San Jose

How Silicon Valley Created America’s Largest Homeless Camp

Nov. 25, 2014, 8:34 a.m.

SAN JOSE, Cal­if.—Liv­ing in “The Jungle” means learn­ing to live in fear. Es­pe­cially after dark, when some people get vi­ol­ent. The 68-acre home­less camp in South San Jose is con­sidered the largest in the United States. It’s a law­less place.

“When something goes wrong, you have to have some kind of backup,” says Troy Feid, pulling out a ma­chete that he car­ries up his sleeve at night. “Just hav­ing it says ‘Don’t mess with me.’ “

Feid, an un­em­ployed uni­on car­penter, lives in a fort­ress of net­ting and plastic tarp with a cat named Baby. He’s one of the 278 people who’ve claimed a spot in the thick­et of cot­ton­wood trees along Coyote Creek. He first moved here four years ago when he ran out of work.

The 53-year-old car­penter made good money at the height of the Sil­ic­on Val­ley con­struc­tion boom in the 1980s and ‘90s. He built movie theat­ers and in­stalled ceil­ings in the new of­fices of high-tech com­pan­ies that put San Jose and the rest of Santa Clara County on the map.

“All the build­ings around here, you know, I prob­ably worked on them,” said Feid, who was mak­ing up to $35 an hour in those days. Then came the dot-com crash in 2000, bank­rupt­ing dozens of In­ter­net com­pan­ies and dry­ing up con­struc­tion work. Feid lost his apart­ment and bounced around for years, liv­ing in people’s gar­ages as he re­modeled their homes. In 2009, a friend kicked him out and Feid found him­self on the streets. All he had was his mo­tor­cycle and a few tarps.

“You build everything up … then you lose your job and then everything falls apart again,” Feid said. “At least here in the creek you know what your status is.”

The num­ber of people liv­ing in the camp has tripled since Feid first moved in. The Jungle now has a Span­ish-speak­ing sec­tion, and up the creek is the Vi­et­namese en­clave known as Little Sai­gon. The ex­plos­ive growth has led to more vi­ol­ence and filth. Dogs rum­mage through heaps of garbage and hu­man waste.

“It’s dis­gust­ing now,” said Feid, who makes a bit of money fix­ing gen­er­at­ors for oth­er res­id­ents to power their cell phones and tele­vi­sions. The $200 he gets each month in food stamps cov­ers most of his meals, and the rest he gets from dump­ster diving. He points to two garbage bags next to his bed­room door filled with ex­pired Power Bars and Ch­ex Mix.

“I got the hook­ups,” he says proudly. “Right when it out­dates, they have to throw it out.”

Feid’s days in The Jungle are numbered. Next month, the city plans to bull­doze his fort­ress in a fi­nal at­tempt to clear the en­camp­ment. The city has done so many times in the past 10 years, only to watch it come back to life. This time, they have a dif­fer­ent strategy: find­ing per­man­ent hous­ing for two-thirds of the camp’s res­id­ents and sub­sid­iz­ing their rent for a year or two. There’s just one big prob­lem: It’s nearly im­possible to find an apart­ment for less than the county’s av­er­age monthly rent of $2,128.

The cur­rent tech boom has made Sil­ic­on Val­ley one of the wealth­i­est and fast­est-grow­ing re­gions of the coun­try. That has cre­ated one of the coun­try’s most ex­pens­ive rent­al mar­kets, push­ing low-wage work­ers out of Santa Clara County or onto the streets.

“You need to work five min­im­um-wage jobs to af­ford to live here,” said Jen­nifer Lov­ing, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Des­tin­a­tion: Home, the pub­lic-private part­ner­ship to end home­less­ness in Santa Clara County. “No one can do that. That right there cre­ates a huge in­come dis­par­ity.”

This year, San Jose and the sur­round­ing county sur­passed Los Angeles as hav­ing the coun­try’s highest rate of home­less people liv­ing on the streets, ac­cord­ing to the an­nu­al home­less­ness as­sess­ment re­port from the U.S. Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment. Three-quar­ters of the area’s 7,567 home­less res­id­ents are from Santa Clara County. Most of them live in one of San Jose’s 247 tent cit­ies, just miles from the sprawl­ing headquar­ters of Google and Apple.

