Youth writes about the ignored side of the homeless population


November 26, 2018

Editor’s note: in the school year 2017-18, student journalists at Summit Public Schools in California were given a project prompt: what does community mean to you? After discussing, the group of students consisting of Giselle Alejo, Michonni Hughes, Judy Ly, Jeana Rose Meneses, and Pauline Velazquez finalized the idea of focusing on the homeless population in San Jose because they felt like, often times when people think of community, the homeless population is quickly dismissed and forgotten. The students interviewed employees at local stores, HomeFirst Sobrato House Adult Center, and the MLK library located right next to San Jose State University. After their article was published, the students were given the opportunity, through the 2018 Steve Gruetzmacher Homeless Awareness Essay Contest, to create follow-up stories on how two high school seniors were individually helping the homeless population: Michael Tracy and Isabella Zou. Today’s guest blog post focuses on Isabella.

By Giselle Alejo, Jeana Rose Meneses, Pauline Valezquez​, and Judy Ly

Many of us are guilty of making assumptions about people before taking the time to get to know them; however, Isabella Zou, a senior at Westlake High School in Austin works to enlighten her community about the real people of the homeless community.

She described the overarching stereotype we all seem to buy into: “We often just lump homelessness into one category of people that are all just very similar, but I’ve learned that people are very diverse, and the one thing they do share is the status of homelessness.”

The way that Zou battles this cliche is through her website, Austin Street Humans. This blog gives the homeless population a voice by sharing their stories and providing insight into a community that has been pushed to the side.

Isabella Zou

The blog is comprised of numerous different articles, each one focusing on a member of the homeless community about their personal story. Zou described the process in which she gets each interview: “We go to community centers where the homeless people gather and are given services in Austin and we sit down with people and have long conversations, just about their life path and how they became homeless, but also just about what their childhood was like and what their future prospects are.”

When asked about why she started her website, Zou replied, “My life was being changed by hearing these stories, and like that effect could be multiplied if we put it on an online space.” She later commented in the interview, “The overall goal is to just bring the stories of people experiencing this condition to light and I think the more broadly and deeply we can do that the better.”

She further voiced her motives behind the blog by saying, “I want to prove that homelessness is not a choice….It’s caused by suspending factors, and the government and so on so forth.”

She elaborated on what the stereotype of homelessness being a choice means in our society by giving a personal example about her parent’s original views on the topic. As background Zou mentioned that her parents were first generation immigrants and came to America with practically nothing. She relayed her parents point saying, “They were like: it is a choice because they had experience with what it means to build yourself up from nothing; like they had nothing and they could make themselves better from nothing.”

Although her parents might have believed this to be true prior to Zou’s personal work with the homeless community, her mom is now a supporter of her work and leaves frequent, encouraging Facebook comments on her Facebook page that is dedicated to her work.

Her mom is an example of why she started the blog: to open people’s eyes to the reality of the homeless community’s situation. In light of this realization, she commented, “I guess this work can make a difference.”

Through her interviews, Zou has been able to get to know those she talks to as human beings rather than just members of the homeless community. When asked what she tries to do with each interview she answered, “I always try to find the things that they’re interested in because every person has things that they lean towards…bring[ing] those things to light kind of helps humanize them and kind of make them seem more like people.”

Zou shared an anecdote of a person named Michael who took a remarkable interest in literature and NPR. Zou reminisced on her relationship with Michael by saying, “He got rid of any stereotype that I had of homeless people being not smart.” She shared Michael’s story by telling us his life “involves a lot of tragedies, one after the other.”

Zou commented on his situation by saying,“With him it is just a constant battle with himself, like his drug habit, and for him to make the choices that make it easier for him to make good choices.”

After being sent to jail for 12 years, Michael decided that he wanted to turn his life around and made the decision to get his GED and license to become a truck driver. Zou concluded her thought by saying, “It’s encouraging to me because that’s something that I relate to a lot, like the difficulty of making choices sometimes and the fact that once you made enough of them they sort of like start to build up into the base that can make it easier for you to keep making the same kind of choices.”

