It’s a hot day, and I’m sitting in the backyard of the First Christian Church in downtown San José with Eduardo Zamora, who cleans the church and lives in the small utility shed in front of me. First Christian has been running an illegal homeless shelter with an organization called CHAM, the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry. As we talk an old car pulls up around the side and a young Latino hops out, shirtless and carrying a collapsed crib. He calls for Eduardo to let him through the gate, stashes the crib behind some bushes and leaves.
“You see?” Eduardo tells me in Spanish. “When I was a kid I never had to live on the streets, not even in Mexico.”
I ask him what he thinks should be done about the problem.
“Es fácil [It’s easy],” he instantly responds. “Look at the houses. How many families are there? Fácil.”
Eduardo motions toward the houses surrounding the church, all with planks covering their windows and doors. The City of San José is building a new, $300 million city hall next door to First Christian. Because of their historic value, the houses will soon be moved elsewhere. For now, however, they remain vacant and desolate, while homeless families spend their nights in sleeping bags in the social hall of the church.
San José has become one of the most unlivable cities in the United States. In the 1990 Census, 21 percent of the city’s households fell into the category Very Low Income (VLI), meaning they made less than 50 percent of the median income for the city (the same data from the 2000 Census is not yet available). Even more troubling, the majority of those households fall into the category Extremely Low Income (ELI)–the poorest of the poor, earning less than 30 percent of the median income. While such poverty has shown no signs of abating, the cost of living in the area has skyrocketed. In the Bay Area, single rooms can go for as much as $800 a month, and one-bedroom apartments rent for over $1,000. For an ELI family of four, making less than $26,100 a year, the threat of homelessness is very real and very constant.
In response to these trends, San José housing activists recently sharpened their focus on the plight of the poorest families, who often get the least assistance. In 1999 the city had announced a goal of constructing 6,036 affordable housing units by 2004. But city officials argued that emphasizing the poorest households could derail that objective, since ELI families require a larger housing subsidy. Officials stressed that only one housing goal could be met: Either they could construct the largest number of units possible, meaning that the greatest number of families would be helped (and they would meet their production goal for the five-year plan), or they could work more on helping those who need it most, thereby decreasing the total number of families given any kind of assistance.
Beginning in February of this year, an impressive coalition coalesced around an alternative policy, drafted by the local Affordable Housing Network (AHN), to set aside 30 percent of San José’s affordable housing funds for ELI households. Housing advocacy groups, city and county organizations, and numerous churches backed the plan. Local unions and the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council lobbied for it as well. The community organizations ACORN and PACT (People Acting in Community Together), which have worked on the related issues of rent control and “just cause” evictions, both endorsed the plan. By pushing for 30 percent, the AHN had decided to take a stand for ELIs. They felt that after years of neglect, the time had come for the spotlight to rest on those in the greatest need. In an area of such wealth–with more than 16,000 high-tech companies based in Silicon Valley–the AHN also believed that pitting one impoverished group against another in a zero-sum equation was both cruel and unnecessary. Hopefully, the city could “find” sufficient funds to address the needs of both the very poor and the poor.