Many res­id­ents of The Jungle suf­fer from men­tal ill­ness, drug ad­dic­tion, and phys­ic­al dis­ab­il­it­ies. Oth­ers end up there after los­ing their jobs. Some still go to work every day at nearby res­taur­ants and stores. In March, the city of San Jose agreed to set aside $4 mil­lion to help 200 of the 350 res­id­ents find a place to live. So far, 125 people have moved out. An­oth­er 50 have been ap­proved for the sub­sidy pro­gram, but can’t find a place for that price. The rest will need to find an­oth­er place to sleep.

“It’s a very chal­len­ging en­vir­on­ment,” said Ray Bramson, home­less­ness re­sponse man­ager for the city of San Jose. “We have an ex­traordin­ar­ily high cost of liv­ing and a lack of jobs that pay a ba­sic self-suf­fi­ciency.”

One of the people who got ap­proved for the sub­sidy pro­gram is Robert Aguirre. The un­em­ployed tech work­er and his wife got a $900-a-month hous­ing vouch­er from the city, but they can’t find a place to move in. They’ve sub­mit­ted rent­al ap­plic­a­tions for more than 20 apart­ments, he said, but the wait­ing lists are up to two years long. Aguirre and his wife have been liv­ing in a tent at the en­trance to the The Jungle since Feb­ru­ary. They ended up here after try­ing to move from a two-story apart­ment to a one-floor place to ac­com­mod­ate his wife, who is dis­abled. But the land­lord of the apart­ment they found turned them away at the last second, and by then, their old apart­ment had already been ren­ted out.

“So we star­ted sleep­ing in a car be­cause we really had nowhere to go. So that’s what brought us here ba­sic­ally,” said Aguirre, who moved to San Jose from El Paso, Texas, in the 1970s.

He dreamed of work­ing in the elec­tron­ics in­dustry and landed an in­tern­ship at a re­search lab for IBM, which was design­ing and build­ing the world’s first com­puters. Aguirre went on to work oth­er jobs at sev­er­al high-tech com­pan­ies in the area be­fore start­ing his own con­sult­ing busi­ness, which handled the product ap­prov­al pro­cess for many high-tech labs. That all came to an end in the late 1990s, when com­pan­ies moved their factor­ies and product ap­prov­al jobs to cheap­er coun­tries in Asia. Aguirre’s busi­ness went out of busi­ness.

“I’ve had prob­lems ever since then to find that type of work,” said Aguirre.

His wife, who works as a med­ic­al clerk, makes too much money for them to qual­i­fy for wel­fare, and not enough money for a mar­ket-rate apart­ment. The city needs to find an­oth­er way to help its home­less res­id­ents, be­cause most of them will not find hous­ing be­fore the Dec. 1 dead­line they have to leave The Jungle.

“There are a num­ber of people with a num­ber of prob­lems and the city is only of­fer­ing one solu­tion,” said Aguirre. “If you have a broken arm and all you’re of­fer­ing is a Band-Aid, then it’s not a good solu­tion.”

Since mov­ing to The Jungle, Aguirre has be­come an out­spoken ad­voc­ate for the home­less. He or­gan­ized a protest in Au­gust after the city pos­ted a no­tice giv­ing res­id­ents three days to clear out of the camp. The protests caught the at­ten­tion of loc­al me­dia and the city backed off. Aguirre has spoken up at City Coun­cil meet­ings and helped per­suade of­fi­cials to in­stall port­able toi­lets in the camp.

He is also one of many home­less ad­voc­ates who pushed for the pas­sage of a hous­ing im­pact fee, which will re­quire apart­ment de­velopers to pay a $17-per-square-foot fee for the city to build more af­ford­able hous­ing. Ad­voc­ates have been fight­ing to cre­ate the fee since 2012, when Gov. Jerry Brown dis­mantled loc­al re­devel­op­ment agen­cies that had provided cit­ies with mil­lions of dol­lars to spend on af­ford­able hous­ing.

