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Young, Black, Male, Single--and Homeless in San Jose

New America Media, Commentary, La Mar Williams Posted: Feb 19, 2010

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- My birthday is coming in a couple of weeks. Itll be my 25th, and it falls on a Saturday. Saturdays have always been kind of important to me because ever since I was little, they were my day for cartoons and video games. Its how Id like to celebrate a bunch of cartoons, some people around, drawing, a pot of chili and maybe a few beers.

But first, I have to find a place to stay. Currently, I sleep on the floor of some friends' apartment, and I have no key. This is a blessing, and Ive had worse accommodations (try the back seat of an old TOYOTA 4Runner with no back window in the dead of winter). But there is something maddening about not being able to come and go as I please. In any event, Ive only got this arrangement until March 1, at which point Im back to my own devices.

Now, before I landed in my current stitch, I checked out every state program I could find. Help for immigrant refugees, help for families, for women, for long-term homeless, for minors nothing for an able-bodied man down on his luck. And when I say down on his luck, I mean it. Ive been unemployed, with a few short stints of employment, for three-and-a-half years - so long I dont qualify for unemployment.

And I do everything. I write, I edit video, I install car stereos, cook, clean, drive, shoot pictures and video, garden, watch dogs, teach, program in C++ and Python but no job has ever worked out for long. Ive got a smell on me or something--too much ambition, too much of an independent spirit. Or maybe its just a smell?

Ive been laid off from three jobs across three industries -- electronic assembly, telephone connection and video editing - over the course of one year. The assembly job lasted two-and-a-half weeks, at which point a manager told me the temp agency that hired me said they were letting me go. To this day I don't know why. The telephone work dried up as a result of a misprint in my boss's phonebook ad. She just stopped getting calls during what should've been the busiest time of the year, and we didnt figure out what happened until I was about a month into work as an editor. The editing work went away when my studio's contract providing me with steady work fell through.

This time last year, when the California unemployment rate reached 10.5 percent, the rate for black males was 16.3 percent. My resume was everywhere, and I can't remember any actual interviews from the period. I moved into my grandmother's house, and helped with errands and maintenance while I waited and prayed to find myself back on my feet. One in five black males share my story, and it wasn't too long before my uncle, a truck driver with more years of experience than I've had birthdays, joined me as a statistic staying under my grandmother's roof in Poway, a small town in north San Diego county.

My father, who moved across country not even a year before because of a promotion, had at this point changed his tone in our conversations, from "Son, you need an income, you have to go find something, anything," to, "Times are hard, and I feel for you." He'd also gone from telling me when I was in high school that he didn't want to hear about me enlisting in the military (Boyz in the Hood was one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater, and the line, "the black man has no business in the white man's army," had always been a favorite of my dad's), to being a bit more accepting of the Navy, since at least I wouldn't end up in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Ive been filling out applications, sending out copies of my resume, writing cover letters, and putting hours of research into companies I'd never hear back from. And the statewide unemployment rate for black males climbed over 17 percent, while the rate for white males was at 9.4 percent. Shit was rough.

It was around this time, sitting in a community arts center, which has become a respite for other creative 20-somethings who cant find stable employment, that I wrote on a sheet of paper, If no one else will hire me, I might as well hire myself. Things began to turn around. I set to work on projects that were important to me, and it resonated with the people who were already there. Im more creative than Ive been in a long time, and feel better about what I do every day than I ever have.

But its a little too late to turn the bus around. I wont have any help from the state, and Im fresh out of floors to sleep on. I should be more afraid, but it just doesnt bother me so much - I know something good is going to happen.

On any given day, I probably dont have a dime in my pocket, and with freelance gigs, it sometimes takes a while for checks to be turned around. Plus, my credit is just bad enough that any place with a rental application probably isnt an option.

But I love it in San Jose, and Ive got work to do here, no matter what my situation. The people have been kind enough to take me in when I had no place to go, to feed me when I had no food to eat, and have made for good company when it came down to talking shit over a game of cards, so I owe them every scrap of energy I can muster. Thank you, San Jose, for being my home.

La Mar Williams is a writer and video producer at Silicon Valley De-Bug.

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