The old assumptions about homelessness were that such citizens living on the streets were mentally ill, chose this lifestyle or perhaps were just down on their luck.
Yet today in Silicon Valley, across much of the Bay Area, and along the west coast, many of the homeless are indeed down on their luck – but they hardly chose this lifestyle as many are working long hours, yet simply cannot afford to put a roof over their heads.
That is the assessment of a recent investigation by the Associated Press, which profiled the homeless living in cities such as Mountain View and Palo Alto. The voice that Janie Har gave to many of these struggling workers was chilling. Their story was not about people living in poverty because they are unemployed – many of them work in jobs by which they could afford to live decently just about anywhere else in the U.S.
But in cities such as Cupertino, the home base of Apple, the working poor are hard pressed to afford living in this city of 60,000, where housing prices have shot up almost 10 percent the past year alone. Zillow estimates the median home value in Cupertino is approaching $2 million, while the median rent is close to $4,000 a month.
Like many of its neighboring Silicon Valley cities, Cupertino has seen encampments of homeless people at an increasing rate; one church has offered to work with the city and local non-profits by allowing people living in campers, RVs or cars to use its parking lot so they have a safe place to park and sleep overnight. Nearby Mountain View has a patchwork of similar programs.
Renting RVs has often been the only choice, short of sleeping in a car, that people working in the service industry or construction have available. The AP profiled one young family, which is paying $1,000 a month to live in such an environment. Many of these workers struggle to find a place to park these vehicles. As a result, they risk citations as cities respond either to citizens’ complaints that these vehicles create a traffic or safety hazard.
But chasing the homelessness crisis away is hardly making it disappear. The AP suggests at least 168,000 people across California, Oregon and Washington are homeless, an increase of 20,000 from only two years ago. And many of them are living not far from the shadows of the buildings that house the headquarters of Apple, Facebook and Google – or in the case of Seattle, Amazon.
The technology sector has made some token efforts at alleviating the homelessness, a situation that continues to get worse because these companies’ success has helped fuel the price of housing in the first place. Google, for example, has funded a non-profit that provides showers to the homeless in San Francisco.
But the heavy lifting in trying to solve growing housing crisis is being done by nonprofits such as Silicon Valley Rising. This coalition of civil rights groups, community organizations and unions strives to raise awareness of the region’s housing problems. The group calls for a rise in wages, as well as reform of the “contractor” system in which many of Silicon Valley’s poorest citizens work for low pay - yet generally are denied healthcare benefits, medical leave or any measure of job security.
Silicon Valley companies often tout that they have the technologies that can help solve society’s most pressing problems. These companies also brag about the tremendous talent recruited worldwide that work for them while creating the products of tomorrow.
But Silicon Valley’s tech workers are able to enjoy the lifestyle available to them in part because of the work of food service, construction and healthcare workers. Perhaps asking these companies to build housing to help provide a safe place for these lower-wage workers is a stretch – but these corporations could be more generous in funding the nonprofits that are scrambling to help landscapers, restaurant workers and even teachers secure affordable housing so they can sleep safely at night, instead of inside an RV or car.
Image credit: Adam Schultz/Flickr