Santa Clara County alone faces a $222 mil­lion gap in an­nu­al fund­ing needed for af­ford­able hous­ing, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 ana­lys­is by the Hous­ing Trust of Sil­ic­on Val­ley.

Des­pite out­cry from the power­ful Build­ing In­dustry As­so­ci­ation, the city of San Jose on Tues­day voted to es­tab­lish the hous­ing fee.

It was a small but im­port­ant vic­tory for ad­voc­ates of af­ford­able hous­ing in Sil­ic­on Val­ley—ad­voc­ates like Matt King, an or­gan­izer for Sac­red Heart Com­munity Ser­vice, which lob­bied for the fee.

“In a few years we will be able to start build­ing hun­dreds of homes for work­ing fam­il­ies with the money the fee raises,” King said. “But it’s only the first step in ad­dress­ing a huge hous­ing crisis in Sil­ic­on Val­ley.”

For one, it doesn’t solve the more press­ing prob­lem: More than 200 people liv­ing in The Jungle still don’t have a place to live, and the city still plans to clear the camp the first week of Decem­ber.

That means so­cial work­ers are run­ning out of time to help those who still re­main. On a re­cent Fri­day morn­ing, Jes­sica Orozco and her col­leagues from Down­town Streets Team vis­ited the camp to check on some of the people they are work­ing with on the city’s be­half.

They pass a man sit­ting out­side a tent with his cat.

“The city says they’re go­ing to close this place down the first week of Decem­ber,” one of the so­cial work­ers told him. “Pass the word around.”

They ring the door­bell out­side Feid’s fort­ress to see if he’s get­ting ready to move. They found him a stu­dio apart­ment down­town and it’s ready. Feid is torn about what to take with him. After a life­time re­peatedly los­ing everything he loves, it’s hard to let go of the little he has left.

“I’m kind of in­sec­ure. But what can you do?” he says. “It’s def­in­itely good to have [the stu­dio] be­cause I hate the sweeps. You sit there out on the side­walk with all your junk, look­ing which way to go.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Sil­ic­on Val­ley to see how im­mig­ra­tion and tech­no­logy have trans­formed the San Jose area. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are find­ing their place in Amer­ica’s wealth­i­est re­gion.

What We're Following See More »
Prosecutors Weighing Whether to Charge Greg Craig
1 hours ago

A long-running federal investigation into former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig "is reaching a critical stage, presenting the Justice Department with a decision about whether to charge a prominent Democrat as part of a more aggressive crackdown on illegal foreign lobbying." Federal prosecutors in New York have transferred the case to Washington. ... The investigation centers on whether Mr. Craig should have disclosed work he did in 2012 — while he was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — on behalf of the Russia-aligned government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine. The work was steered to Mr. Craig by Paul Manafort."

SCOTUS Will Hear DC Sniper Case
6 hours ago

"The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider Virginia’s plea to reinstate the life-without-parole sentence of a man who as a teenager participated in sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington, D.C., region in 2002. The justices said they will take up the state’s appeal in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad fatally shot 10 people in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. Malvo was sentenced to life-without-parole terms in Virginia and in Maryland, and Muhammad was sentenced to death and was executed in 2009. Malvo was sentenced to four life terms for crimes he committed in Virginia. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last year that while Malvo’s life-without-parole sentences were legal when they were imposed."

U.S. Grand Jury Seeks info on How 737 MAX Is Made
7 hours ago

"Federal prosecutors and Department of Transportation officials are scrutinizing the development of Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jetliners, according to people familiar with the matter, unusual inquiries that come amid probes of regulators’ safety approvals of the new plane. A grand jury in Washington, D.C., issued a broad subpoena dated March 11 to at least one person involved in the 737 MAX’s development, seeking related documents, including correspondence, emails and other messages."

MBS Stripped of Some Powers
7 hours ago

"The heir to the Saudi throne has not attended a series of high-profile ministerial and diplomatic meetings in Saudi Arabia over the last fortnight and is alleged to have been stripped of some of his financial and economic authority, the Guardian has been told. The move to restrict, if only temporarily, the responsibilities of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is understood to have been revealed to a group of senior ministers earlier last week by his father, King Salman."

Mass Shooting in Dutch City of Utrecht
7 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.