When Claudine Sipili heads into one of San Jose’s many homeless encampments, she wields a special superpower that allows her to connect with and help the residents there: She knows exactly what they’re going through.
Sipili has been homeless herself and struggled with the same things many people on the streets do, including incarceration and addiction. She knows firsthand the indignity of going to a shelter, having her cellphone confiscated and then being assigned a bunk bed in a room with 15 other women. And she knows what the quicksand-like grip of homelessness feels like — how the harder you struggle to get out, the harder it seems to pull you back down.
Now, she makes it her mission to listen to the people currently living through those experiences, and to report what they say up the chain to the nonprofits, politicians and others in charge of making the county’s homeless service system better.
“I was so ashamed. And I just felt like there was a label on my forehead that said, homeless or loser,” the Navy veteran said of the year and a half she spent bouncing between her car, the street and a women’s shelter in Idaho. “And that’s the reason why for me now in my work I really want to make sure while I’m out at encampments, or whoever is out in encampments, that’s the first thing that we do is affirm the dignity of the humans that are out there.”
This spring, Sipili started in a role that will take her efforts to the next level: director of lived experience and innovation for Destination: Home. It’s a brand-new role for the Santa Clara County nonprofit, and it comes at a time when homeless service providers are making an increasing effort to listen to the people who use their programs. For Sipili, her role means figuring out how to better amplify homeless voices. Those voices, she says, are the key to figuring out how to do everything from improving the quality of life for people living in encampments, to moving people into permanent housing.
She sat down with this news organization to discuss her new role. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Q Why is it necessary to involve the voices of people with lived experience when shaping policies that address homelessness?
A I think the reason it’s so important is because they’re living it, right? So they understand the complexities of their own individual journeys and I really feel like there’s so much value in learning what those challenges are that they are facing. And not just the challenges. What is working for them? What is helping give them that push or that lift out of homelessness into permanent housing?
Our system of care is what we have, but we all know that it needs some improvements. And sometimes when you are so steeped in something, you don’t see the gaps.
Q What frustrates you about Santa Clara County’s homeless services system?
A One of the things that comes up more and more, and I don’t know what the appropriate word is, if it’s frustrated or disappointed, but it’s the fact that when I’m out in an encampment, and an unsheltered person tells me, “I really need to get into housing, what can I do to get into housing?” I have to tell them we are working on getting everybody into a database where we have your name, and we have to ask you some assessment questions so we know how to prioritize your need for housing. And then the next question is, “Well, I’ve answered all those questions. What does that do for me? How long will it take me to get into housing?”
And really the answer is, I don’t know. And the “I don’t know” part of it is the part that is frustrating and sometimes very disempowering. How do I say this to this human that has been suffering out here without making them feel like they’re completely hopeless, that it’s a hopeless situation?
Q What are some stereotypes and misconceptions that housed people have about their homeless neighbors?
A The first thing that comes up for me is that people just don’t want to get housed. When I became homeless, and the people out in the encampments that I’ve been talking to and visiting and become friends with — nobody doesn’t want to be housed. Everybody wants to be housed. They can’t wait to get out of here.
And trying to pinpoint a single cause of someone’s homelessness. The fact of the matter is, it’s not one factor. Homelessness is a result of collective factors.
And that all homeless people, they’re just lazy. They just want to hang out and not do anything all day. I laugh because it’s comical to me. Because when you’re homeless, survival is a full-time job. In my own experience, you wake up in the morning and you go, “OK, where do I find my food? Where do I go to try to seek services?” Checking in with a probation officer. And you walk everywhere because you don’t have money to buy a bus pass. You’re constantly going from place to place to place, to a friend’s house to see if they’ll allow you to take a shower, or to look up the Dignity on Wheels schedule to make sure I’m at that site so I can take a shower and use the restroom and do my laundry. That’s not being lazy.
And the last thing is, society looks at people experiencing homelessness as being all drug addicts who just want to be high on drugs and be drunk and not do anything productive. I’ve seen people shoot up while I’m out there, but that’s not everybody. I’ve run into more people that don’t use drugs and alcohol than I’ve run into people that do.
Q A lot of housed people see encampments and want to do something to help but don’t really know what to do. What would you recommend?
A I’ve been asked that question a lot lately. If someone in the community agrees that something more should be done to help end homelessness and help end the suffering of people that are unsheltered, then they should talk to their neighbor and spread the word about it. Because a lot of what we’re running into as the city and the county continue to build more affordable housing units and interim housing sites to get people indoors, a lot of the times we’re running into communities that are saying no, we don’t want that development in our neighborhood or backyard or downtown. I really think that if you’re human, your perspective can change. And if you’re a human whose perspective is for getting help and support for people who are experiencing homelessness, then you have the power to influence your neighbor who says no to solutions for homelessness.