Martha Shirk is a journalist in Palo Alto and the author of several books, including “Lives on the Line” and “On Their Own.” Originally posted on Downtown Streets Team blog here.
By: Martha Shirk
Nothing in the years that Chuck Jagoda spent as a student of ancient and modern Greek and an educator in New York City schools prepared him for the hardest challenge of his life: homelessness.
By the time he graduated on December 8 from the Downtown Streets Team, he could have written a book about surviving on the street. “I didn’t go to school to study it,” he said. “I had to learn it on the job.”
Praised by both staff members and other volunteers at the graduation ceremony for his “never give up attitude,” Chuck, 72, in turn praised the organization for giving him what he hadn’t even known he needed.
“The Downtown Streets Team turns out to be a perfect incubator to get yourself together and teach yourself things you need to know,” he said during a ceremony at All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, where the Palo Alto team meets weekly.
“For years, people told me to join the Downtown Streets Team. But I didn’t, because I couldn’t trust. Now I know that whatever you’re here for, you’ll get, but you’ll get so much more than you bargained for. The Downtown Streets Team lives up to its word 150 percent of the time.”
Reared on Long Island, Chuck earned a bachelor’s degree in classical Greek language and literature from College of the Holy Cross and a master’s degree in classics and acting from the University of Nebraska. He acted in student and community plays, did stand-up comedy, taught at a Jesuit mission in Jamaica and then taught in New York City schools for many years.
Chuck found himself suffering from depression in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. A 24-year-old nephew died in the collapse of Tower One. While he was still grieving that loss, his only niece, a 20-year-old college student, died in a kayaking accident on Cape Cod Bay. During the five-day search for her body, Chuck lost his temper and snapped at a student, which cost him his teaching job.
In 2009, he came to the Bay Area to be closer to his five grandchildren. He hoped to obtain housing in return for work, but it didn’t work out.
or much of the first year, he lived in his blue ’89 Dodge Spirit in an alley behind a donut shop in Palo Alto. Sometimes he slept on a friend’s floor, and sometimes on a picnic table at Cubberley Community Center or on a folding table at a Laundromat or on the ground at Palo Alto Square. Other times he paid an acquaintance $10 a night to sleep on his couch.
One year, he stayed from December through April in the now-closed shelter at the old Armory in Sunnyvale. He had two three-month stints at the Hotel DeZink, a shelter that rotates among churches in Palo Alto, and an activist in Santa Cruz took him in for the winter of 2013/14. “My steady plan for a long time–the last couple or three years— was to sleep across my back seat and park in front of the Hawaiian BBQ in Palo Alto, whose bathroom was a comfort late at night,” he recalled. Last winter, the Downtown Streets Team secured him a room in a motel.
Starting in 2011, when Palo Alto began considering a ban on sleeping in cars, Chuck became an unofficial spokesman for people who are homeless in Palo Alto, writing numerous opinion pieces for local publications and joining a working group that the city convened to provide advice. In 2013, the city enacted the ban, but revoked it in 2014 after a federal appeals court struck down a similar ban in Los Angeles.
Chuck joined the Streets Team in Palo Alto in 2013 after what he described as “years of resisting.”
“I’d been a garbage man and didn’t want to pick up litter on University Ave,” he recalled. “So I waited for a gig picking up litter on the soccer field at Page Mill. Then I added a gig laying lines down on the soccer fields at Mitchell Park. Then I was asked to help on University Avenue to get my hours up. It was all good and fun, and I liked it– even the University Avenue litter.”
In October 2014, a new volunteer opportunity arose through DST: helping with customer management for Mobile 4 All, which provides free smartphones and low-cost data and phone service to homeless and low-income people. Last summer, the volunteer gig morphed into a paid part-time job with Sparrow Communications, which runs Mobile 4 All. Chuck also works periodically as a substitute teacher in San Jose.
All through this journey, DST helped him in ways both big and small – sending him to a computer literacy course, paying for a transmission repair, helping him apply for subsidized housing. “In general, they do more helpful things than any of us have a right to expect,” he said. “Perhaps most important, they provided emotional support. They really do care about us.”
Since July 31, Chuck has lived in a subsidized studio apartment in the Parkside Studios in Sunnyvale, built on the site of the old Armory that until March 2014 served as a 150-bed winter shelter. “Ironically, I had argued against replacing the shelter with permanent housing,” he noted.
Chris Richardson, the Streets Team’s regional director for Silicon Valley, got to know Chuck a few years ago when he was speaking out regularly about homeless rights. “What struck me is how sincerely, intelligently and compassionately he advocated for others,” Chris recalled. “I knew he would be an excellent role model for our Team Members who were going through hard times.
“But that wasn’t Chuck’s plan! He’s a bit hard-headed and thought no one could help him but himself. When he eventually showed up to a meeting due to the encouragement of his friends on the team (which is why most people show up), he was ‘spiritually fulfilled.’ I think he had found an environment where he could help himself, but more importantly to Chuck, where he could help others succeed.
“In his time at DST he has managed to do both. He’s landed two great jobs and found an apartment. Even more, he opened up a new employment pathway for disabled team members to get back into work. As a Mobile4All rep, he is helping others on a daily basis and continues to encourage team members not to give up hope.
“I am so grateful for his time on the team and incredibly proud of his achievements. I know he’ll be a great DST graduate, mentoring others, and that he has a bright future ahead of him.”