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.

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