Homeless in San José

Homeless in San José

Under pressure from activists, the city agreed to assist its poorest residents.


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.

The AHN had entered the struggle over housing more than a decade before, when the city decided to build a children’s museum and convention center. The network helped secure relocation funds for families displaced by the development projects and since then has helped push numerous progressive housing policy proposals through the City Council. Throughout, the AHN has had to combat the negative stereotype of affordable housing–which often conjures up grim images of blocklong public housing barracks–instead emphasizing that affordable housing units can be constructed smartly, scattered throughout districts to avoid segregation and designed to blend in with the neighborhood. Still, in the dot-com world of Silicon Valley, nothing is less hip than poverty. “We still have the NIMBY problem,” Phyllis Ward, president of the AHN, says. “People don’t understand how nice affordable housing is.”

One of the most visible advocates for the homeless in San José is Scott Wagers, a minister with CHAM who began working on the homeless problem while a graduate student at San José State University. “The system is garbage,” he says bluntly. “What you’ve got is the City Council and developers catering to 10 to 15 percent of the work force, which is a nightmare scenario for any viable city.” His moral absolutism has made him a thorn in the side of more pragmatic activists, but his media savvy has drawn needed attention to the problem. Recently, CHAM organized an “invasion” of the boarded-up houses near the church, which resulted in arrests of student activists and substantial local media coverage.

On May 8, the City Council gathered to render its decision regarding the AHN’s housing proposal. Given previous statements by city officials, activists were not optimistic. With the Council chamber filled with homeless people and their advocates, Mayor Ron Gonzales explained that everyone on the Council understood the crisis of affordable housing in the city and had done everything they could to ameliorate the situation. Then, to the audience’s clear surprise, he announced the Council’s new proposal: It would add an extra $13.3 million to the affordable housing budget to fulfill the 30 percent goal of the activists without cutting back the number of units constructed. Each year the program would be reviewed and voted on to insure its effective operation. Representatives from the various advocacy groups, along with the homeless, stepped up to the mike in turn and praised the Council members on their decision. This made for a sometimes comical scene, as well-prepared speeches of indignation were hastily scrapped for warm words of gratitude.

Still, the struggle to provide affordable housing for San José’s working poor is far from over. As Lilia Valencia, a San José ACORN board member, tells me, living here is nearly impossible for many. “It’s like an epidemic,” she says angrily. “We estimated last year about 350 families a month got thirty-day notices. Now it’s somewhere around 2,000 a month. The landlords just raise the rent–no regard for the family, no regard for the children; they just do it.” Affordable housing is part of a much larger picture, including the need for a living wage, adequate health- and childcare, and decent job security. As long as much of the work in our country is done by unprotected, unorganized employees, affordable housing will remain out of reach for many of the hardest workers. The structural barrier is just too large for any single city to overcome.

But there are concrete steps that can be taken to make things less bad, and San José has made important progress in that direction. In doing so, it has also provided a model for other cities to follow. Of course, it wasn’t something in the water that made local politicians more aware of the housing problem. What the city does have are moral agitators like CHAM and thoughtful citizens’ organizations like the AHN, backed by groups ranging from organized labor to local students. These organizations, sometimes working in harmony and sometimes not quite seeing eye to eye, were able to persuade the City Council to address problems that would otherwise have been overlooked. San José should now be known not just for microchips and costly real estate, but as a place where broad coalitions have joined together to achieve progressive change.

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