San Jose Urban Plunge: An Eyeopening Experience


With everything we’d need for the Urban Plunge weekend in backpacks and with sleeping bags in hand, the 13 of us piled into the school vans. We were ready (and a bit anxious) to dive into the lives of the Downtown San Jose homeless community.

Our first stop was Sacred Heart, where we took part in an educational course about poverty in the United States. Our group developed a fictional character by the name of Mary, who worked two part-time jobs and lived with her son in a shared two-bedroom apartment.

We only allowed Mary the basic necessities in her budget, yet she still was barely scraping by. Even though she could afford so little, her income was too high to qualify her for food stamps.

Though Mary was fictional, her story is all too real and common. In a nation of such wealth, there is also a plethora of inequality. One percent of the nation takes home 25% of the nation’s wealth, while those struggling to hold down minimum wage jobs barely end up on the positive side of their budget each month.

While many of us may not think twice about replacing a torn shirt or going out to a nice dinner every month, many do not have the flexibility to do so, as it may land them in debt.

We may associate minimum wage jobs as a way to get a little extra spending money for shopping, but for many, it is one of the only options for income. And a harsh career reality.

We learned about the direct effects of poverty on seemingly “normal” children and families. In a documentary by CNN, a few people battling poverty spoke about their experiences, including a family that lived in a homeless shelter.

The family had a son in seventh grade, who felt he had to lie to his friends about his financial situation. And he felt like he could not have great aspirations, as simply getting a home or having to worry about food for the day seemed to get in the way.

It was crushing for me to realize that that some children may not be able to have aspirations due to the cyclic pattern of poverty. As a child, I always dreamed of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, not of having a full refrigerator or somewhere permanent to sleep.

The video also discussed the closing down of a homeless encampment here in San Jose, “The Jungle,” which at the time was home to more than 700 people. Now, there is an even greater issue for shelter at hand.

For lunch, we ate some of the food that Sacred Heart would give out in their meal bags; most of us ate either granola bars, peanut butter on white bread, or canned pasta. I missed fresh produce, and could not imagine that these food items would be considered a luxury to some.

Then, it was off to Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph to serve a barbecue meal to some of our brothers and sisters who were living on the streets. We all donned our aprons and gloves, and served hot dogs, chips, and berries to whoever lined up, until we ran out.

We handed out extra granola bars and chips, and made conversation with some of the people sitting down for the meal we had served. The conversations were shockingly casual, and I felt surprised that talking to people who are in such desperate need was so easy for both parties. One man named Robert kept cracking jokes at us.

We learned that the Cathedral gives out food bags and water on a daily basis and offers  a place for homeless people to receive mail. In addition, they provided free medical attention. Here, I recognized the daily implementation of our school motto.

We ate dinner with the directors of a Catholic Worker house and homeless shelter, Casa de Clara. Later, we sat together for a prayer service, as they might with the families that often stay with them. Throughout the service, we heard doorbells ringing but nobody coming inside.

Soon after, we discovered that it was caused by people coming to the house so one of the directors could loan them a sleeping bag for the night. I felt grateful that there were services for the homeless community as personal as this.

That night, we slept in a room in First Presbyterian Church. Right outside of the building, there a few were homeless people sleeping, unprotected by shelter. It was strange to have a wall separating us.

We woke up early the next morning and headed over to InnVision to serve breakfast to some of the families staying in the homeless shelter.

Again, it was surprising to see how easy it was to talk to people that sometimes we might avoid eye contact with. One woman I spoke with talked to me about how she was working extra shifts at work so she could hopefully get her own place to live.

We took a tour of the facility, and found that the shelter almost resembled a hotel. They encouraged those living there to apply themselves most to finding work, and the children living there to make a great effort in school.

Next was a tour of the Downtown San Jose area with our guide, Anthony, who had at one time experienced homelessness.

He took us to many churches and relief programs that offered services such as food bags and showers to the homeless community. One of the homeless men we encountered told us that “you can never go hungry in San Jose.” I was shocked to discover that food was an abundant resource; the hard part was finding things such as shelter, employment, or hygiene services.

While we ate lunch that we had bought for $2 per person (as many of the world lives on only $2 a day), Anthony told us about his experience with homelessness. Before he lost his job, he was an engineer. I could not imagine that a degree everyone associates with success could have led to such poverty.

When he lost his job, he began to follow the lead of his friends, who made money by dealing drugs. However, Anthony fell to addiction of the drugs he sold, leading him down the path to homelessness.

He spoke of the troubles he endured, including the notable fact that he has a thirteen- year-old son. He had only escaped poverty within the past few years, and the mother of the child died in 2010.

Anthony is the only one able to care for his son, and for a while, he had to battle poverty and addiction while at the same time attempting to raise his child. Anthony was on and off of the streets during this time.

I could not imagine the pressure of trying to care for a family while it was difficult to even scrape by, month to month.

Finally, Anthony got to where he was today, working at Sacred Heart and free from addiction. He still keeps in contact with the community that he lived in for over ten years.

This marked the end of our trip, but only the beginning of our call. Though we were presented with a plethora of ways to be involved and serve our community, we were also taught about the underlying issues.

There are waitlists that last years for affordable housing, and a shortage of places that offer hygiene services. Employment is difficult to obtain, and often times the jobs that are obtainable are minimum wage jobs, which can only help so much.

The cycle of poverty is incredibly difficult to escape.

While charity is extremely important, the issue of justice is the greater of the fights. In order to help eradicate poverty in the United States, and in our very own community, changing policy is key. We must advocate for issues that benefit the homeless community.

Volunteer as much as you can, but do more than just this. Educate yourself and others on the many issues of homelessness, and you will be able to help bring this problem to justice.