More Than Just Organizing: A Youth’s Perspective on Working at the Coalition

My name is Yessica Hernandez. I’m 18 years old, a peer organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness and also a member of a homeless family living in an SRO. For me, homelessness is a problem that has multiple solutions, but most of the time people want to solve it by blaming the people who are homeless. 

Every day the chance of becoming homeless increases. When people talk about homelessness they mostly feel shame and pity for “those people,” but that’s not needed because we know we are struggling but we are also strong enough to advocate for ourselves and for others. 

I learned about poverty when I was younger, around 5 or 6. I didn’t live in a mansion. I lived in a small house made of stones and my ceiling was made of plastic and aluminum, but I was happy. I have a loving family who always tried their best to support me and I’m grateful for that. I have lived here in San Francisco for eight years now. Most of the time I lived doubled up until I met the streets. 

One day we faced a big issue which forced my mom and me to live on the streets. We have family and friends who gave us their support but we felt as if we were interrupting or bothering their space. So most of the time we would spend our days in Dolores Park just watching the hours pass by.  We would see families playing together and enjoying a lot of time together; meanwhile, we were just wondering what was going to happen to us. 

I graduated from middle school in 2018. That’s when we were able to find a room in a hotel, the one I’m currently living in. That same year the company she was working for as a housekeeper closed, leaving us with no other resources. She had a few clients who gave us the opportunity to at least make enough money for half of the rent and for food. We ate things like noodles and eggs because it was what  we could afford. I remember being tired of them but I couldn’t complain. 

Then COVID hit. It’s like the misfortune never stopped. I questioned, “Are we being punished for something?” Most of my mom’s clients told my mom that they should stop until COVID ended but time passed by and COVID was still here. With much worry we knew that we were definitely hitting the streets again. 

I was now a high school student. At some point  – because of the pressure – I considered leaving school to work a full-time job, but there was no luck with that. I searched and it seemed like opportunities were nowhere to be found. We had to go to the First Friendship shelter temporarily because at some point we couldn’t afford rent, until we found money to again pay rent for another month in this hotel. 

My grades were low. Really low. I could not concentrate on school anymore. And then one day, my mom met this person who asked her what she was so worried about. My mom told her our issues, and she gave my mom a number. When I called I was so nervous, but I felt better. The first person I met from the Coalition was Miguel Carrera. He listened to our problems and promised that he would help us. We stayed in contact until he asked me to join them in a program as a leader in a program that was called the SRO report back, which was held I think in June 2020. The program involved asking families at SRO hotels to report on the conditions in their living spaces. The whole purpose of this was to create leadership among families in hotels and to keep the environment that families in hotels live in safe because of COVID. 

When the program was done, Miguel asked me if I was interested in helping them translate the meetings at the Coalition on Homelessness. I was so happy that things finally started to get better. It was like seeing a rainbow after a storm. I started as a volunteer translator for Housing Justice meetings every Tuesday, and then I got myself more involved in meetings. I was part of the Prop. C listening sessions. I learned a lot, and one thing that I learned is that I should not give up because a lot of problems can happen throughout our life, but there is always a light that will be there for you. 

I learned a lot organizing events and organizing families. While we do a lot of organizing work, the Coalition is more than just organizing. We connect with our people’s pain and fight for the best solution to end that pain. We create leaders that will one day speak up for themselves and others just like me. That’s why we don’t want pity. Because our resilience doesn’t need it. We aren’t animals — we are humans who can go above and beyond. Just because we are vulnerable, it doesn’t mean we can’t strive for victory. The Coalition has a lot of wonderful people that are welcoming and willing to help out. For me, the Coalition is a second home. We make sure families know their rights, and they fight for them right now. 

At the beginning of June, Mayor London Breed released her proposed budget. Many of the items that the Coalition on Homelessness has been fighting for — like funding for a drop-in family homeless shelter — were included. Yet many other important items, like funding for the Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) – a program to replace police response to homelessness with pairs of trained social workers and peer outreach workers who can actually address the social and behavioral health needs of unhoused people  –  were not. Additionally, there were a couple of bad surprises, like the mayor cutting all funding for 24-hour bathrooms. 

But, after several weeks of protests, phone calls and public comments from dedicated organizers like me, the Board of Supervisors passed a budget that includes not only funding for CART, but also expanded access to public bathrooms. We showed that we have power when we come together as homeless people to demand dignity and investment.