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Homeless people in Silicon Valley’s shadow get help, but ‘lasting’ change elusive

Andrea Urton, who grew up homeless in Los Angeles, saw how little corporate interests tend to care about helping the poor.

It was therefore with some surprise that she received a phone call from an Apple representative.

“I’ve never had an Apple, a Google or a Facebook that contacted me personally and said, ‘We really want to work on developing this property that we own and we don’t just want to kick people off. “said Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, an organization that provides services to the homeless in Santa Clara County, the Silicon Valley home to many tech companies, including Apple.

“I haven’t had a company approach me for that level of support and their willingness to pay for it,” Urton said.

Apple has offered to pay its organization millions of dollars to help move dozens of people from a homeless settlement on Apple-owned land in San Jose to a nearby motel or “secure parking” for motorhomes – all that Apple will pay for for nine months, with social services provided for 12 months, Urton said. In early September, Apple began cleaning up the camp, one of the many communities that dot Silicon Valley.

It’s the kind of poverty alleviation effort that some of California’s tech giants have embraced in recent years even as their expansions reshaped communities, strained the supply of local housing, and led to a decline. increase in homelessness. In 2019, Apple announced it would spend $ 2.5 billion to address the California housing crisis, and Facebook pledged $ 1 billion. NBC News reached out to Google to ask Google about its efforts to deal with the state’s housing crisis.

That same year, a Bay Area Council Economic Institute study concluded that at least $ 12.7 billion would be needed to end homelessness in the nine Bay Area counties in initial construction costs, with ongoing costs of about $ 3.5 billion over the next decade.

Tigs Smith and his two children lived in the camp along Component Drive in San Jose, California. Anda Chu / The Mercury News via Getty Images

But while Urton believes Apple “wanted to get it right,” other activists see the efforts failing to address the lingering housing issues they say are being largely fueled by Big Tech. Median single-family home prices in nine Bay Area and surrounding counties hit $ 1.34 million in May, up nearly 40% year-over-year.

“It’s ironic because it’s largely these tech companies that create homelessness,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a longtime Bay Area homeless advocate, 51, who has come to know many people in this now displaced community. “There is no accommodation for all workers. There is accommodation for technicians, but there is no accommodation for janitors.

Apple spokeswoman Rachel Tulley declined to answer questions about the program but provided a company statement.

“Apple has a long history of addressing the California housing crisis and working with partners to support at-risk communities and deliver new affordable units,” the company said in the statement. “As the challenges for tenants and potential landlords continue to increase, we have stepped up our support and have already deployed over $ 1 billion for new projects since the start of 2020.”

Wider issues

California is in the midst of a homeless crisis. It’s a problem that hangs over almost everything in the state – from failure Governor Gavin Newsom’s recall vote, who campaigned on the issue, to the role of the state as a bastion of liberal politics. And while many areas of the state face housing challenges, the areas in and around San José, where many of the world’s largest tech companies are based, offer a particularly striking juxtaposition of wealth. and poverty.

The vacant 43-acre property where Apple has housed the camp is located not far from the headquarters of the payment processor PayPal and across from some eBay offices, a few miles north of downtown San Jose. Apple bought it for over $ 138 million in 2015 and public records show the company has plans for an office for 15,000 workers. It remained a largely dusty heart-shaped property, cut in half by a street, Component Drive. A light rail station and low-rise office parks are also nearby.

The camp on August 5, 2021. Anda Chu / The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, is one of the most expensive areas in California: Zillow says median home price is now $ 1.4 million, having doubled in less than a decade .

Over time, the community on Component Drive grew at one point to reach around 100 people living in clusters around the lot. Prior to the site sweep, officials in the city of San José estimated there were “200 tons of hazardous waste,” along with at least 30 to 35 people living there, with at least twice as many vehicles.

Realities of the homeless

While some residents say Apple’s decision was shocking, they feel they were luckier than others in their situation. Lynn Shipman, 57, said she has lived on Component Drive near Orchard Way, along the south end of the plot, since March. Shipman moved to the field after moving from another encampment across the San Jose airport where, she says, the violence drove her away.

A former hospice worker, Shipman said she grew up about five miles from the Component Drive site and has been homeless for almost three years now. At one point, she lived on the street near Tesla’s headquarters in Fremont, just north of San Jose.

“We had a great community on Component. We had a garden. We fed everyone, ”she said over the phone from her motel room, noting in particular the tomato and green bean plants.

When the pandemic struck, Shipman lost her job as a painter’s helper and survived on $ 109 in weekly unemployment benefits, which she said ended recently. Shipman noted that as long as she lived at the site, she and her community were largely ignored, or at least quietly tolerated.

Despite a difficult initial transition out of Apple’s land – she and others at the site alleged that Apple’s contracted security personnel were reckless, blunt and even downright antagonistic – Shipman said she was grateful that Apple paid HomeFirst. The organization provides the motel room for nine months, as well as food, supplies and various types of social services. Shipman remains confident about the future, which she hopes will include rebuilding her teeth, which she says were knocked out by a former abusive partner.

“I found myself in this mess, I think I’ll be fine,” she said.

Apple declined to respond to questions submitted by NBC News.


But the larger mess of California’s homeless crisis continues. Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington and an expert on Silicon Valley history, said that while Apple was spending millions of dollars to help this particular community, the company was implementing a “Pand-Aid on a Giant and Massive Injury,” adding that the housing and economic crisis in the Bay Area is “systemic”.

“It is becoming clear that for these big companies which are such economic forces and forces on the landscape that it is their business” to worry about housing and inequalities, she said. “It’s not just a civic responsibility, but it’s going to be important to be able to do what they set out to do, and again that’s a very different role for an industry that has been very headlong. “

She also pointed out that over the past century, the region now known as Silicon Valley was once an agricultural hub known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Over the course of the 20th century, it evolved into a solidly bourgeois region, fueled by a suburban workforce that largely worked for defense contractors and the nascent tech industry.

“Steve Jobs’ father did not graduate from high school,” she said. “He got a job as a laser technician. It did not come of the means.

Finally, with housing becoming increasingly unaffordable for those who are not at the top, the region could reach a breaking point.

“How do you make this sustainable? O’Mara said. “That’s the Valley’s problem right now. “