It’s raining in San Jose today. It started sometime last night with rolling, grey. Grey I haven’t seen since driving out here from Albany two months ago. It’s a welcome sight. The American West bore the scars of long-term drought. Wyoming was blond with dead grass along the I-80. Nevada’s Humbolt River, never mighty, was a thin vein of blue against a patchy, arid horizon. Utah hasn’t seen rain for 12 years, the Great Salt Lake has retreated a mile from shore. On the drive through the Bonneville Salt Flats I’d joke with my parents over invisible cell lines that Utah was a land without a barrier between church and state, praying for rain that never comes. The inch of rain we received here today doesn’t break the drought anymore than an adhesive strip stops arterial bleeding. What’s strange is that I came very close to spending the storm huddled under an overpass or nestled in a tent city. For the past month I’ve been flirting with homelessness in a place where there is so much money that it would be a top-20 in GDP if it were its own nation. The Silicon Valley, the Bay, is flush with cash. It leaks from its pores. You can see it in the cars, in the clothes, and even in the expensive bikes the people ride. You can feel it in the housing prices and attitudes, taste it in farm-to-table boutique bistros.
I moved out here for Americorps. I was looking for something to save me from myself, a redemptive, cleansing exercise after graduate school burned me. I saved money at a 60-hour-per-week job delivering library books to rural towns on the NY-VT border. The overtime was scant compensation for several near-death experiences with a van that had seen better days in the early 90s. The engine stopped without warning. The catalytic converter clogged, filling the van with fumes. The AC died and I became acquainted with heatstroke. Brakes failed. I was eager to get going once I was accepted into Americorps. So eager that I drove 600 miles a day. So eager I scarcely knew how to talk about it.
In Iowa City I visited the home where Kurt Vonnegut allegedly wrote Slaughterhouse 5 and got lost amid the Amana Colonies after my GPS ate itself. I slept in a flophouse in a postage-stamp town in Colorado across from a medical marijuana dispensary that supported most of the 130 residents. I ate terrible diner food in Cleveland, got lost in Chicago with a friend of mine who desperately wants to be a raccoon. I met two hippies in Salt Lake City who pointed me to a brewpub in the heart of Mormon country. I fled Nebraska after a strange encounter at a Dairy-Queen.
During all this I was growing anxious. The roommates I had hooked up with through Americorps were riled. Something was wrong with the lease. At Lake Tahoe I learned that I had been written off the lease and had nowhere to stay. Whether I’d get my deposit back was questionable. In frustration I threw myself into the icy, sky-water of the lake from a local nude beach.
The average one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara County, where San Jose and my Americorps job waited for me, is $1,262 every month. A monthly minimum wage check is roughly $1,280. Americorps in San Jose pays exactly $1,200/month. The personal crisis was real. Friends could provide couches. My cousin in San Rafael, 2.5 hrs across the Bay, could provide his office floor. My mother’s high school friend could provide a guest room for a week or three. Short term solutions for a long-term issue.
When I started work I started to see the homeless everywhere. I could see myself in them. San Jose is not a good place to be homeless. The climate is accommodating, but essential services are spread out over a sprawl that never ends. Santa Clara Valley, Silicon Valley, is a giant suburb. Urban cores are tiny, separate. Public transportation is almost non-existent. Affordable housing is unavailable. Every affordable unit in the county is wait-listed, some for years. Section-8 vouchers are few and far between. Those lucky enough to have them face entrenched discrimination. The local, LGBT social network was supportive but unhelpful.
Today I read “Modern Homelessness: Privatization, Policing and Public Toilets” by Alex Gabriel and I was struck by similarity. The architecture of homelessness, the laws and focus of police, the prejudice against homeless people in the Capital of Finance is echoed in the Capital of Silicon Valley. There are 7600 homeless people here, most of whom are unsheltered. They flock to encampments in the scarce undeveloped areas, in river parks, well off the trails. Rents here have increased 11% in a year. People are driven out of their homes and into a city built for cars, lacking shelter beds and public amenities. A new housing initiative was started last year but shelters have closed. The region is fraught.
At an after work party I randomly encountered a friend of a friend. He passed me a number. I called it, visited a bedroom in a beat-up, former SJSU party house and moved in the next day. The rent is absurd given the condition of the house. I could have a nice studio in Albany for the price but I’m off the street. I shop at Grocery Outlet with foodstamps. I prune and water trees. I blog for Our City Forest. I live with the cruel irony that in a place dominated by progressive politics that it is nearly impossible to be a member of one of the most idealistic, progressive service organizations in America. I wonder how long it will last.