on concrete and park benches. My shoulders were sore from having to carry my backpack around all day. I tried to work on homework in the library and there was just no way, I would fall asleep and lose concentration so fast because I was thinking about when I could eat or drink again. Trying to figure out what to do all day left you to sit and ponder life, which I can see how a person on the streets mental health deteriorates. As night would start to set on us we knew it was time again to go on the hunt to find somewhere to sleep, a nightly issue for our youth.
I set out on this journey not knowing what to expect other than the obvious that it would be hard. I truly tried to take in all that I was feeling because I wanted to be able to tell my youth that I not only know what they are talking about but I know how they feel. I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and sore just to name some of the physical ailments that I was experiencing. There were rats running around where I tried to sleep the last two nights at Cesar Chavez Park.
As people passed our group they looked at us with disgust, contempt, and some even laughed. The feeling I felt after being treated that way, even though I know it was a simulation, was a feeling of inadequacy and shame coupled with guilt could have made for a mental disaster for me, but fortunately enough I had people checking on me and sending me encouraging messages. Our youth however do not have that support and we at StandUp For Kids try to show them that support and love. Without love and hope these kids have nothing to strive for. I have always been committed to these youths since I started at StandUp For Kids – Silicon Valley, but now more than ever I am determined to save as many youths from the vicious life on the streets.