Embrace Your Community

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Embrace Your Community

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On a regular day, everyone either drives, walks, bikes, takes the bus or carpools to our lovely MA campus. However, sometimes during this transition from one’s home to school, a lot can be missed. When battling with exhaustion and feeling drowsy on an early morning commute, the wondrous things the city of San Rafael offers can be easily glossed over.

Although you might see the common Johnny’s Doughnuts, Cafe Del Sol or even Sol Food you might miss the fact that there are about five different nail salons within two hundred feet of each other, and even Pleasures of The Heart, a unique sex shop on 4th Street. Who knew that San Rafael would have all you need? Or be so diverse?

Since 1980, The Ritter Center has worked to prevent homelessness in San Rafael by providing food, therapists and a clinic during the week with the goal of stabilizing the lives of many people struggling with mental illness, disability or a combination of events that have caused them to spiral into homelessness.

A major part of San Rafael that most people don’t notice is marginalized populations, specifically people who seek shelter and assistance at both the Ritter Center and St. Vincent De Paul. These two organizations provide a small example of the support for the homeless population in the city and work to make visible to something that is invisible to a majority of our community: “Many people come to the ritter center to get back on track and have a place that they can return to for food and supplies. We have given food to about 300 to 340 people per week.”

As the Director of Community Action at MA, James Hughes has a huge responsibility to choose issues in outside communities to raise awareness and provide support for: “It really has to do with all the different partnerships we have in the community. So we developed a variety of different partnerships, particularly around in the different community and social concerns. Largely much of that is ideally driven by the students and the faculty interests and that’s why it kind of evolved year to year.”

In the MA community, as Hughes mentioned, most of the focused work done by different student-led clubs are all decided on by the student’s interests. It has become apparent that the awareness of our community is slightly less than expected, considering the location of MA due to the lack of interest and knowledge the students have on this specific topic.

Although the community action club does not specifically take steps to address the issues of homelessness in San Rafael, it is incorporated within the curriculum. Hughes says confidently, “I think it’s important to create an awareness of the issue of homelessness and create a sense that these are people, and put a face to the individuals, to the people that we are talking about.” It’s easy to go about our everyday lives being unaware of issues when we don’t step back and think about them. Opportunities to engage and be aware of your surroundings are offered during end of year projects, but what people don’t realize is that there are multiple chances to reach out and raise your awareness yourself.

Taylor Tan, an MA alum and a current math teacher, has not only witnessed the situation surrounding homelessness as a teacher but also when he was a student at MA from 2002 to 2006.

Living in San Anselmo, Berkeley and currently in Marin City in Sausalito, Tan has a unique perspective on this situation which has enhanced his involvement and awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness; “those three places are pretty illustrative of the various types of homeless issues that are faced in the bay area.” In his opinion, the location and access to transportation have a huge influence on the homeless population.


In San Anselmo, “There are both fewer economic opportunities for homeless people to make money and find food and find places to live there. And the public transit to and from San Anselmo is incredibly poor. So I think that’s part of the reason why San Rafael has a larger homeless population, is because transit to get elsewhere is easier to access from there.” The societal norms in these different cities have a large impact on the levels of homelessness.

From experience, Tan describes Berkeley, “as a city [that] is known for supporting its homeless populations.” Along with the idea that “there are a lot of sort of social pressures in Berkeley to help support the homeless population there. And as a result, it draws people who are sometimes not even really homeless by choice.”
Tan’s comparison of the homeless population from 2002-2006 in San Rafael to present day gives us an idea of the shift that has occurred throughout recent years; “I feel like when I was a student here that there was a smaller homeless population in San Rafael, but they were possibly slightly more visible and recognizable.”

Although homelessness was less of an apparent issue during his years of high school, Tan still found himself becoming aware and involved, “There was actually one that I knew personally. He became homeless while I was in high school. He worked at a diamond sports cards on Fourth Street for a while. And at some point, he had a psychotic break and wound up homeless. And I would see him like hanging out around and buy him a cup of coffee because we had had a relationship before he became homeless.” Tan’s personal experience with a person struggling with homelessness allowed him, even in high school, to understand the reality of why people become homeless and how easy it is to lose everything in such a short period of time.

