Hi Apple and Google! Meet Your Houseless Neighbors

Andrew “Society” Bigelow reflects on his experience walking on the 30 mile “March to Heal the Valley.” With the number of deaths rising due to the cold, communities ask one of the wealthiest regions in the world to confront its housing crisis and wealth inequality.

(Christie holds a sign at the end of the 30 mile journey, which is the Google campus. See more of Charisse Domingo's photo essay of the march here.)

I live in the capital of capital; arguably the wealthiest place in the world. It is here, in Silicon Valley, that the wealth disparity that plagues this country is best represented. It is here, in Silicon Valley, that the wealthiest corporation in the world is about 12 miles from the largest homeless encampment in the country. It is here, in Silicon Valley, that some 17,000 people living in low-income housing had their rent doubled, tripled or even quadrupled.  Everybody has their own way of reacting to the situation at hand—we decided to walk.

We called this walk the “March to Heal the Valley” with an understanding that the Silicon Valley is broken and people are hurting in desperate need. But instead of wanting to place blame, we decided we wanted to heal.

Starting from King and Story Road in East San Jose, not far from my house, I walked 30 miles across the valley with the houseless, disabled, disenfranchised and civil rights advocates to the headquarters of Apple Inc. and Google. Our journey was political, physical, spiritual and most importantly, human. It was the people I walked with that made this journey what it was. Here are some profiles of those who did the pilgrimage from East San Jose to the Cupertino and Mountain View campuses of the largest tech firms in the world.

I didn’t know Oscar before the march. As we began marching, Oscar rolled up on his bicycle a block away wearing his favorite hat, some worn down jeans and t-shirt that read “I ride for Jesus.” I assumed the shirt meant his bicycle. Oscar is a talker and on this 30 mile walk we had time to talk. He told me stories about growing up in Texas then moving to San Jose as a kid. He told me how he was a golden glove boxer and how he overcame drug addiction. Oscar opened up to me, telling stories about living homeless in San Jose for over 10 years. He told me the story of how his brother’s death changed his life and how much he loved his mom. He bragged about how proud of him his mom is for changing his life around. Oscar explained to me his responsibilities as the head of his bike club and how they distribute gifts and food all over the city during the holidays. Oscar, who was once a stranger, became someone that I had a lot of love for. There was something about Oscar’s honesty and humility, his humanity that made it hard to not like the guy. There is a way we understand our own humanity better when we interact with other. His character reminded me of my Uncle.

Oscar told me his nickname was “Oscar the Grouch.” The nickname not only referred to the Sesame Street character, but also to Oscar’s anger issues from his past. When Oscar would tell me how people were scared of him in the past because of how confrontational he was, I couldn’t imagine Oscar not being this warm man full of love. On the second night, while sleeping on the floor in a church, I showed Oscar Dave Chappelle’s “Killing Them Softly,” where Chappelle jokes about Sesame Street saying “Sesame Street teaches kids how to judge people… they have this character named Oscar, they treat this guy like sh**.” Chappelle humorously explains how they always call Oscar a grouch but never take into consideration that Oscar lives in a trash can. Our friend Oscar thought it was so funny he made jokes about himself living in a trash can the whole journey. It was a great feeling to make Oscar laugh so much but the irony of Chappelle’s words stung. I couldn’t help but think of times when I had dehumanized someone in need, or placed blame on someone living on the streets without considering their story. I literally felt like we were marching for our humanity. Oscar isn’t somebody who’s well read in politics or is what some would call an “activist” but he still chose to walk. For some politics is about theory, discussion, debate, maybe even action, but all the while there are real life costs and consequences to our choices and the world we live in.  Oscar didn’t need to read about them, he lives with the day to day weight of it on his back. I understand Oscar’s experience as his reason. He knows what it’s like to not have his humanity recognized, to be in need of shelter in a city called home.

I had met Christie a number of times before this march, but never really got to know her. Throughout the march, Christie and I would chop it up while walking and take turns banging the drum. She took a liking to me, Christie told me she was going to adopt me. She told me about her granddaughter and how she was the world to her.

The first night we slept in a basketball gym on the floor. I didn’t take anything on the journey that I couldn’t carry myself, which meant I had a backpack filled with a couple shirts, some socks and underwear, my chess board, some deodorant and a couple books. Along with my backpack, I had this thin blanket that I would roll up and slide in between my back and backpack while I walked. I felt the journey wasn’t about being comfortable; to me, the journey was about being humbled and finding humility. I didn’t want to be comfortable because the issues that we were confronting weren’t comfortable.

That first night, Christie asked me why I only brought the one blanket. She told me multiple blankets were necessary to be warm and comfortable while sleeping on the ground. Christie is a loving mother and a grandmother so she was very good at playing that role throughout the journey. Her knowledge of living on the streets also contributed to my learning of perspectives outside my own. Christie had spent years living in the streets herself and has been an active member of CHAM for quite some time. The first night was my first lesson in humility. I slept on top of the thin blanket with no blanket on top of me. I had my sweatshirt and some shorts on with my backpack as a pillow and a shirt rolled up under my hip which was a recommendation from Oscar. It was cold and uncomfortable.

