Jesus Perez: Warrior for the People


I grew up in San Jose. That was where I spent most of my childhood and where I grew up into a young man. The house I lived in there I shared with nine other family members, so it was always pretty crowded. As we grew up my brother and sister both got nice jobs working, but it was hard for me because I had a learning disability and at the public school I was at they didn’t give me the support I needed. Instead, they just passed me from one grade till the next so that by the time I graduated from high school I didn’t really have any employable skills.

It was around that time that I joined a gang. It felt good at first, like I had a family. My mom passed away when I was 19, and my dad and I didn’t really get along, so I needed that kind of community to feel protected. My relatives weren’t proud of me for joining the gang, but I stayed in the life for a few years because it helped take my mind off the pain or my mother’s death, you know?

Eventually, though, I realized I needed to get out. I was using drugs because that was what the gang expected of me, and it was wearing me down. For a while, I was incarcerated for using drugs. I was miserable there, getting in fights all the time. But I saw the track that the other inmates were on and decided that I had to get myself together and move on. To add on to that, when I was 21 I found out that the girl I had been seeing had given birth to a baby girl, my daughter. Her parents didn’t like me and so they moved her to Mexico, far away from me. But the was a clincher for me: I had to find a way out of the gang.

Fortunately, back then it wasn’t so hard to leave a gang like it is now. I just moved away, down to Los Angeles. Down there I started working with day laborers, training undocumented immigrants on their rights, and trying to support them. I loved the work, but I had to get out of L.A., so eventually I decided to move up to San Francisco. I moved here in1992 because a friend offered me a job, but that didn’t work out so I quickly became homeless, having to support myself on the streets.

One thing I will say is that San Franciscans were a lot nicer to homeless people back then than they are today. People used to give me a dollar, or smile and wave to me, ask me how my day was going. But today, people just walk by you, man. People seem a lot colder. It also was a lot easier to get into shelter back then. I could just sign up and—BOOM—I’d have shelter for a week, no waiting list or nothing.

I stayed at a bunch of different shelters back then, and it was a lot easier. Back then you could spend the day out doing what you needed to do, but now they just send you running around trying to get through the red tape. The system is totally fucked up. Every time we get a new mayor they try to overhaul everything, so everyone is confused and trying to keep up. In my day, it was easy, you could get a shelter for the week, now you have to go back every day to get the bed and you have to wait on a long, long waitlist just to get a bed for the night.

While I was staying in the shelters, someone came to do outreach from the Coalition on Homelessness (COH). They introduced themselves, told me they were working on a campaign to end homelessness in San Francisco, and asked me if I wanted to get involved. I did, very much, so I went to the COH and ended up going on outreach with them for the first time in 1993.

Paul Boden, who was the COH director at the time, helped me and some folks start a direct service organization called Ayuda that supported the undocumented community. We started by teaching people their rights, because people didn’t know their rights. Then we moved into a bigger space at the Redstone Building and started focusing on support for day laborers in the Mission, doing the trainings there. We also worked with a group in San Rafael trying to fight deportations. Together we collaborated on actions opposing racism and deportations of our undocumented community.

In 1994, I was also a Street Sheet vendor, selling papers on street corners to get by. It was easier to sell back then because the cops didn’t harass you or tell you to leave and there were fewer vendors, so I could make $35 to 40 dollars per day going around. People who bought papers treated me with respect. Sometimes they would just donate; they didn’t even want the paper. But since then people have gotten a lot more hostile.

Eventually, Ayuda ended up combining with COH to become Housing Not Borders. Then, in 2001 we started the SRO Families United Collaborative, working with families in SRO hotels, connecting them with services and giving people referrals. Now our focus is on organizing and making structural changes that can serve homeless families.

I remember one cool project we did was we squatted at a place across from the McDonalds on Haight Street. Squatting was really cool, and we were right down the street from a camp where the police would come with the Department of Public Works (DPW) trucks and then we would videotape the homeless sweeps. The sweeps now are worse than they were then, because now they have hoses and they come and spray people with water, which they never used to do.

Around the year 2000, my daughter tracked me down. At that point she was in her 20s, and had kids of her own. She called me and told me I was her dad, said she wanted to meet me. I was amazed when she called. I was so happy. She was living in Vallejo and I went to go visit her. I got to meet my grandchild for the first time; they must have been 4 or 5, so young. 

My daughter and I grew really close really fast, and now I live with her in Vallejo. I wanted to move there to be with her and our family so I could watch my grandkids get big. My daughter’s mother had married, but her husband passed away, and I don’t want my grandkids to grow up without a grandpa. I want to be there for them. They are so happy to have me there and it makes me happy to be with them. I get to be the male role model in the household, and I get to help my daughter raise her children.

I still work for the Coalition on Homelessness. After 22 years, my co-workers are like family to me, and I love them. Since I’ve been here I have lost track of how many amazing people I have got to work with. I love all the volunteers and staff, even though the Coalition is a little hectic to work. It’s not our fault; it’s the system’s fault. People are stressed because they need jobs and housing and we just need to be patient and love them. I felt that too when I was homeless.

We’re all fighting for homeless people, for a better system. The Coalition now feels more stronger than it ever has before, and we do a lot more actions than we used to. Maybe that’s because in the nineties everything was easier; now we have fight harder to get by. It’s important to fight for homeless people because no one listens to them. Anybody could become homeless, you know? Even the rich people could become homeless. So we all have to come together to help people get off the streets, to make sure everyone has a decent place to sleep at night. We all deserve that.