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Paying it Forward by Volunteering with the United Effort

Portrait of James Reed
James Reed (Image credit Susana Canales Barrón)

Hi - my name is James Reed. I’m 56 years old and live in Santa Clara, California. 

I’m sharing my story so I can give hope and help others. After my experience living on the streets and getting help from Hope’s Corner and the United Effort Organization, both non-profits, I now volunteer at the United Effort so I can give back and directly help others. There is a way back to being self-sufficient and having a home, though it is never easy.

I had a pretty normal childhood. As a kid, I dreamt of becoming a star athlete in football or baseball, but when my parents divorced, there was a lot of stress, and things changed. After high school, I became a car mechanic, then, for over 20 years, I also managed 3 gas stations. This meant that I often worked 17-hour days when I had to cover for other co-workers.  I struggled with depression and frequent mood swings, and the hard work put a lot of pressure on my mental health. 

In 2014 I was diagnosed with Cyclothymia, a rare mood disorder. I was always depressed, barely functioning, and it became harder just to get to work. I rarely joined family get-togethers and was always overwhelmed, telling myself I was a terrible person. I didn’t want to be awake and began taking a lot of sleeping pills.

When I was about 48 I started a new job at a dealership but got fired after about 18 months because I wasn’t showing up consistently. My parents got fed up, so I packed up what little I had (a few outdoor activity stuff, a Stephen King book and a family picture) and left. That’s when I became homeless.

I wasn’t sure where to go, and started sleeping in front of the Sunnyvale Library. It was free, had enough light so that people couldn’t sneak up on me, and was quiet enough so that I could think.  I didn’t really sleep well though; nobody does when they sleep outside. Finding food, shelter and bathrooms became a daily struggle, and I found I had little time to get help.

Living on the streets is really rough. People don’t understand that when you’re homeless, you’re treated rudely at least 3 times a day. Sometimes people walk around you or snicker, or they just look at you like you're garbage. Some people even tell you that, which never helps.

I first found Hope’s Corner, a non-profit in Mountain View on the corner of Hope and Mercy streets, where I could get hot food and a shower. Then I found The United Effort Organization in the same parking lot, which offers help finding safe housing and accessing public assistance programs such as CalFresh (food stamps to buy food at grocery stores) and Medi-Cal for basic health care coverage. The United Effort specifically helped get me a free phone and phone service under the LifeLine Program so I could apply for assistance and jobs.  The people at the United Effort offered me support: They told me about mobile medical units at shelters, where I got established with a therapist and could talk via video conference. Though the Shelter offers tablets (computers),  I had my own and could talk to my therapist anywhere I wanted, every 2 weeks - that helped me A LOT!

I hadn’t seen my family for about 5 years, and decided to find my sister online. I sent her an email, and was happy that she and my other sister both wanted to see me, and began visiting me at the library. We started having lunch together, and they saw that I was trying to take care of myself by going to therapy and taking medicine. Even though I was really unsure, they saw these as important accomplishments! My oldest sister encouraged me to live with her and her husband, which is really nice - they have an offset room with a shower, kitchen and fridge - I am so grateful to her, my brother-in-law, and my other sister.

It may sound strange, but while I was grateful for the room, I felt horrible leaving my friends on the street. They were so kind, assuring me that we all leave the street eventually. It actually took me about 6 months to decompress - it might be like coming home from war. When I could buy things, I kept buying what I needed as if I were homeless, like an emergency flint and water filters. My brother-in-law finally convinced me that I could change my thinking - I didn’t need to think like I was living outside and didn’t need those things anymore!  

Now, I enjoy volunteering at United Effort on Wednesdays and Saturdays, usually helping people to get phones. I meet a lot of people, listen to their stories and share mine - it’s really nice that being homeless is in my past and that I can now help others.

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