Homeless in Silicon Valley's shadow get help, but 'sustainable' change is elusive

Apple is paying millions to relocate a homeless encampment, and Big Tech has pledge billions to address California's crisis. But questions remain about systemic change.

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

So it was with some surprise when she received a phone call from an Apple representative.

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

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

Apple offered to pay her organization millions of dollars to help relocate dozens of people from a homeless encampment on a plot of land in San Jose owned by Apple to a nearby motel or  a “safe parking” lot for RVs — all of which  Apple will pay for for nine months, with social services provided for 12 months, Urton said. In early September, Apple began clearing the camp, one of many that dot communities around Silicon Valley. 

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

That same year, a study by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute concluded that at least $12.7 billion would be required to end homelessness in the nine-county Bay Area in upfront construction costs, with ongoing costs of around $3.5 billion for the next decade.

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

But while Urton thinks Apple “wanted to get it right,” other activists see the efforts as falling short of addressing the ongoing issues around housing that they say are largely fueled by Big Tech. Median prices for a single family home in nine counties in and around the Bay Area hit $1.34 million in May — up almost 40 percent year over year.

“It’s ironic because it’s largely these tech companies that are creating homelesseness,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a 51-year-old longtime Bay Area homeless advocate who has gotten to know many people from this now-displaced community. “There’s no housing for all the workers. There’s housing for the tech workers, but there’s no housing for the janitors.”

Apple spokeswoman Rachel Tulley declined to answer any questions on the program but provided a corporate statement.

“Apple has long been focused on helping to combat the housing crisis across California and working with partners to support at-risk communities and provide new affordable units,” the company said in the statement. “As the challenges for renters and potential homeowners continue to increase, we’ve accelerated our support and have already deployed over $1 billion for new projects since the start of 2020.”

Broader problems

California is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. It’s an issue that looms over almost everything in the state — from the unsuccessful recall vote of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who campaigned on the issue, to the state’s role as a bastion of liberal politics. And while many parts of the state are dealing with housing challenges, the areas in and around San Jose, where many of the world’s largest tech companies are based, offer a particularly stark juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.

The 43-acre vacant property where Apple hosted the encampment sits not far from the headquarters of the payment processing company PayPal and across the street from some eBay offices, just a few miles north of downtown San Jose. Apple purchased it for more than $138 million in 2015 and public records show the company has plans for an office facility for 15,000 workers. It remained a largely dusty, heart-shaped piece of property, bisected by a street, Component Drive. A light rail station and low-rise office parks are also nearby. 

The encampment on Aug. 5, 2021. Anda Chu / The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, is one of the most expensive parts of California: According to Zillow, the median home price is now $1.4 million, having doubled in under a decade. 

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

Homeless realities

While some residents say that the move by Apple was jarring, they feel they have been more fortunate than other people in their situation. Lynn Shipman, 57, said that she had been living at Component Drive near Orchard Way, along the southern end of the plot, since March. Shipman moved to the lot after having relocated from a different encampment on the other side of the San Jose airport where, she says violence drove her away.

A former hospice worker, Shipman said that she grew up approximately five miles from the Component Drive site and has been homeless for nearly 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 over on Component. We had a garden. We fed everybody,” she said by phone from her motel room, noting in particular the tomato and green bean plants.

When the pandemic hit, Shipman lost her job as a painter’s helper and subsisted on $109 of weekly unemployment benefits, which she said ended recently. Shipman noted that as long as she has been living at the site, she and her community have largely been ignored, or at least quietly tolerated.

Despite a rough initial transition off of Apple’s land — she and other people at the site have alleged that Apple’s contracted security personnel were inconsiderate, brusque and even outright antagonistic — Shipman said she was grateful that Apple is paying HomeFirst. The organization is providing the motel room for nine months, as well as food, supplies and various kinds of social services support. Shipman remains confident about the future, which she hopes will include reconstruction of her teeth, which she said were knocked out by an abusive former partner.

“I got myself into this mess, I figure I will get myself out of this mess,” she said.

Apple declined to respond to questions submitted by NBC News.

‘Band Aid’

But the broader mess of the California homelessness crisis continues. Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, and an expert in the history of the Silicon Valley, said that even with Apple spending millions of dollars to help this particular community, the company is putting a “Band-Aid on a giant, massive injury,” adding that the housing and economic crisis in the Bay Area is “systemic.”

“It’s becoming clear that for these large companies that are such economic forces and forces on the landscape that it is their business” to worry about housing and inequality, 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 it’s a very different role for a sector that has been very heads-down.”

She also pointed out that over the last century, the area now known as Silicon Valley was once an agricultural center known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight. During the 20th century, it was transformed into a solidly middle-class region, powered by a suburban workforce that largely worked at defense contractors and the nascent tech industry.

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

Finally, with homes becoming increasingly unaffordable to those not at the top, the region may hit a breaking point.

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

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