“I think like the majority of our students when presented with an opportunity to interact with somebody like during lunch or whatever, if they go off campus, don’t necessarily take advantage of that opportunity to engage positively with the homeless commission.” At a young age, it can be hard to muster the confidence to engage with a stranger, however, due to the divide between our communities, most of the time students will separate themselves from those types of situations.

As a Marin Academy student, it might seem as though there are limited ways to support the homeless community and have a real impact. Andrew Henning, Director of Homelessness Planning and Outreach in the San Rafael City Hall, points out easy ways for students in Marin to get involved and show compassion for people who experience homelessness: “There are definitely like kind of direct projects that students can be involved with, like the purple meters.”

The purple parking meters scattered throughout San Rafael are specifically used to support the homeless community and are a great and easy way for people to get involved and show their compassion for others.

Henning also describes a situation that happened recently that shows students are able to make extreme impacts on decisions made: “This group of five high schoolers from Terra Linda came and gave this amazing presentation about climate change and how this is basically like the moral responsibility of the city council to set the example in the community and you know, like hundred percent renewable energy. And I’ve rarely seen this, but the council literally from their presentation changed their mind and went a hundred percent renewable.” It is examples like this that provide a structure of what students at Marin Academy and beyond can do in order to better their community as a whole.

Having more voices such as those can create further change and new sources of ideas and prepositions for the next steps the city council, as well as the entire county, can take to help with the issue. Being in charge of the issue and figuring out all of the different ways in which to provide housing and assistance to the people in need, Henning describes the three biggest steps for the council to take on next.

Describing the steps Andrew touches on coordinated entry, “[the] strategy that I’ve been describing of like better training people and coordinate which people should go where. So it’s called coordinated entry. And so that’s really been number one for a while. I’m really prioritizing chronic homelessness, which is long term homelessness using coordinated entry. The idea is that, you know, there are a lot of bigger causes of homelessness. But, if you can catch people faster than they’re becoming homeless, then you can basically end homelessness.”

He proceeds with step two, “I would say just trying to create more housing. I mean, that’s a big one. Definitely more affordable housing” and the final step for the council is to target the housing areas of the city.
“Number three for me in the city is, renter protections. So about 48 percent of the people that live in San Rafael rent versus owning their home, so with rising prices, you know, that’s one of the biggest causes of homelessness is just the cost of housing. So we’ve been trying to do more to see if we can protect people from losing their rentals.” With these powerful next steps that the council is trying to achieve, creating more awareness of the issue around our campus could initiate faster change within the community.

Along with the city council advocating for the homeless individuals or families within the streets of San Rafael, Jesse Taylor-Vermont, the project manager of the Downtown Streets Team organization is also finding new ways in which to reach out to the community and people in need. From a survey that Downtown Streets Team provided to the homeless individuals who were working with the program to better their lives along with themselves, they came to some unexpected responses, “the number one answer that people respond to with was something we hadn’t predicted, which was the way people look down on [them]. And it’s from that, that we are trying to change this perception that homelessness is not an identity, it’s an experience.

The Downtown Streets Team office located in central San Rafael supports the homeless community by assisting with finding housing and jobs to getting people back on their feet.

Overcoming this concept and becoming more accepting of all kinds of people within San Rafael will slowly bring the two communities closer together. “if a community could embrace that, then we would start to see some changes. but it all starts with, you know, seeing every person with the same respect, the housed and unhoused, with the same dignity that you would give others.”


Dismantling the barrier between these individuals and being more open to volunteering and being more aware of what is happening can lead to a stronger, more united community that our campus is a part of.


So the next time you are on your way to school, whichever way it may be, pick your head up and just observe. Observe the shops, the food and most importantly the people that our Marin Academy community is surrounded by and the reason it is so special.