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February 20, 2000

Homeless on $50,000 a Year in Luxuriant Silicon Valley

By EVELYN NIEVES

SAN JOSE, Calif., Feb. 15 -- It is long past midnight as the No. 22 bus lumbers down the spine of Silicon Valley carrying 12 passengers with nowhere to go.

The bus rolls past $1 million, three-bedroom ranches on quarter-acre lots, driveways where Range Rovers are the second car, towns where millionaires are minted every day. The passengers keep their eyes shut, or on the floor.

They have two hours to catch a bumpy nap before the No. 22, the only bus in the valley that runs 24 hours a day, finishes its 26-mile circuit from here to Menlo Park and back. Then they must get off and wait 10 or 15 minutes before they can climb aboard again, using their $3 all-day pass for another two-hour run on the bus known these days, these hours, as "the rolling hotel."

Most of them work full time. One is a cashier at a toy store. Another works at a box factory. Another says he juggles three part-time jobs. But in the dot-com land of milk and honey, where the median family income, $82,000, is the highest in the nation (and an average of 63 people hit the millionaire mark every day), nontech jobs just do not pay the rent.

With all the new money floating around, the most expensive housing market in the country and the densest concentration of investment capital in the world, there is no other place in the country that offers a starker example of the growing gap between the rich and poor.

Stock option millionaires bid on houses as though they were buying Van Goghs. A four-bedroom contemporary in Palo Alto, for example, that was priced at $2.2 million sold for $3.2 million, while a one-bedroom cottage listed at $495,000 sold for $750,000.

At the same time, more and more working people are becoming homeless: 34 percent of the estimated 20,000, homeless people in Santa Clara County in 1999 had full-time jobs, up from 25 percent in 1995. And those figures fail to count the growing number of families doubled up in single apartments, or paying $400 a month to live in a garage or to sleep on a stranger's living-room floor.

And it is not just the minimum-wage earner who is scrambling to survive here. More teachers, police officers, firefighters, commissioned salespeople -- all people who make more than $50,000 a year and would be comfortably middle-class in many other places -- are seeking the services of area homeless shelters.

In Silicon Valley, "poor" means a family of four scraping by on $53,100 a year or an individual earning less than $37,200, federal housing officials say. No wonder, then, that even some high-tech workers, those in the entry-level jobs, end up on the church soup lines.

"Over the last five years, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of families and working poor who become homeless almost exclusively due to the outrageous cost of housing in Silicon Valley," said Jan Bernstein, a spokeswoman for InnVision, a nonprofit group here that provides 300 shelter beds and serves 850 meals a day to the needy.

"More than half the people staying in the shelter are employed," Ms. Bernstein, said. "They lose their housing first, then try to hang onto their job."

At the richest time in the richest region in the richest nation in the world, less than 30 percent of the households here can afford to buy a house. The median price for a house in Silicon Valley, $410,000, is more than twice that for the rest of the country. Renting is increasingly out of range for the average worker as well. Two out of five valley residents cannot afford to rent the average two-bedroom apartment, which is about $1,700.

Even studios in inferior neighborhoods cost more than 1,000 a month, and that does not include the three months' rent landlords typically ask to secure an apartment.

With waiting time for subsidized housing up to several years, the situation will only get worse, housing officials say. Indeed, the housing burden is the main reason why more people are leaving Silicon Valley these days than arriving, according to the state's Department of Finance.

For people who are not rich in Silicon Valley, getting sick or laid off or losing a second income means catastrophe. Tammy Morales, a $15-an-hour dental assistant with two teenagers and a 6-month-old, discovered that when she and her husband separated two months ago. The rent on her two-bedroom apartment in Campbell, a suburb bordering San Jose, is $1,425, impossible to manage on her salary, with her family's needs. Five days after she missed paying her rent, she received an eviction notice.

"I've always worked and have never asked for help," said Ms. Morales, who had her first child when she was 15. "But I never thought I wouldn't be able to afford to live where I've lived all my life."

The apartment hunting is not going well. Weeks tick on, and all she has found for the $1,100 a month she can barely afford is a one-bedroom walk-up in a falling down building in south San Jose, the neighborhood she knew growing up as the bad side of town.

"It's getting ridiculous," Ms. Morales said. "My friend's father has a house for rent here. He was asking $1,800, and he is getting calls from people offering twice that much, without even seeing it."

Ms. Morales received a one-time $700 check last month from the Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose, which offers emergency housing assistance, meals, job training, counseling, clothes and other services to help those who are homeless or on the verge. More and more, the Sacred Heart Community Service helps clients who come from the ranks of people who would be doing fine in another part of the country, said Barbara Zahner, the executive director.

"People are earning more than they did 10 years ago," Ms. Zahner said, "but they're spending 80 percent of their income on housing. Food becomes a discretionary item. We call them the invisible working poor. Their jobs are not likely to have stock options."

Poor immigrants who have long made San Jose a portal to the American dream have fared the worst. Many of the valley's landscapers, construction workers and fast-food workers are homeless, according to advocacy organizations that help them. Or, they live in such terrible conditions -- 26 men to a house, each paying $400, for example -- that they are arguably as bad off as if they were homeless.

"Here, most people are in service-related jobs -- McDonald's, gardening and that kind of thing," said the Rev. Steven P. Brown, the pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Alviso, a small community near here.

"They're probably some of the hardest-working people I've seen," Mr. Brown said. "But many with two or three jobs are barely making it." So, in many cases, he said, immigrant families share houses.

Maria Perez, 34, is one of the lucky ones. She came here nine years ago from rural Mexico thinking she and her husband, a landscaper, would make lots of money and live in a house with a yard, as she saw on American television. Instead, for almost eight years, until she became pregnant with her second child, she and her husband lived in rooms in other people's apartments. A year and a half ago, when she gave birth, they moved into an $1,100-a-month two-bedroom apartment, a bargain by valley standards.

"I say to my husband, you and me are very lucky," said Ms. Perez, who learned English at Sacred Heart Community Service. Now she is a full-time day care assistant at Sacred Heart, making $300 a week. "I pay half of it to the baby sitter," she said. "Sometimes my daughter says, 'Mommy, it's not fair. How come people here have cute houses and we don't? How come other people have cars and we don't?' I say, 'Because we are poor and they are rich, and that's the way it is here.' "

It is hard not to notice the Ferraris and Mercedeses all over the valley these days, and the columned mansions with swimming pools that take up virtually whole backyards. The homeless passengers waiting at 2 a.m. the other day for the No. 22 bus spent a good deal of time chatting all about the haves shoving their wealth in the faces of the have-nots.

"This is where all the millionaires and billionaires live," said a 63-year-old woman in a cowboy hat who called herself Cowboy Luna. "I don't understand how they can't help the people who can't afford the rent. The people who are on this bus can't afford the rent."

She turned to a sad-looking young man carrying a backpack. He had been laid off from his job, Cowboy Luna whispered. To him, she said: "Right, the people on this bus just can't afford the rent in this crazy place?"

He nodded. "And some of us," he said, "never will."



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