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The Waste of the World: Napa Valley must prioritize the health and personhood of its unhoused

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Editor's Note: This essay was prepared as part of a project on health equity by Register reporter Sarah Klearman with support from the Impact Fund, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. She and Danielle Fox, engagement editor at USC's Center for Health Journalism, worked with a number of local youth to write about how the recent fires and pandemic affected their families and communities.

“How do they live like this?” I think to myself after seeing the shape of a person in the middle of bags full of bottles and cans. What if I were to tell you there was a pandemic happening well before the outbreak in 2020? You might look past it and not be able to put a name to it.

Homelessness. It is the thing that is quiet and loud, insignificant and chronic, invisible but exposed to prying eyes that are upset for the wrong reasons.

Last year the pandemic affected all of us in different ways, but we all worried more than normal. All along, there were people in Napa that could not even meet the basic standard of living: the homeless. We, the housed, worried about our jobs, food, gas, family, friends, and our future. The homeless did not get a chance to think about any of that.

It is easy to see how beautiful Napa is. What is not easy to see is the poverty in a wealthy place like this one. In my opinion, homelessness is a sign of a failed economy. Whether there are 10 or 10,000 homeless, I think we have failed if anyone looking for a safe place to sleep at night cannot get it.

I walk around a lot in Napa, which has made me see a lot of people out and about living their life constantly in motion.

Then STOP…

I see white and black trash bags haphazardly piled on top of each other, a grotesque pile of junk with a shopping cart holding food, and old shoes with a blanket on top of it. Flies buzz around the mass. I am suddenly out of my element, questioning something like this is here on Lincoln Avenue next to the liquor store.

I take a closer look and see a man sitting against the fence, staring at the ground. I ask if he is OK. That’s when he looks up and says his name is Tony.

Tony assured me he was OK. I know he was not fine, but his smile tried to say otherwise. I introduced myself, we talked briefly, and I said goodbye and kept walking. As I walked away, I could not shake the image I saw before I met Tony and the idea that just a brief conversation could change the way I saw a person.

When I heard him talk, I did not hear the things that are said about the homeless: I did not hear of drug use. He did not proclaim that he chooses to live outside. He did not have a crazy ramble that made no sense, and he did not ask me for any money. All he did was treat me like a human being. He talked to me about his love for his family, where he grew up, and where he got his education. He also talked about his friends, what he does daily, and he wanted to hear the same from me.

From a pile of garbage to a person in the shadows — to now Tony, a man that lost his touch, but one I am not willing to just throw away.

Homelessness is a bigger issue than just the mere fact of just not having a place to live but what not having the proper living space can do to your life. Homelessness affects your mental health, your ability to make a living, sociability, the support you receive, and the way society sees you. And the crazy part is, no matter how far you have come, no matter how much wealth you have gained and how well looked at you are today, all of this could be taken away, and you could be the one someone mistakes for garbage.

Tony is just one of many that are homeless and seeing his smile made me feel pity and shame that living like this is normal in a place I live, the city of Napa.

I see signs, stickers, and hashtags as I walk around all over the city, with the slogan “Napa Strong”. I've also grown-up hearing leaders tell me “we are only as good as our weakest link.” Both are a lot harder to swallow once you think about Tony and the over 464 of his peers who are currently homeless. Would you say that is a sign of a “Strong” community and are they a part of the “Napa Strong” movement?

I cannot speak for the homeless population as I have not experienced it firsthand myself, but I can help the uninformed see them and put them in a better light. I am not sure what the solution is, but this must change.

We need to do better in acknowledging our communities’ shortcomings. We need to help the most vulnerable people in our communities even if they do not have a platform to ask for help. We need to care about others unconditionally. That shows the true character of our community, and that would truly make us the strong Napa we claim to be.

That’s a step in the right direction that would not only greatly benefit the homeless but this city.

Would you be OK with the people you care about most being treated as we treat the homeless?

Or let me put it simpler: would you want to be treated like Tony? Like the waste of the world?

Rudolph Barragan

Napa

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