Survival Amid Riches: Homelessness in the Silicon Valley

SiliconvalleyhomelessAs many as 350 people line the streets in tents, shacks and treehouses in San Jose, California’s infamous homeless establishment, the Jungle, longing to be the young tech-savvy professionals that make up the success of Silicon Valley.

The state of the Jungle has become so grungy and filthy, officials in the tenth-largest city in the country are closing down the shantytown-esque living quarters.

While apartment rents in one of the richest cities in the country reach $2,500 a month, the homeless struggle to survive in such squalor. Two years ago, 75 percent of the nearly 7,600 homeless people in San Jose and the surrounding Santa Clara County were sleeping outside — a percentage larger than any other U.S. metropolitan area, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The town, popularized by Fortune 500 powerhouses Facebook, Google, Apple, HP, Intel and Cisco (to name a few), is riddled with homelessness. The valley continues to pour millions upon millions of dollars into the fight against homelessness, but officials struggle to curb the growing rate of homeless people in the area.

A report commissioned by Destination: Home found that county communities spent more than $500 billion hospitalizing, jailing and providing social services to the more than 100,000 individuals who were homeless for some period of the study’s six-year span. At $312 million per year, healthcare spending for the homeless made up the majority of the cost, with justice-system spending close behind.

An Economic Roundtable report analyzed what makes the county’s rent costs so unaffordable. They found that about 60 percent of all county spending went to only 10 percent of the homeless population, ineffectively helping fewer than 3,000 people who were identified as chronically homeless.

Providing housing with supportive services for the most-expensive, chronically homeless people would have saved about $42,700 per person compared to the cost of leaving them to dwindle in the streets of the Santa Clara Valley unattended. If Silicon Valley communities focused all their energy on helping those persistently homeless, instead of sprinkling money around in a manner proven ineffective, it could have saved $120 million a year.

The vast majority of the average $200 million Santa Clara County spent on justice-system costs involving homeless people was attributed to jailing people with nowhere to live. A paper written by University of California, Berkeley law students revealed that the towns making up the famed Silicon Valley had a combined 33 different laws criminalizing homelessness.

California cities are looking to combat such laws that cost the county $196 million annually for prosecuting and jailing the homeless. Palo Alto, home of Ivy-of-the-west Stanford University, recently retracted a new law that outlawed sleeping in cars.

Decades of research indicates that neighborhood property values benefit immensely from the existence of buildings like halfway houses, according to a ThinkProgress article. Homelessness in the area isn’t improving because of the headache-worthy rent rates and the lack of low-skill jobs — and government vouchers just don’t go as far in a valley pop-culturized by HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins introduced a plan to create a steady stream of money for housing subsidies by charging a $75 fee on some real estate document filings. The fees would go to the California Housing Trust Fund, and could provide millions of dollars of funding that would be put toward building affordable housing. A similar bill has failed twice before, but Atkins’ touch and tweak may give it the appeal to both sides that would push the piece of legislation into action.

As the county continues to fizzle homeless people out of the Jungle, the high-tech workers cash their checks at an annual average of $195,000, according to a 2013 report from Jones Lang LaSalle. The gap is startling and growing even further with each invention, app and download these mega-companies deliver.

Image credit: Flickr/ Richard Masoner

Grant Whittington

Grant Whittington is a rising junior journalism and government and politics double major at the University of Maryland: College Park. Living so close to the nation's capital, Whittington is an unfortunate D.C. sports fan who's passionate about politics and writing. He's worked for local county newspapers and has never seen Shawshank Redemption.