MILPITAS, Calif. — Sheet metal worker Jerome Shaw became homeless three years ago when the apartment complex he lived in was sold to people who forced him out.
Speaking to India-West on the sidelines of a luncheon organized Nov. 17 by the nonprofit organization Community Seva – founded by Indian American engineer Nathan Ganeshan – Shaw said emotionally: “That first night was my worst night ever. I was out on the street with my son, and had no idea what I was going to do.”
Shaw, who was employed, and his son started living in hotels and also couch-surfed at the homes of friends. He rented Zip cars to be able to take his son to school. As his weakening mental health took a toll on his life, Shaw lost his job, and — with it — housing, his car, and custody of his son. “I felt the world had given up on me,” he said.
The un-sheltered man connected with Community Seva through its ‘Mobile Shower and Laundry’ service, which currently goes through downtown San Jose, Calif., once a month to provide homeless people a shower, a facility to do laundry, a hot meal, fresh, clean clothes and a hygiene kit.
“My hygiene is really important to me,” said Shaw at a panel discussion during the luncheon. “You don’t want to be the smelly guy on the bus.”
Shaw told India-West he is employed again, via an agency which trained him in manual labor and worked with a local union to get him a job. He still lives in a shelter, but is able to see his son — who lives with his mother — a few times a month at a space outside the facility.
Santa Clara County, home to the Silicon Valley and the nation’s wealthiest residents, is also home to 9,706 homeless people, a number that has risen by 2,000 over the past decade, according to county data. About eight percent of street residents are children under the age of 18. Youth aged 18-24 make up 17 percent of the homeless population in the county.
Two-thirds of the homeless population have lived on the street for more than a year; many have jobs but cannot afford rent. The average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara County is $2,970 according to data from several sources. Landlords usually require from tenants a net paycheck of twice the monthly rent, which means that renters must earn a minimum of $71,000 to qualify for a one-bedroom apartment.
“We have all seen homeless people. They are everywhere we are, standing outside with a hand-written message. Our instinct is often to ignore them, wait for the light to turn green and move on,” said Chitra Jayaraman, marketing and communications manager at Community Seva.
Ganeshan and his family started their philanthropic efforts informally a decade ago, delivering hot slices of pizza and sandwiches to people living in parks in downtown San Jose. He founded Community Seva in 2013, with the aim of providing homeless people hot meals and backpacks stuffed with items to manage inclement weather, such as gloves, beanies, and rain slickers.
The organization now has a base of 2,000 volunteers which cooks, delivers and serves meals at local homeless shelters every weekend. Since the organization’s inception, Community Seva has served over 100,000 meals and is now looking to expand the kitchen it acquired last year, in order to service more shelters.
Community Seva is also looking to expand its mobile shower and laundry service van from its current once a month rounds to nine times a month. About 6,000 care bags — many packed by children volunteers — have been distributed, along with 5,000 blankets during winter months.
Ganeshan noted that the organization’s volunteers have also helped to clean up homeless encampments.
Pastor Scott Wagers, founder and senior pastor of CHAM Deliverance Ministry, gave the keynote speech at the luncheon. “We live in the wealthiest region in the nation, yet 150 un-sheltered people have died on our streets. And the problem is growing.”
Wagers, who goes out to homeless encampments three times a week, said: “I’ve never met anyone who wants to live like this. No one wants to live on the streets. You see incredible bravery in the face of adverse circumstances.”
Wagers noted that mental health issues and drug addiction are correlated with homelessness but are not the cause of it. Shaunn Cartwright, a housing advocate, noted that women on the street use drugs to stay up all night to keep themselves safe from being raped by men. Many homeless women are victims of domestic violence, she said, noting that getting a space in a domestic violence shelter is like winning the lottery. Few beds exist for the thousands of women and children who need them, stated Cartwright. Two infants died on the streets of San Jose last year, noted Cartwright: a one-month old and a four-month old.
The organization’s “Tree of Life” award was presented to four outstanding community leaders: Martha Beattie, Paula Kelso, Mary McCall, and Alys Milner.
Community Seva also honored the organization Youth Service Through Cultural Arts, which annually holds a fundraiser featuring music and dance performances to support a local charity. Last year, YSTCA organized ‘Kala Vaibhavam’ and raised $15,000 for Community Seva.
Youth volunteer Varsha Venkatraman was also honored, along with Varsha Praveen.