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Silicon Valley’s Homeless Population

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With two relatively small caveats, this Monica Potts profile of the homeless of the Silicon Valley is outstanding.

A majority of the homeless population in Palo Alto—93 percent—ends up sleeping outside or in their cars. In part, that’s because Palo Alto, a technology boomtown that boasts a per capita income well over twice the average for California, has almost no shelter space: For the city’s homeless population, estimated to be at least 157, there are just 15 beds that rotate among city churches through a shelter program called Hotel de Zink; a charity organizes a loose network of 130 spare rooms, regular people motivated to offer up their homes only by neighborly goodwill. The lack of shelter space in Palo Alto—and more broadly in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which comprise the peninsula south of San Francisco and around San Jose—is unusual for an area of its size and population. A 2013 census showed Santa Clara County having more than 7,000 homeless people, the fifth-highest homeless population per capita in the country and among the highest populations sleeping outside or in unsuitable shelters like vehicles.

San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area are gentrifying rapidly—especially with the most recent Silicon Valley surge in social media companies, though the trend stretches back decades—leading to a cascade of displacement of the region’s poor, working class, and ethnic and racial minorities. In San Francisco itself, currently the city with the most expensive housing market in the country, rents increased 13.5 percent in 2014 from the year before, leading more people to the middle-class suburbs. As real estate prices rise in places like Palo Alto, the middle class has begun to buy homes in the exurbs of the Central Valley, displacing farmworkers there.

This homelessness is not your typical aggressive West Coast aggressive panhandler type homelessness, familiar to those who have lived in Eugene or Portland or Santa Barbara. It’s simply working class people who can no longer afford to live in their homes. With a total lack of housing planning for the poor in the United States and an aggressively free-market capitalist housing market rooted in the same concern over property values that has long been used to justify de facto segregation (and yes, I am current watching Show Me a Hero), there’s simply no comprehensive planning on either the local, state, or federal level for low-income residents of high-rent cities. That leads to the first caveat, which is Potts claiming she can’t understand how this homelessness is such a problem in liberal communities. That’s not surprising at all. After all, a vague concern for the homeless is quite different from having them live next to you, voting to raise your taxes to deal with the problem, or spending any actual time really thinking about these people. Making money on the housing market is simply a higher priority for every single stakeholder except for the homeless themselves, who have no voice. The second caveat is the bizarre inclusion of the Turner frontier thesis as an explanatory factor in the west coast homeless problems. The frontier thesis has always obscured more than it clarified and that includes modern homelessness. Still, it’s very much worth reading.

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