HEART is a community loan fund to create more affordable homes for all our residents

“Please don’t look and me and judge. We all have different stories.” David Sharp and his dog Weasel

Counting the homeless residents in San Mateo County in 2011

Before dawn on January 27, 2011, I joined 244 other volunteers and homeless folks in San Mateo County to go count people living in the streets. We joined thousands across the county in conducting a bi-annual census of people without homes. Since I live in San Bruno and wanted to get to know my town and its residents better, I went to the Safe Harbor Shelter in South City for training and to meet my partner David Sharp, a resident of his Ford Taurus who lives at a local fast food parking lot at night in South City.

You can use my story to talk about the need for affordable homes.

I was the driver and David the navigator. Since he had been living in his car for the past year while working as a day laborer, he had a better idea of what it was like to sleep in the streets, and where people would be likely to go than I. The data we all gather from the census will be used to leverage federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless shelters in San Mateo County. The findings are also used to design targeted homeless services through the San Mateo County HOPE (Housing Our People Effectively) Committee.

We focused on a residential neighborhood in San Bruno between the railroad tracks and El Camino Real. Paying close attention to the land by the tracks, gullies, and groves of trees, we found several tents, although the inhabitants were already up and gone since the sun had just come up. The police keep the parks empty at night, David explained, and many people who live in their cars would tend to seek sympathetic business owners who would let them park on their private property overnight.

We searched the parking lots behind the businesses on San Mateo Avenue, looking for nooks and crannies in the shadows. “The cuts, they call it,” he said, “and when you see people sleeping in the street, you know they are exhausted and aren’t going to cause trouble.” Most people are up early, and try to find a bathroom or coffee. David and I agreed that people might be renting their backyards or garages for living quarters, and that many of the older apartments complexes probably were overcrowded with several families, or many people, living together, but this morning we were just counting those on the streets or in their cars.

I never thought it could happen to me.

“What’s it like to live in your car?” I asked. “I never thought it could happen to me,” he said. Originally from Bakersfield, he worked as a heavy equipment operator in the oilfields. A series of setbacks, prolonged unemployment and police crackdowns on the homeless led him to San Francisco, and then to San Mateo County. Through a program called Labor Ready he found a job with a courier service delivering suitcases to people whose luggage had not arrived with their flight. He makes $9.25 an hour, or $350 a week, often working the night shift. He is saving money to fix his car and buy new (used) tires this week, and tries to save a little bit for emergencies. He hopes to find an affordable efficiency apartment.

” have my dog, and he can’t stay in a shelter,” he explained. “I can’t live without Weasel.” David readily agreed that drugs, alcohol and mental illness are a problem for the homeless, but he has also seen a huge increase in the number of families and workers who lose their jobs and end up in the street. He worries most about homeless seniors, trying to live on social security or less, who can’t afford basic housing or care after a lifetime of work.

San Mateo County needs more affordable homes.

All told, we found five homeless people (sort of) in downtown San Bruno, including David, who was happy to hear that an organization like HEART existed. David wanted to share his story to help others, and to help HEART spread the word that San Mateo County needs more affordable housing and HEART is a countywide organization that is doing just that.

Paula Stinson, HEART, Director, Development & Communications