Silicon Valley’s Brilliant Design: Homeless Families in the Rain

Developers and Silicon Valley billionaires are so busy trying to milk profits out of our communities they don’t see the inevitable result of ignoring people’s housing needs: Families in the rain.

By Carol Denney

About 300 residents of “the Jungle,” a 68-acre camp near Coyote Creek in San Jose, were given notice on Monday, December 1, that they’d be arrested for trespassing if they didn’t leave. Four days later, on Thursday, December 4, city crews and police evicted the remaining people and tossed whatever personal belongings they couldn’t carry into the trash.

On Monday, the residents of the Jungle still had shelter, often tents or makeshift shelters built of anything handy. By Thursday, they had nowhere to go.

San Jose officials were proud of having “housed” 144 camp residents and handed out vouchers to another 55. Vouchers for non-existent housing are nothing new to residents of the Jungle. That’s exactly how some of the encampment’s residents ended up camping there in the first place.

It’s easy for most of us to see through a dumb idea, such as a canoe made of cotton balls, a lead balloon, or perhaps the comedy of the self-driving car. But, somehow, the dumb idea of forcing homeless people to move from place to place — only to evict them once again and drive them away on a never-ending march to nowhere — persists as a viable political option.

The eviction of the largest national collective camp of homeless people in the nation took place on December 4, just between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Hundreds of people had set up tents, lean-tos, and even a tree house in the 68-acre Coyote Creek area in an effort to rest somewhere where the local police wouldn’t make them move continuously from place to place. They had children, pets, small amenities, and some banded together in protective families.

It wasn’t a safe place. Not for people, not for wildlife, not for the ecological health of the creekside, either. But for those now huddled in shopping center parking lots and back alleys with what little they can carry, it was all they had. The Jungle, as it was called, offered a measure of privacy, yet was near services, jobs, and housing prospects.

Coyote Creek is visible from the freeway, yet it is reminiscent of old San Jose, with native grasses, chaparral, sage, sycamore and oaks. Its historical tendency to flood made it a bad bet for otherwise lucrative development.

The creek still meanders freely, making it a diverse set of habitats long gone from many of San Jose’s concrete, channeled creek beds. Concern about steelhead trout, among other native species, was cited as one reason for the eviction.

But there is no sane reason any ecological concern should be used to justify the wholesale eviction of people in need without supplying them with the obvious alternatives — “a public campground with clean water and sanitary facilities.”

No story on this eviction, which was covered by the New York Times, the Associated Press, and many TV news broadcasts, neglected to marvel that the Jungle was a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley’s vaunted tech giants, among the most lucrative businesses on earth.

Apple’s corporate headquarters is 50 acres. Their new campus will be a sprawling 176 acres. Silicon Valley’s largest 150 tech companies began the year with $500 billion in cash reserves, according to the San Jose Mercury News, and played no small role in sending the average apartment rents to around $3,000, doubling from only two years ago.

Those of us who had friends at the recently evicted Albany Bulb know what comes next. Some people do find housing, or at least charity, and make their way off the streets. But the majority join a ragged caravan from place to place, hoping for respite by the train tracks or in a culvert that’s not too wet.

Within ten days, San Jose rousted homeless evictees — people who had previously lived at the Coyote Creek area until the Jungle was dismantled — from Senter and Tully roads, taking their belongings and giving them mere minutes to move in what had become, after more than six inches of rain, the wettest December in 60 years.

Imagine taking all your clothes and blankets, all your books, all your musical instruments with you from place to place as you try to find someone to help or somewhere to go. It’s a relentless lesson in detachment to watch your most important belongings end up in the trash, your papers tattered and covered in mold, your valuables stolen or lost, your artwork destroyed.

San Jose evicted 300 homeless people from the Jungle, forcing them to pack up their tents and all their worldly possessions. “Scavengers” Painting by Christine Hanlon

Scavengers.jpg San Jose evicted 300 homeless people from the Jungle, forcing them to pack up their tents and all their worldly possessions. “Scavengers” Painting by Christine Hanlon

 

A mandated, free public campground in every city is not enough, of course. We need shelters, low-income housing, single room occupancy housing, serious statewide rent control, vacancy fees, a minimum wage hooked to inflation, a maximum wage for the bankers and CEOs who never seem to get so much as a hand slap when they steal billions, and an end to wasting valuable square footage needed to meet community housing needs on ubiquitous condos for the wealthy.

Most cities, including the state capitol in Sacramento, have public grounds around their city halls and libraries which ought to automatically convert to public campgrounds and shelters at obvious, measurable indices: the number of homeless people on the streets, a count which already exists, and the outstanding gap between the minimum wage and the average rent, another easily obtained number.

No politician has any business ignoring the obvious: that a full-time, minimum-wage worker cannot afford housing in the Bay Area.

Many of the people displaced in San Jose were born there and watched their hometown transformed into a playground for the rich. But this is a national story, as more and more cities find their planning and politics dominated by the power players, real estate interests, property owners, and developers.

Can you afford to take your local politician to lunch at the new, trendy restaurant and pick up the tab? Your local developer can.

These groups, just like Silicon Valley billionaires, have politicians’ attention, but are so busy trying to milk profits out of our communities that they don’t see the inevitable result of ignoring people’s housing needs: Families in the rain.

On the same morning when a local radio station mentioned the latest report of 2,200 homeless children in San Francisco schools, the next program featured a tech enthusiast promoting little hand-held gadgets for classrooms as a panacea for learning — without acknowledging the fact that it’s hard to learn at all when your family sleeps in a car.

Ordering people to traipse from one end of town to another makes as much sense as a self-driving car. When critics objected that the Jungle encampment needed assistance, not eviction, San Jose protested that they had spent $4 million over 18 months to help address housing needs.

It sounds impressive, but it doesn’t take a fancy app to figure out that $4 million over 18 months divided between 7,600 homeless people breaks down to about $29 per person per month. The Downtown Berkeley Association spent fifty dollars a day hiring homeless people to work against their own civil rights on an anti-sitting law two years ago, money that came straight out of merchants’ pockets by business improvement district mandate, whether they liked it or not.

We need public campgrounds now. It is the obvious response to the immoral and embarrassing reflex most cities have of pushing homeless people out of sight. If your local politician has to greet homeless families on City Hall’s lawn on their way to work every day, it might help both short-term and long-term housing needs finally reach the top of the community agenda.

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