In short, Zou made the connection that even though both her and Michael are in two completely different times in their lives, at the root of it, Michael is just another human being that faces the same struggles that she does.

You can read Michael’s story here.

Another personal story that Zou shared was about a man she met on three different occasions named Nawin. Nawin’s story begins after he divorced his wife and a couple years later moved to America. He started out in Maryland where he worked with gas and sent what little money he could back to Nepal for his kids. Finally, he moved to Austin where he hoped to find better job opportunities. This is where his wallet went missing which meant his green card, Social Security, money, ID were all gone. This is what ultimately led Nawin to be homeless.

Zou admitted that Nawin opened her eyes about, “our community’s apathy about the homeless community and also whether the things that I’m doing to try and combat that apathy and raise awareness are actually effective.”

Unfortunately, Nawin passed away last May.

“Incidentally his death is what sort of convinced me that there is some bearing to what I’m doing because after he passed away, I actually found out about it from his sister,” she commented.

The story goes as the following: A couple days later following his death, Nawin’s sister who lives in Nepal, got in contact with Zou after searching up her brother’s name. “She was asking me whether I had any pictures of him and I didn’t have any pictures but I did have the audio recording of our conversation,” Zou said. “And so I was able to give that to her and she was like ‘It is so comforting to be able to hear his voice because I hadn’t seen him since he left for America which was years ago.’”

This moment shared between Nawin’s sister and Zou made her realize, “Getting people’s stories out there not only helps the public, but also might help the people that love that person.”

You can read Nawin’s story from Zou’s blog here.

Later, Zou defined the work “homeless” as, “The lack of place where you have the assurance that there are people that will care for you and accept you.” She furthered this definition by alluding to the magazine, “Household Words” by Barbara Kingsolver and reiterates, “Home is a place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” So, by extension, “Homelessness to me is just the lack of that.”

Following that, Zou found similarities in the people she interviewed and said, “One common theme is just something that went wrong in their family, whether that be in their childhood or even later on.”

She continued this sentiment by adding on, “I think that this is a very potent thing to see because our families are so vital in shaping the people that we become and even if you’re not homeless from a young age, if you’re exposed to abuse and…just a lack of basic care from that young then it can affect the way you see the world for the rest of your life.”

She continued this note by talking about how we, as a society, could work to help the homeless by arguing, “Instead of treating homelessness as one big problem that needs one big solution, it is like a case by case kind of thing.”

She explained, “Some people…all they need is like a caseworker to help them reapply for their ID and then somebody else might need like a lot more specialized care, like mental health care or otherwise.”

Zou added, “For people who aren’t homeless…we have arguably more choices than those who start out with less and I think that ultimately the responsibility that we have is to use the amount of choice that we have access to….to help those who are less lucky be able to make choices anyway.”

Asked about her aspirations and hopes for the future, she wants to expand Austin Street Humans with more staff writers as well as her nonprofit called After Hello. “Like one of [the programs in progress] is basically the Austin Street Humans work but minus the writing. And so you go there, it’s like a safe environment where your parents can feel safe to send you. And like you have conversations with people,” said Zou. This would allow people to be in a safe, controlled environment and be able to converse and connect with the homeless population.

Zou also mentioned hosting sock drives, where they would collect socks at different schools and also letters that the students would write to the homeless population with thoughtful notes of endearment attached that would be delivered to a number of shelters.

As for other young people who want to make a difference in their community, Zou said, “It’s possible to do seemingly radical things at a young age.” She finished this thought by saying, “I don’t think that most adults are able to gain an audience that easily, so definitely age, instead of being a detriment, it can actually be an asset as you try to build connections because people are always very encouraged that youth care about things.”

Zou’s final piece of advice was, “Start doing it now.”

Giselle Alejo, Jeana Rose Meneses and Pauline Valezquez  worked as Staff Writers for Summit News while seniors at Summit Public School: Rainier in San Jose. All three graduated in June 2018. Judy Ly now serves as Editor-in-Chief for Summit News at the Rainier campus. She is currently a sophomore. You can find more of her work on Twitter: @_jujudymedia .