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A group of activists, artists and local residents gathered early Saturday morning to paint a sprawling street scene that honors the lives of homeless people in San José.
As the sun rose over the Gardner Community Center, the organizers trickled down a section of West Virginia Street to start chalking in the dark. Loaded with paint, buckets of chalk, and donuts – and while occasionally dodging the car – activists put down the artwork they want to inspire passers-by to feel empowered as well as part of the larger social justice movement coming this summer Bay Area swept.
“I hope they appreciate the art and the beauty, but that they think about it – it makes them think about their neighbors and the messages they contain,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a homelessness attorney and organizer. “And I hope they feel represented, whether they are housed or not.”
Cartwright and several other local activists took inspiration from the Black Lives Matter mural activists painted on July 4th near Backesto Park. Working with local tattoo artist Benny Arana O’Hara as chief designer, the team voted on the 14 sentences that best encompassed their overlapping messages.
The finished product – decorated with sun orange, lavender and turquoise – shows two beating fists, the thumbs of which almost touch in the middle, as a collection of Spanish and English words such as “resilient”, “orgullo” (pride) and “mental health” dance around them. A vertical scarlet stripe cuts through the center to symbolize the systemic practice of redlining that pushed black and brown communities out of neighborhoods and services in the US and the Bay Area for decades.
Briena Brown, 21, an aspiring senior at San José State University, attended the celebrations to represent the San José / Silicon Valley NAACP. Last month she was one of 16 artists chosen to paint a block letter in the Black Lives Matter mural along Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto.
For Brown, the mural shows the inseparable connection between homelessness and racism. According to the 2019 City Homeless Census, a whopping 20% of the homeless in San Jose are black compared to just 3% of the population, while the Latinx population makes up an additional 41% compared to 32% of the population. And it’s personal too: her father was a homeless student in San José state before her.
“It’s very closely related to me – most of the homeless are BIPOCs,” Brown said, referring to blacks, indigenous people and colored people. “We had time to think all the time during the pandemic. We stayed at home, we considered. We did all this shadow work with ourselves and our communities so that this movement would start something new at the beginning because we had no distractions. “
As a growing team of about 50 people began to paint over the chalk outlines and swing their heads to “Funky Town” and “That’s The Way (I like it)”, the volunteers put up a t-shirt tent and got ready on a hand sanitizer before food drive. Soon local politicians like supervisor Dave Cortese and California State Assembly member Ash Kalra took over the microphone.
“In San José we see the most egregious examples of income inequality. You see the story of two valleys with the working class being knocked down under the weight of this enormous amount of wealth – because in no way does the wealth get to the communities that not only need it most, but also helped to create that wealth create. Kalra told the crowd.
That feels more and more relevant in the area, said Patricia Palomares-Mason, 61, who has lived on the block for 40 years. The neighborhood, which was surrounded on two sides by freeways, was mostly Latinx in the 1970s and is now around 45 percent Latinx and 40 percent White, according to the US Census Bureau, with median incomes slightly higher than that of the entire county.
Just behind the mural, Biebrach Park is a frequent target for police officers who are the victims of homeless people, Palomares-Mason said.
“Children don’t eat. Elders don’t eat, ”she said and choked. “Everyone complains about the homeless, but what are they doing?”
The mural, she said, was a “message that needs to be heard”.
Staff writer Leonardo Castañeda contributed to this report.