I have spent more than 3,920 hours working with the homeless population in Palo Alto. To most people employed in the social services sector, I am relatively new to the profession, but to the general population, it is an unimaginable amount of time spent in the presence of drug addicts, derelicts, and undoubtedly the sourest slice of the American pie.
When people ask about my path to working with the homeless I usually answer with niceties. It is not that I am embarrassed; rather, I have found that people become uncomfortable with descriptions of sadness and pain. Yet, I have found that my story is not so different from that of most staying on the streets -- an experience of abuse, mental health challenges, and the frustration inherent in the desire to climb the obscure ladder of success into a life you can see but that seems unattainable.
When I was a teenager my stepfather first began showing signs of severe mental illness and alcoholism. I watched helplessly as my once strong familial structure began to deteriorate very publicly in my small, rural West Virginia hometown. Overcome by something I still cannot describe, my once-spirited mother was confined to bed most days as my stepfather raged against something we could neither see nor understand. I was never sure what I would encounter when I came home from school. Memorably, I came home to find my stepfather sobbing on the floor, obscenities written all over the walls of our beautiful Victorian home and nonsensical poems written for all to see.
Perhaps my most vivid memory to date was the day he took his life. A few days after Christmas I came home to find smoke billowing and fire trucks blocking my path. I found myself starting the new school year friendless, with donated clothes, and other youth snickering about how my stepfather lit himself on fire in the basement. I quickly learned that, with suicides, there is shame not only for the dead but also for the living. People seem to wonder what you could have done to yield a different result in a life you had no control over. I, too, spent most my young adulthood wondering how I could have altered his path.
But, like most of the men and women I work with, my story is one of resilience, strength and perseverance. For myself, I do not know how I overcame the obstacles in a period I can only describe as devastating. Perhaps it was education, which I embraced fully, or the support of my family, both immediate and communal. To this day, I am not certain I understand, but I accept the experience as a contributing factor to the person I am today. Often, I reflect on this and my life path, most recently with Maria in mind.
Maria was found curled up on a bench at a bus station in San Mateo. She had not been dead for long when found, although her numerous layers of clothing made it difficult for the coroner to locate her identification. The only other evidence of her story was my business card, which I regularly hand out to the homeless while on outreach walks in downtown Palo Alto.
Maria is not the first homeless person I have known to pass away. The homeless are undoubtedly exposed to the harshest conditions of life. Unemployment, exploitation, disease, substance abuse and mental health issues are all potential causes and consequences of living on the streets. Notified of her death I felt the full force of failure as a homeless advocate, the failure of our society, and of Maria herself, as I believe that most of us must be held partially accountable for our circumstance.
According to the 2015 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, Palo Alto has about 219 homeless men, women and children who are unsheltered -- sleeping on the streets, in cars, or riding nightly on the bus route referred to among homeless as "Hotel 22." Although this is a small population compared with that of some nearby cities, San Jose for example, the population is quite visible in this small community.
Unfortunately, with nearby shelters at full capacity and resources limited, Maria was one who didn't survive the struggle of being homeless in Silicon Valley. But others have, and our community has prospered from those housed and employed through local efforts.
I am not discouraged by Maria's death. Homelessness is a wicked, deeply rooted issue that most likely will not be solved in my lifetime. Yet, each day I witness incredible hope and success and am inspired to continue the battle against growing poverty. In my time in Palo Alto I have seen great life, love and community among our homeless population. It is people like John, homeless for more than 20 years but now housed and in a leadership position guiding other homeless individuals, or Jane, who comes to volunteer daily despite debilitating mental illness, who inspire me to continue.
To end homelessness we need to come together as a community. No organization or government entity will alone be able to address an issue so entrenched in our society. As community members, business owners and service providers we need to know the people staying on the streets as best we can so that we might know how to help them in their struggle.
There is little chance of locating Maria's relatives. No one seems to know who she was or where she was from; there is no one to claim her body. So I am left with a mystery: Who was Maria, and how could we, as a community, have helped her?
Zia MacWilliams is a project manager of a Palo Alto nonprofit that supports the area's homeless, a Class of 2016 Leadership Palo Alto Fellow, and a K880 Emerging City Champion.