From the front lines: Sleeping Bags for the Homeless

Volunteerism is a ubiquitous part of liberty. Volunteers are motivated by values like those of justice, equality, and freedom. Not only do volunteers favor community-based organizations, but volunteerism allows funding to gravitate towards causes that will have the most impact. This is why Libertarians promote volunteerism. Many government-run plans to assist the homeless are mere subsidies that enable continued homelessness by creating incentives for staying in poverty. Nonprofits, on the other hand, focus on helping the homeless by offering types of assistance that encourage them towards health and safety, so they can focus on progressing their lives away from their current situation.

The Libertarian Party of Santa Clara County recently organized a group volunteer day. One of our executive committee members, Jonathan, had previous experience with Sleeping Bags for the Homeless of Silicon Valley, and encouraged the local party to expand on his efforts. Sleeping Bags for the Homeless (SB4TH) is a locally-focused organization that provides outreach and supplies to homeless encampments within Santa Clara County, focusing on humanizing our struggling community members by providing donations:  professional clothing for the working homeless, toiletries to help them maintain not just physical health but mental wellbeing, sleeping bags to help fend off these cold nights, and more.

We started the day by meeting at a designated spot where volunteers from all over the county and of all ages gathered to distribute the various items donated. The donations were put into groups to be evenly distributed to the different encampment locations that we planned to visit. Our members had collected donations of our own to contribute, and jumped in to help with the division and packaging. We spoke with a mom and daughter who just wanted to help, a young man who had organized his school club to volunteer, and with KC, a homeless man himself, who acts as a liaison between SB4TH and the encampments.

During this setup time, I watched as one of the organizers showed excitement to see a pair of work shoes, size 13, had been donated. They knew exactly whom these could benefit - a tall homeless man who recently obtained a job. Another volunteer arrived with a large supply of feminine products after hearing that many homeless women struggle to find or keep a job when they have to worry about basic hygiene. We learned that SB4TH does not maintain any monetary donations: any money donated is immediately used to purchase goods to fill the most pressing and impactful needs they see. These types of donations and organizational efforts greatly help without enabling. When asked if SB4TH ever partners with government-run organizations in the county, they explained that most of the homeless cannot get help through those organizations because they require them to ‘register’ into a system to receive any help, which many homeless don’t feel comfortable doing.

The Libertarian Party volunteers ventured out to one of the known encampments, in the Downtown San Jose area, along with one of the SB4TH organizers and with KC. This allowed us an opportunity to get to know KC and listen to the concerns his community has and the impact the donations have: “You will see a lot of dejected people”, KC explained, “and you will notice that when they walk away, after we serve them, … you’ll see their shoulders go up, their chins up; you will see their eyes.“ He further explained how the hardest struggle for the homeless community to cope with is culture shock. Many homeless build encampments to help reestablish a home just like they’ve been told by society to have.  KC told us about Justice: “She is a pretty awesome guy”; she will build her encampment to have a front room, a kitchen, and a bedroom, trying to stay within the cultural norms of society - only to have it all torn down because society doesn’t want to see her tarps. “The general rule is: out of sight, out of mind. As long as they don’t see us, we’re safe.”

Losing everything you own and having to sleep on the streets is a culture shock we can all understand. Going from the streets to a housing situation is also a culture shock, but few can comprehend it. Many of the homeless out there are not in shelters or programs because not only are the adjustments hard, but they often require documentation that a homeless person either doesn’t have or doesn’t want to give. Informing the government of where they are is risky. For most, it can jeopardize their access to other assistance programs.

KC explained to us that he has a steady income through SSI. It is enough to feed himself and take care of basic needs, but not enough for rent. “… It’s an uphill battle. Every time we get ahead, the rug gets pulled out from us.“ Getting out of the homeless situation is a struggle on its own but made harder by government’s regulations. Just getting a job would be a risk. A job would require him to leave his camp for extended periods of time, risking his items being stolen, destroyed, or confiscated. Should that job pay too much, the government would reduce his SSI. Furthermore, a job that paid well would not be a stable source of income for someone who struggles to find a regular place to shower or clean their clothes. It becomes more reasonable to not work, but this diminishes morale and hinders self-worth; many in this situation often resort to drug use as the only way to escape the cage which their encampment becomes.

Government-based programs offered to the homeless more often than not only jeopardize their ability to get ahead. KC explained, “They had this program where they would have us put up our garbage in these big bright orange bags where they said to put them up on the top by the road and we’ll take care of them… unfortunately it comes at a price. When they see our garbage bags, they know we are there and they come and give us a notice, giving us three days to move. So what good is that? Why give us the garbage bags if we can't use them.” When asked what would help the most, KC quickly answered with the two most critical needs: Water and Safety. They don’t need handouts or perfected programs; they need clean water to survive and safety to thrive. But the biggest threat to both of these is the government stopping their ability to access them.

Government-based solutions often hurt more then help.  Our elected officials work to appease the affluent voters who donate to campaigns, not communities like KC’s, which means that more often than not, policies are put in place that enable and hide the problem rather than help. This is why the most impactful assistance comes from nonprofit groups like Sleeping Bags for the Homeless that offer the type of assistance that doesn’t come with fine print and encourages their reentry into a housing situation.

The issues facing our community's homeless are complex and fractured, making it impossible for one organization, obligated to serve a different community, to provide assistance. Instead of trying to solve the problem by itself, our local government should be focusing on facilitating the conversation and by enabling community-run solutions. The best answers will come from 50 smaller attempts, rather than from one omnibus effort.  The most effective solutions will be the ones that can focus on the different layers of this complex program instead of one cure-all quick fix.

The Libertarian Party of Santa Clara County will be heading out again with Sleeping Bags for the Homeless. We encourage you to donate, or participate, if not in this cause, then in one that is important to you. Opportunities are everywhere:  Two places to look are and