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Tent cities rise amid affordable housing shortage in Silicon Valley

December 8, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the tech industry, is one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing regions in the country. But the rapid development and influx of tech workers has revved up competition for housing and a growing income divide. Special correspondent Scott Shafer of KQED reports on the demolition of a notorious homeless encampment in San Jose.

GWEN IFILL: Back in this country, we turn now to a look at the homeless in Silicon Valley. Their very existence is evidence of a widening income divide in one of the wealthiest and fastest growing regions in the nation.

We partnered with KQED San Francisco for this story. Scott Shafer reports from San Jose.

SCOTT SHAFER: This may not be the image that comes to mind when you think of Silicon Valley, but it’s a scene that’s become all too familiar here, homeless people wedged between a freeway and a residential neighborhood.

ANTHONY KING: You will find a lot of encampments tucked in little nooks and crannies. For over the past two decades, this is how the city has hidden its homeless problem from its citizens.

SCOTT SHAFER: Anthony King has lived on and off the street 15 years. Now he has an apartment and spends his days advocating for the homeless. On this day, King is visiting Narnia, an encampment named after the mythical world imagined by author C.S. Lewis.

Most residents set up their makeshift homes hidden behind the brush.

Robert Hernandez, an unemployed roofer, says it’s only a matter of time before authorities give him and his neighbors the boot.

ROBERT HERNANDEZ: When they come and sweep us, and they come and say you have got to have all your property gone or else we’re just taking it, it’s really stressful because the neighborhood behind us, if they see, you know, a crowd of people pushing shopping carts with all their belongings into their neighborhood, well, of course they’re not going to have that, you know?  So we have to move at night.

SCOTT SHAFER: There are hundreds of similar tent cities across Silicon Valley, all within a few miles of the world’s most profitable tech companies.

Last week, the most notorious and perhaps largest encampment in the United States was demolished. Known by the representatives as the Jungle, this camp of more than 300 people stretched across six acres along the muddy banks of Coyote Creek. For years, San Jose city officials turned a blind eye, but an increase in crime, growing piles of garbage and human waste polluting the river fueled neighborhood complaints.

Ray Bramson is the city’s homeless response manager.

RAY BRAMSON, Homeless Response Team Project Manager, City of San Jose: Due to the unsafe unsanitary conditions, the bad weather coming in, and the challenges that we’re seeing people experience every day in this very, very tragic place, we decided to close the encampment and begin moving people into stability.

SCOTT SHAFER: San Jose set aside $4 million to relocate residents and connect them with services. Downtown Streets Team, headed by Eileen Richardson, is one of several groups that have been working to move people out of the Jungle and into subsidized housing.

EILEEN RICHARDSON: The city really wanted to house as many people as possible, and so that’s why we have been working night and day to try to do that.

SCOTT SHAFER: For Kathleen Ann Claymore, the stability of a home is a welcome relief.

KATHLEEN ANN CLAYMORE:  I’m about to have a place for me and my kids. And we can all be together. They don’t have to go home at night or be with my aunt. They can be with me. And I could take care of them. And I have always worked. I have had good jobs. I have a lot of skills, and so I’m willing to do whatever I can, because these kids are my life.

SCOTT SHAFER: So far, 144 Jungle residents have been placed in housing. Another 62 received have vouchers worth $10,000 a year. But with average rents topping $36,000 a year, many are having a tough time finding a place to live.

WOMAN: Over that way, momma.

SCOTT SHAFER: On demolition day, displaced residents spilled into the streets. Some gathered in a nearby parking lot to console one another.

Among them were Eduardo, his wife, Danixia, and two of their children.

Eduardo: It’s a hard situation, because we don’t got that much money to get a place, something. It’s supposed to happen with housing, but it’s taking forever.

Danixia: We can’t find nowhere else to go because they don’t want no kids. There’s much kids, what we have, even for rent a room or a studio.

SCOTT SHAFER: And with an influx of tech workers to the region, competition for housing is fierce. Silicon Valley now has a vacancy rate of just 2.5 percent.

JENNIFER LOVING, Destination: Home: We have a regional housing crisis. We have the most expensive housing market in the nation, and it takes five minimum wage jobs to afford a place to live here. Silicon Valley, it’s almost like a tale of two cities.

SCOTT SHAFER: Jennifer Loving runs a public-private partnership called Destination: Home, which is pushing for an ambitious plan to build 6,000 affordable units in the Valley. For it to work, Loving says, tech companies need to step up and apply some Silicon Valley ingenuity to this problem.

JENNIFER LOVING: What we don’t have is somebody from our private sector community who is saying, look, let’s invest in creating a lot of units and we’re going to help you do that, whether it’s design, whether it’s innovation, whether it’s money. Like, we solve harder problems than this in this Valley all the time, but for some reason, this hasn’t been a problem that we have wanted to solve.

SCOTT SHAFER: Exacerbating the situation, the elimination of state redevelopment funds in 2011.

RAY BRAMSON: With the distribution of redevelopment, we lost millions of dollars that we used to fund the development of affordable housing throughout the community. Those dollars are gone.

SCOTT SHAFER: To help bridge the gap, San Jose’s City Council last month passed a fee requiring developers to contribute funds to affording housing, but the revenue likely won’t kick in for another five years. For Silicon Valley’s 8,000 homeless residents, that might not be soon enough.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Scott Shafer in San Jose.