Stories From Behind the Fog


NewCo Shift Forum

What is it truly like to be homeless? Arjanna van der Plas finds the humanity behind our shared misconceptions

Arjanna van der Plas is a writer and designer who focuses her work on the stories of homelessness in the San Francisco bay area. In this talk, one of five Shift Ignite sessions held earlier this year at the Shift Forum, van der Plas brings us into the world occupied by the human beings forced into life without a true sense of belonging.

Arjanna van der Plas: Hi, my name is Arjanna. My talk is about the invisible wisdom that I found in the city. Imagine going through a day where nobody looks you in the eyes. You wake up, nobody wishes you good morning. You walk through the city and everybody ignores you, or even avoids you.

Sounds like a nightmare? It is. Yet, it is what we do to the many people that live on the streets of our cities. They go through many days without being acknowledged.

About a year ago, indeed, I moved from socialist Amsterdam to San Francisco so my husband could work for Google. I thought I would find a cool tech job myself too.

I was so touched by the social inequality in the city that not Silicon Valley, but the Tenderloin became my new home. I started teaching yoga and meditation at The Healing WELL and volunteered at the Curry Senior Center.

Also, I started writing about the things I learned from these experiences, among others, for a blog, and a book that will be out later this year called, “Stories Behind the Fog.” We’re collecting 100 stories of people that have experienced homelessness.

I’m so inspired by the people I meet on the streets of this city that I want to share some examples of them today with you. This is Terry. At age 14 she started using heroin. When she overdosed for the third time at age 20, she decided it was time to start living.

She joined a self-care center where she learned what it meant to be part of a family, of a community. That’s exactly what she’s building now for the last 18 years at the Life Learning Academy, where she teaches youth that no one else wants, to become part of society and part of a family. 90 percent of the students actually graduate and learn to trust in what they can do for society.

She doesn’t stop there. She’s now raising funds for a boarding school for the 30 percent of her kids that don’t have a stable place to live.

Next, I want to introduce you to Cyrus, a wise Iranian man that told me he learned the English language by reading Shakespeare. When the UK decided to leave the European Union, he asked me what I thought of Brexit as a European. I started talking and he said, “I don’t want your opinion, I want the events that had led to this. Though not in the last 30 days, historically, the last 100 years or so.”

Even though Cyrus doesn’t have a stable place to live himself, he wants to contribute to society. That’s why he created a website called He has an algorithm that takes every significant term in the speeches of Trump for a much needed neutral overview of what’s going on in our society these days.

I also want to introduce you to Mohammed. A couple of weeks ago, he walked up to me and without warning me, he lifted his cap and showed me his scar from ear to ear. He just had a brain tumor removed that was discovered when he was in the hospital to treat a wound above his eye.

When I asked him how he was dealing with this hardship, he told me that he trusted in the guiding hands of God as he had done throughout his life. With so many heated conflicts that we have on our planet now between different religious groups, this powerful image of the guiding hands of God was such a good reminder for me of what religion really means and what it can do for people in difficult times.

I also often ask the people I work with what they think are the solutions to our homelessness crisis.

Don, who is one of my regular yoga students had a painful answer. He compared being homeless to being addicted and he said, “You’re always looking for the next fix, whether it’s the next place to sleep, or the next meal. What you really need is to start focusing on the long term, but you just don’t have the bandwidth to do that.”

He said, “There are many hopeless cases on the streets, but there are also many people that are just one incredibly complicated form away from a stable life.”

“So stop handing out meals,” he told me, “And start giving people the kick in the butt that they really need to get their life back together.”

Lastly, I want to introduce you to Cherri. Cherri spent 23 years of her life in a Californian prison for conspiracy for murder. Now, while she’s struggling to get her life back together, she’s also working on setting up a foundation for young women at risk. That’s HandUp, by the way.

I asked Cherri what people like you and me could do to help the homeless people in our city, and she said, “Don’t stereotype people. Just take a little moment, say good morning, ask how people are doing. So many of these people are lonely and about to give up. Your smile and your acknowledgment of them as a fellow human being can just be that little thing that keeps them going.”

Thank you so much.

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