Inside the fight to bring power to Sacramento’s unhoused

(This article also appeared at The Express)

Jordan McGowan, City College Panthers’ football wide receiver coach, grew up with a keen awareness of race. As the son of a father who was active in the Black Panther Party and a white mother who was shunned and shamed for having a Black child, McGowan was thrust into the struggles for Black liberation early in his life.

“I was this really upset kid, and so I became radicalized very early,” McGowan recalled. “I was so interested in the idea of freedom that I always knew I would grow up and do the work of the revolution.”

McGowan initially thought that this work of Black liberation would lead him down the path of the law. He hoped to be his generation’s Thurgood Marshall. Instead, McGowan pursued a more face-to-face approach as an educator and coach.

“My Black power politics, which are politics of liberation, are rooted in the belief that all people can be liberated through love,” McGowan said. “And with teaching and coaching, when you show genuine love for people, they’ll be more receptive because you show them that you’re on their team.”

McGowan has used this concept of radical love to motivate and support student athletes as a coach and as history instructor at Rio Tierra Junior High School in North Sacramento. When he is not in the classroom or on the field, he provides aid through Sacramento Neighbor, an organization that provides food, services and supplies for the unhoused. 

When McGowan partnered with Elise Carroll—a fellow activist he befriended at Santa Rosa Junior College over a decade ago—to found Sacramento Neighbor in June 2020, they wanted to fight for the humanity of unhoused people in any way they could, from insisting on using the term “unhoused” instead of the more derogatory “homeless” to distributing clean drinking water during heat waves. 

Through their efforts, McGowan and Carroll have grown the organization faster and more dramatically than either of them expected. Their semimonthly distributions each reach over 300 affected people, and, on Aug. 30, they partnered with nonprofit organizations Playmakers Elite and Touch Shooting, one of Sacramento’s top basketball training programs, to provide over 100 pairs of shoes to the unhoused community and local students. 

McGowan started quietly distributing food and supplies to the unhoused in Sacramento as often as he could in 2014. When the coronavirus pandemic began, he considered what more he could do for the community. McGowan was sparked to action when he noticed organizations like People’s Breakfast Oakland—which has been serving hot meals to unhoused communities in West Oakland, California since 2017—were dramatically ramping up services to help populations that could not readily abide by “stay at home” and “wash your hands” guidelines.

“When COVID hit, my boys in Oakland went from going out into the community two times a month to three times a week, and they tested 2,000 people,” McGowan said. “I was slacking—I thought that there’s no way my dogs are rocking this hard, and I don’t have anything popping off except I’m going out once a week by myself with my little teacher check.”

A devout Christian, McGowan cited the Bible as the basis of his quiet food distributions. Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you.” But he realized that to achieve a larger vision for his cause, he needed to sound a trumpet. McGowan turned to social media and found an ally in Carroll.

“I just posted asking if anyone wanted to chip in to let me know. Elise hit me like, ‘Yo, I’m with it,’” McGowan said. “We’ve known each other for a long time, and we’ve always vibed with each other, so I told her about my goal and so we just did it—low-key, no promotion—and we fed like 200 people.”

During that first distribution, Carroll and McGowan started brainstorming about how to scale up their efforts to reach more of the unhoused community. As they began making progress, Carroll and McGowan noticed how they could balance each other’s strengths to increase the impact on the lives of unhoused people in Sacramento.

“We have totally different skill sets, so we kind of fill in the gaps of what the other may be missing,” Carroll said. “Even our schedules are opposite—he’s a night owl, and I’m an early bird—so one of us is pretty much always awake to engage on social media, do the shopping and all the things that running a program on this scale takes. We definitely balance each other out—it’s been a really perfect partnership.”

Since its inception, Sacramento Neighbor has been able to distribute food and supplies such as first aid products and socks to thousands of Sacramento’s most vulnerable citizens. According to Carroll, distribution of goods is just one way they hope to bring power to the people. They want Sacramento Neighbor to be able to answer any needs unhoused people have.

“When we distribute, we try to engage with the community members and see what their needs are,” Carroll said about the Shoes for September initiative. “We noticed that many unhoused persons were barefoot or wearing shoes that were unsuitable for the lifestyle that they’re stuck in right now. Shoes provide comfort, protection from the environment, dignity, employment confidence and a bunch of other benefits.”

In the future McGowan and Carroll plan to continue moving Sacramento Neighbor in several different directions in pursuit of aiding the unhoused community, such as newsletters, legislation, calls to action and registering people to vote.

“None of this is singular—I think it’s all intersectional. We need to combat displacing people through evictions, we have to provide shelter, we need to feed folks, and we need to give people jobs and healthcare,” McGowan said. “I don’t want this to just be me and Elise. I want this to be community-run with a community voice. I want the people to tell us what’s going on and the people to tell us what they need. We have to work together, and that’s no different than anything else we have a problem with.”

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