From homeless to helper

Jan Bernstein-Chargin

As she described a solid year of

cold and wet

living inside an

uninhabitable

industrial warehouse where rats would jump into her bed, the
bathroom was full of frogs and the aesthetic elements of her
makeshift residence included mud, a cement floor, leaky roof, zero
heat and no air conditioning, Jan Bernstein-Chargin reiterated: A
shelter won’t cure homelessness.
As she described a solid year of “cold and wet” living inside an “uninhabitable” industrial warehouse where rats would jump into her bed, the bathroom was full of frogs and the aesthetic elements of her makeshift residence included mud, a cement floor, leaky roof, zero heat and no air conditioning, Jan Bernstein-Chargin reiterated: A shelter won’t cure homelessness.

“But it can give people a safer, more humane solution while they’re putting their lives together,” she added over a cup of coffee. “That’s what I needed. That’s what other people need.”

Bernstein-Chargin is a longtime homeless advocate working with a group of community volunteers to establish the Compassion Center, a year-round haven that could be potentially located at 8425 Monterey St. The facility would target chronic homelessness in Gilroy by getting people back on their feet and on the road to becoming stable, contributing members of society.

Amid the effort – which is not without its share of controversy and daunting fiscal challenges – Bernstein-Chargin brings personal perspective to the table. Her experience living homeless was something she shared publicly for the first time April 21 during a Compassion Center community meeting.

“Sometimes, we do make ill-advised decisions,” she said. “But in the long run, aren’t we all better off if we have a way to start over, rather than getting stuck?”

As someone who went from “homeless, to renter, to owner, to landlord because people helped me and believed in me,” Bernstein-Chargin – who serves on the board for Leadership Gilroy and is the public relations director at Gavilan College – maintains having an interim solution draws the line between clinging to hope versus sinking further into a state of depression and desperation.

“If you’ve never been in that situation, once you’re out of the game, it’s really hard to get back in,” she said.

Following graduation from college, Bernstein-Chargin moved to California from New York in 1986 to begin a career in food manufacturing. After a few years, she took a chance and changed careers, perusing her passion in art studies at community colleges and the University of California, Santa Cruz. When savings eventually ran dry, however, her trigger for homelessness was departing an abusive relationship without sufficient financial or personal resources.

Still in her early 20s, the Cornell University alumna with a degree in applied economics found herself living in the corner of a bronze foundry in central San Jose, her sole companion “a pretty big dog … half Doberman, half something” named Butch.

No one was supposed to be living in the building, which meant concealing all traces of inhabitancy during the day.

When family members from out of state visited her during this period, Bernstein-Chargin’s grandparents “said they went home and cried.”

She examples her own trajectory – what could have become a rapid “downward spiral” had she not pursued outreach – to emphasize not all homelessness looks alike.

” ‘Homeless’ is a word people don’t usually like to use about themselves,” said Bernstein-Chargin, who would tell people she was between homes, or staying in her studio. “A majority you’ll meet are not carrying a sign. Most have pride, and are trying very hard to not let you know they’re homeless.”

Just because someone is sleeping in their car doesn’t mean they’re lazy, or using drugs or alcohol, she delineated. Unexpected circumstances contribute to compromised living situations.

“Some people say that others have chosen homelessness. I don’t believe anybody got up in his nice house, turned off the TV, turned off the fridge and said, ‘I’d rather go to sleep under the bridge on cardboard.’ Nobody chose that – but they might have come to accept it.”

She recalled a “stark difference” in the way she was treated, saying people view the homeless or “anybody who is one the fringe and not fitting into the mainstream very differently.”

Far more than the physical discomfort, she said the most difficult aspect was the experience of being invisible, disconnected and feeling worthless to others.

The “sense of not mattering” turns into a degrading situation that can lead to isolation and fear of interacting with others, she said.

“People get beaten down, and they try, and it doesn’t work, and then they stop trying.”

Myriad elements, she highlighted, must align for successful assimilation back into society: Overcoming mental roadblocks and emotional wounds, obtaining references and passing a credit check on housing applications, coming up with first and last month’s deposit, having a legitimate address on your resume, etc.

In Bernstein-Chargin’s case, someone had to vouch on her behalf with a false rental reference.

But she was “lucky” in a number of ways – eventually landing a job and connecting with people who could help her out. Not everyone finds a leg-up, she noted.

Hence the Compassion Center, which would include a centralized resource office called a One-Stop Center staffed with case managers and representatives from various social agencies.

Sending someone all over South County on a bus to different resource organizations is inefficient, she said.

Gilroy’s homeless situation, she added, is an anomaly in Santa Clara County as the area is more rural. Not a lot of people are sleeping in doorways so much as they are creeks and fields.

“People are asking ‘Why now? Why, at this time in the economy would you try to start a project?’ This is the time when it’s needed. This is something we can do for ourselves as a community. Nobody is going come in and fix it.”

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