Silicon Valley is Trying to Fix Its Homelessness Problem, But It’s Slow Going

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Yolanda Gutierrez, a 2-year resident of  a homeless encampment known as The Jungle, holds a sign in protest Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in San Jose, California. Police and social-workers began clearing away one of the nation's largest homeless encampments, a cluster of flimsy tents and plywood shelters that once housed more than 200 people in the heart of California's wealthy Silicon Valley. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Yolanda Gutierrez, a 2-year resident of a homeless encampment known as The Jungle, holds a sign in protest in Dec. 2014, in San Jose, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Up until last December, Silicon Valley’s “Jungle” provided a stark example of the growing inequalities of post-recession America. A homeless encampment that existed along the banks of Coyote Creek in San Jose for four decades, the Jungle’s population swelled in recent years as the tech industry exploded, sending housing prices in the city soaring. Poorer residents of San Jose — and of Santa Clara County, in which the city resides — found it impossible to pay their rising rents and some became homeless. At its peak, the Jungle was thought to be the largest tent city in America with a population of 300 spread over 68 acres of muddy floodplain.

The encampment sprung up just a few miles from the headquarters of some of America’s greatest success stories; numerous tech companies, including mainstays like Apple, Google, Yahoo and HP, and newer brands like Facebook, all call Santa Clara County home. In recent years, their growth has made the county one of the richest in America, with a median household income that’s nearly twice the US average. At the same time, middle-class jobs have been moving away from the area and are being replaced by lower-paying hourly work.

In 2013, Moyers & Company producer Lauren Feeney visited San Jose to speak with Jungle residents and civic leaders about the inequality the encampment demonstrated.

The city shut down the Jungle last December, largely in response to the environmental hazard resulting from so many people living without plumbing or trash disposal along the narrow streambank. Six months before, the city gave a heads up to groups that work with the homeless and while that allowed some in the Jungle enough time to find new homes, many still had nowhere to go when men in protective white suits showed up on December 4 and began to break down the encampment.

“There were a lot of tears and a lot of despair on that day. It was a very emotional day,” says Claire Wagner, director of communications for HomeFirst, the largest of the nonprofit organizations to intervene in the Jungle. “A lot of people just took their shopping carts, crossed the street and walked off.” Today, a number of other encampments — all smaller than the Jungle — have sprung up around Santa Clara County.

Roughly 200 Jungle residents were offered housing vouchers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they got housing. For many, the prospects of finding a landlord who would accept them were relatively slim. “I talked with people that day who had these family groupings they had made, including several pets. They wanted to stay together,” says Wagner. “Some of them were looking after younger people or they were partners; the more pets you have the less likely you are to find somewhere to live.”

A 2015 homeless census makes clear that the majority of Santa Clara County’s 6,500 homeless might not have fallen on such hard times had they lived somewhere else. Sixty-eight percent said they remained homeless because they could not afford rent and another thirty-eight percent said they couldn’t find housing at all. Both figures had increased since 2013, when the last census was conducted. Eighty-four percent reported that they had lived in the county when they became homeless. Only six percent said they ended up in the Jungle after losing a home somewhere outside of California.

Local politicians recognize that the county’s great wealth disparity is a problem and say they are trying to fix it. Altogether, the county is spending roughly $35 million on new efforts to temporarily house and provide services to the homeless and efforts to develop permanent affordable housing. Earlier this year, the county created a five-year plan to address homelessness (which, in good Silicon Valley fashion, has as its first step “disrupt systems”).

Homeless advocates have long understood that the first step toward getting someone out of homelessness is getting him off the streets. In this “housing first” strategy, other improvements follow: a person with a place to live can look for a job, receive physical and mental health treatment if he needs it and develop community networks. It’s also less expensive for city government. “Someone who is a chronic homeless person costs the county almost $80,000 a year, unhoused — through trips to emergency rooms, jails and services,” says Cindy Chavez, a local labor leader and member of the Santa Clara County board of supervisors representing East San Jose. (Moyers & Company interviewed Chavez back in 2013, before she was elected.) “What we’re finding is that if we can put them in housing, we are paying probably half as much and we’re ending human suffering and we’re able to do a better job of helping that person get to be part of the community again.”

This sounds great in theory, but there’s a reason so many people were homeless in the first place — housing is just too limited and too expensive. There are two main ways to provide affordable housing: Offering discounts on existing housing to those who need it or building new structures set aside as affordable housing. The first is difficult, Chavez says, because there simply aren’t buildings to put people in. As a result of the Silicon Valley boom, Santa Clara County’s vacancy rate in 2014 hovered just above two percent, even lower than famously tight housing markets such as Manhattan and San Francisco.

That means that even when homeless people receive housing vouchers, they may not be able to find a landlord with room to take them before the voucher expires. Chavez estimated that between 1,300 and 1,600 people had vouchers at the moment but could not find housing. “These are people that have, you would think, a ticket,” she says. “They have something that says ‘I’m going to be able to pay you reliable rent over the next year,’ and they can’t find housing.”

Building new affordable housing in the county is also difficult. Not only are land values incredibly high; on top of this, many Santa Clara County residents oppose new development, fearing that it will further strain the area’s already overtaxed transportation systems.

And Chavez points out that it’s not just the unemployed and underemployed residents that are affected — its families in which wage earners hold two or three jobs. The nationwide fight by labor advocates for $15 an hour isn’t enough to get by in Santa Clara County, where one-bedroom apartments regularly run $2,500 and $3,000 a month. “Fifteen is still hanging on by your teeth here,” says Chavez.

In the meantime, county officials and homeless advocates are planning for what’s predicted to be a strange, wet winter fueled by a stronger-than-usual El Niño. They’re adding beds to homeless shelters and setting aside places where homeless people can safely park and sleep in their cars.

Though Chavez expects that the process of implementing more sustainable solutions will be a slow one, she’s hopeful. “We really could be a place where homelessness does not exist,” she says. “God, if it should not exist anywhere it should be in Silicon Valley.”

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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