Bay Area politicians share their stories
When Ajwang Rading unveils the qualifications he believes make him the right candidate to represent Silicon Valley in Congress, he includes an almost unheard of personal history in politics – a decade of intermittent homelessness.
Rading, a 29-year-old lawyer from the Peninsula, has never held an elected office. But he knows what it’s like to grow up sleeping in a car, wash in a public bathroom, and finish his homework at fast food restaurants because there is nowhere to go. And he says that experience, which allows him to see eye-to-eye with those who live on the outskirts of the Bay Area, makes him uniquely suited to take on long-time holder Anna Eshoo in the race for the 18th. California Congressional District next fall. .
âI have a very different perspective on this neighborhood,â he said. “It’s actually an added value at the head office.”
Rading joins a small group of California politicians who overcome the social stigma and shame surrounding homelessness, and present their experiences of living on the streets, in cars, in motels and on the sofas of knowledge as a strength and an asset. in a region locked in a debate over how best to deal with a growing crisis of homeless residents. At least two members of Oakland City Council and one in Los Angeles have battled homelessness and are now building on that experience in their struggles to improve access to housing and social services. One activist who is currently homeless is running for mayor of Oakland in 2022, and another is considering throwing his hat in the ring for Marin County Supervisor.
As the issue dominates the minds of voters, politicians who have struggled with housing insecurity are gradually opening up about their experiences. Some, including Rading, said even their friends and colleagues were unaware of their past struggles until they made them public when they applied.
Experts say their stories may well resonate with a Bay Area electorate desperate for new solutions – 89% of voters in the region consider homelessness to be an extremely or very serious problem, according to a recent poll by the Bay Area News Group and the Silicon Valley Joint Venture.
âOne complaint people have from politicians on a whole host of issues is that they just don’t get it,â said Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles County. âTalking about the experience of homelessness comes down to three words – I get it. “
But it is often extremely difficult for unknown candidates without political experience, connections or deep pockets to get elected. A compelling story about homelessness won’t get them far, said political strategist Dan Schnur, who teaches at UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University.
âA candidate’s personal biography may encourage voters to pay more attention to their campaign than they otherwise would,â he said, âbut it’s a door opening, not a conclusion Okay.”
Rading is a rare example of someone born into homelessness. When her mother – a single mother from Kenya – gave birth, she couldn’t even afford the car seat she needed to bring Rading home from the hospital. A friend who had one eventually picked up the new mother and baby and dropped them off at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles.
Rading’s mother quickly recovered, sometimes holding multiple jobs. But she lost her job in mortgage banking before the 2008 financial crisis, when Rading was in college, and they became homeless again. They mostly slept in a 2001 Dodge Neon – Rading in the passenger seat, her mother in the driver’s seat.
As a young mother, Oakland City Council President Pro Tempore Sheng Thao also lived in a car with her newborn baby.
Thao, a daughter of Hmong refugee parents from Laos, was the victim of domestic violence. When her attacker pulled her to the ground by the hair and kicked her, Thao, then 20 years old and pregnant, fled.
She had nowhere to go and wasn’t earning enough working at Walgreens to pay a security deposit and the first and last month’s rent for an apartment. So she and her newborn baby surfed the couch and slept in her car in Contra Costa County. Eventually, she made friends at Merritt College who let her crash into their futon until she could save for a place of her own.
âBeing housing insecure and food insecure is a feeling like no other. You are in this constant survival mode, âThao said. “And I think that’s why I do the job I do.”
Jason Sarris’ life fell apart after a divorce when he started partying excessively and making destructive decisions that cost him his job and his house. Now sober for 17 months, Sarris lives in a camp in Lee Gerner Park in Novato. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he fought the city’s attempts to clean up the park and relocate its camp. He even took the case to court and won a major victory this month – the city agreed to create a temporary licensed encampment in the park.
But Sarris wanted to do more. So he decided he was going to run for Marin County Supervisor.
âIt’s a humbling experience to be on the streets,â said Sarris. âBut it gives me a bigger picture of what needs to be done in Marin. And I think any city council or county supervisory board needs someone like me. Someone who saw it from all sides.
Derrick Soo has filed a notice of intent to run for mayor of Oakland next year in what is sure to be a packed race filled with many more recognizable names than his own – including current city councilor Loren Taylor. Soo, who has been intermittently homeless since 2012 and served on the Alameda County Homeless Health Care Advisory Board, lives in an encampment near the Colosseum and defends his homeless neighbors.
Oakland City Councilor Carroll Fife hopped from hotel to hotel for about six months in her 20s after her landlord decided to sell her duplex. As a single mother of three with an old eviction on her file, no credit history and little savings, she has struggled to find new housing. When she did, she complained to her new owner about the lack of heat and was kicked out again.
This experience reinforced Fife’s belief that housing is a human right – a rallying cry that brought her to city council last year. It also inspired a shipper, Fife, who said his opponents highlighted the evictions and a child support case in his court file.
When Fife saw him, she refused to be ashamed.
âI was proud,â she says. âI thought to myself, ‘I’ve had experiences that a lot of working class women have. And it just binds me to people.
Like Fife, Rading says he is running for office to raise the Bay Area’s most vulnerable residents. He wants the federal government to get more involved in creating affordable housing for the homeless, including potentially handing over vacant properties to community land trusts.
But Rading has a difficult task ahead of him, attempting to overthrow a rival who has been in office almost as long as he’s been alive.
“It’s a pretty tough race for someone who is running for the first time,” said political strategist Schnur.
But for Rading, who still has back pain and swollen ankles after years of sleeping in a car, waging a drawn-out political battle is nothing compared to what he has already endured.
âIt’s pretty decisive,â Rading said of his homelessness. âBut I don’t mean that as a liability. It made me incredibly ambitious.