When we arrived at our first destination, Apple Inc, we were all carrying signs. At this point we had already walked around 20 miles so some of us were feeling tired but not Christie. She could energize and motivate anybody with her high spirits. Christie carried a sign that read “Apple makes me homeless.” After we rallied in front of Apple headquarters’ main lobby, we were kicked out into the street where we passed out flyers and stood with signs for a couple hours on De Anza Boulevard. I was standing with Christie on the corner as numerous Apple employees, tourists and Cupertino residents walked by us (literally almost hundreds). Some acted like we didn’t exist or tried to avoid us even if it meant getting hit by a car; others were genuinely curious or concerned. Christie’s sign made people the most curious. One woman waiting for the light to walk across the street asked us about Christie’s sign. We explained the relationship between corporate tax breaks and cuts on housing. The woman responded sympathetically calling Apple shot-callers some names but she still looked uncomfortable around us. A lot of the Apple employees looked uncomfortable around us but I couldn’t help but notice the difference in how they treated Christie compared to me. Christie, for most of the journey, rocked her bandana, often an oversized shirt and her fingerless gloves but those who’d judge her character by the stereo-type of her looks never got to experience the amount of love this woman has to offer. I noticed the will of curious people to ask me what we were doing rather than Christie or the others.

Our Journey:
Throughout this march we were, as a group, chased out of a park by a guy who thought we worked for the city, received by churches and schools, fed well, kicked out of Apple’s campus, asked to leave Google’s campus, followed by unidentified vehicles taking pictures of us, followed by Google security cars, taught yoga, fed well, fed well, educated on various social issues, and prayed for. The march was tiring and not everybody made it the whole way. Some of our brothers and sisters had to receive rides and only walked when they could. There were a lot of marchers who were dealing with certain challenges like our brother Sandy Perry who has had hip replacements. Sandy fortunately was able to walk the whole 30 miles. Others were not as fortunate as Sandy, but the perseverance of so many continued to be inspiration while on the journey. 

The march was about many things but at the end, to me, it was about people. During this march, numbers and statistics became people I care about, people I have love for; this understanding that we are talking about people, not numbers and bar graphs.

Furthermore, this could be any of us. Sometimes, it feels like my whole community is a couple of paychecks away from being in a tight spot that would create dramatic change in their life; we aren’t stable. If we talk to people around us, we will realize how close these issues are to all of us. It is our friend, our neighbor, the person at the grocery store we always see. If I saw Oscar or Christie walking down the street and I didn’t know them, I would not have been able to imagine their stories. 

After Our Journey:
The last day of the march I went to Iguana’s Taqueria in downtown San Jose for the open mic that I feature at. I was tired and on a high from the march. I did one poem in the beginning and spit an acapella of my song “Gold Out West”. I took most of my featuring time of about 10 to 15 minutes and talked about what I had just experienced and done. While speaking to the audience I said it could be anyone in this room who is going through these issues. Shortly after the open mic ended, a young woman opened up enough to tell me that her father was currently living in “the Jungle” which is the largest homeless encampment in the country located in east San Jose. She then told me that even she had been living out of her car for the past three months. She said she had divorced her husband and had been trying to get back on her feet but couldn’t afford to get an apartment. This young woman had two kids and worked full time at a restaurant but couldn’t afford housing. She did not “look homeless” and was actually dressed well. Her testimony only furthered the statement I had made earlier that night and a gentle reminder of how close this issue is.

We are all connected, one way or the other. When satellites send back pictures of the Earth, there is an image of one Earth, not two or three different types of Earth. We are one. San Jose is a great example of where people from different socio-economic backgrounds are connected through a degree of separation and at times even grow up together. The saying in San Jose is “Big City, Small World.” When most of the people around you are suffering in tight situations, it affects you. That is what these companies don’t understand. When we brought homelessness to Apple’s headquarters and asked to compassionately start conversation about how we can solve this, we were told to “step to the sidewalk.” These companies make billions of dollars each year. It would take millions to house everyone. So when Christie holds the sign “Apple makes me homeless,” that’s not dramatized, that’s literal.           

Going into 2014 is a social momentum in Silicon Valley to address the issue of wealth inequality. Just earlier this month, a group of high school students organized a free market for those in need living in “the Jungle.” Protestors in San Francisco halted private transportation from the peninsula into the South Bay companies. After the recent death of multiple people without shelter due to hypothermia, communities came together to honor and recognize these men and women but to also begin to organize towards immediate solution. The reminiscence of the March to Heal the Valley has continued into what is Moral Mondays where at least once a month there are protests at Apple to confront the wealth inequality and bring understanding of how tech corporations are tied to local poverty. With disparity becoming reality for more people in Silicon Valley, the tension needed to create lasting change builds.

About Andrew Bigelow

Andrew Bigelow is a Hip Hop artist as well as a writer and organizer with SiliconValley De-Bug. Follow him on social media as @HeIsAndrewBigs

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Hey Andrew, thank you, this is good stuff. I was there for most of the march and I understand everything you said about it.

Andrew- Thanks for the article I was only marching on the first day of the march from Story and King to San Jose State. It is hard to get away from the comfort of my apartment but your article is as inspirational as your performance of Gold Out West at San Jose State. Fred

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