Dispossessed in the Land of Dreams | New Republic

Dispossessed in the Land of Dreams

Those left behind by Silicon Valley’s technology boom struggle to stay in the place they call home.

Monica Potts

December 13, 2015

Photographs by Zach Gross

Sometime in July 2012, Suzan Russaw and her husband, James,

received a letter from their landlord asking them to vacate their $800-a-month

one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, California. He gave them 60 days to leave .

The “no-fault” eviction is a common way to clear out low-paying tenants without

a legal hassle and bring in people willing to pay thousands more in rent. James

was 83 at the time and suffering from the constellation of illnesses that

affect the old: He had high blood pressure and was undergoing dialysis for

kidney failure and experiencing the early stages of dementia.

Their rent was actually a couple of hundred dollars more than

James’s monthly Social Security benefits, but he made up the rest by piecing

together odd jobs. They looked for a new apartment for two months and didn’t

find anything close to their price range. Their landlord gave them a six-week

extension, but it yielded nothing. When mid-October came, Suzan and James had

no choice but to leave. With hurried help from neighbors, they packed most of

their belongings into two storage units and a ramshackle 1994 Ford Explorer

which they called “the van.” They didn’t know where they were going.

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.

Suzan, who is 70, is short and slight, with her bobbed hair dyed

red. The first time I met her, she wore leggings, a T-shirt, a black cardigan

wrapped around her shoulders, and fuzzy black boots I later learned were

slippers she’d gotten from Goodwill and sewn up to look like outside shoes.

(She wore basically the same outfit, with different T-shirts, nearly every time

we met, and I realized she didn’t have many clothes.) Her voice is high and

singsongy and she is always polite. You can tell she tries to smooth out

tensions rather than confront them. She is a font of forced sunniness and likes

to punctuate a sad sentence with phrases like “I’m so blessed!” or “I’m so

lucky!” She wore a small necklace and said jewelry was important to her. “I

feel, to dispel the image of homelessness, it’s important to have a little

bling,” she said.

In the van, Suzan was in charge of taking care of everyone and

everything, organizing a life that became filled with a unique brand of busy

boredom. She and James spent most of their time figuring out where to go next,

how to get there, and whether they could stay once they arrived. They found a

short-term unit in a local family shelter in Menlo Park that lasted for five

weeks. Afterward, they stayed in a few motels, but even fleabags in the area

charge upwards of $100 a night. When they couldn’t afford a room they camped

out in the van, reclining the backseats and making a pallet out of blankets

piled on top of their clothes and other belongings. Slowly, there were fewer

nights in hotels and more in the van, until the van was where they lived.

A life of homelessness is one of logistical challenges and

exhaustion. Little things, like planning a wardrobe for the week, involved

coordinated trips to storage units and laundromats, and could take hours. The

biggest conundrum? Where to pull over and sleep. Suzan and James learned

quickly not to pull over on a residential block, because the neighbors would

call the police. They tried a church or two, 24-hour businesses where they

thought they could hide amidst the other cars, and even an old naval field. The

places with public toilets were best because, for reasons no one can quite

explain, 3 a.m. is the witching hour for needing to pee. They kept their socks

and shoes on, both for staying warm on chilly Bay Area nights and also for

moving quickly if someone peered into their windows, or a cop flashed his light

inside, ready to rouse. Wherever they were sleeping, they couldn’t sleep there.

“Sometimes, I was so tired, I would be stopped at a red light and say, ‘Don’t

go to sleep. Don’t go to sleep,’” Suzan said. “And then I would fall asleep.”

A few months in, a nice man in a 7-Eleven parking lot told them

about a former high school turned community center on the eastern side of town

called Cubberley . He’d walked up to their van after recognizing signs of life

in the car, tired faces among the junk piling up in the back. Suzan and James

were familiar with the community center because they’d taken their daughter to

preschool there many years before, but they hadn’t thought about sleeping

there. Cubberley had a quiet back parking lot, a flat grass amphitheater with a

concrete paddock for a stage, and 24-hour public bathrooms with showers in an

old gym. Rumor was that the cops wouldn’t bother anyone.

Suzan’s husband, James Russaw, pictured with two of their grandchildren.

Cubberley was a psychic relief because it solved so many basic

needs: It had a place to bathe in the morning, a place to charge your phone.

The parking lot had also formed its own etiquette and sense of community.

People tended to park in the same places, a spot or two next to their

neighbors, and they recognized one another and nodded at night. They weren’t

exactly friends, but they were people who trusted each other, an impromptu

neighborhood no one wanted to lose after losing so much. It was safe, a good

place to spend the night. But it was next door to a segment of homeowners who

were fighting hard to move the car dwellers out.

Normally, wealthy people who move into an area don’t see the

results of their displacement because the people who lose their homes don’t

stick around; they move to cheaper suburbs and work themselves into the fabric

elsewhere. But the folks at Cubberley, 30 people on any given night, were the

displacement made manifest. Most weren’t plagued with mental health or

substance abuse problems; they simply could no longer afford rent and became

homeless in the last place they lived. People will put up with a lot to stay in

a place they know. “I’ve been analyzing why don’t I just get the heck on.

Everybody says that, go to Wyoming, Montana, you can get a mansion,” Suzan

said. “Move on, move on, always move on. And I say to myself, ‘Why should I

have to move on?’”

It’s a new chapter in an old story. In his seminal 1893 lecture at

the Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner summarized the myth of the

American frontier and the waves of settlers who created it as an early form of

gentrification: First, farmers looking for land would find a remote spot of

wilderness to tame; once they succeeded, more men and women would arrive to

turn each new spot into a town; finally, outside investors would swoop in,

pushing out the frontiersman and leaving him to pack up and start all over

again. It has always been thus in America. Turner quoted from a guide published

in 1837 for migrants headed for the Western frontiers of Ohio, Indiana, and

Wisconsin: “Another wave rolls on. The men of capital and enterprise come. The

‘settler’ is ready to sell out and take the advantage of the rise of property,

push farther into the interior, and become himself a man of capital and enterprise

in turn.” This repeating cycle, Turner argued, of movement and resettlement was

essential to the American character. But he foresaw a looming crisis. “The

American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise,” he

wrote . “But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves.” In

other words, we would run out of places for the displaced to go.

Suzan was born in 1945. Her father worked at what was then the

Lockheed Corporation, and her mother had been raised by a wealthy family in Oak

Park, Illinois. Her family called her Suzi. Though she grew up in nearby

Saratogaand spent some time in school in Switzerlandshe distinctly

remembers coming with her mother to visit Palo Alto, with its downtown theaters

and streets named after poets. Palo Alto more than any other place formed the

landscape of her childhood. “It was a little artsy-craftsy university townyou

find charming towns are university towns.”

Like many women of her day, Suzan didn’t graduate from college.

When she was 24, after her last stay in Switzerland, she moved to Mountain

View, the town on Palo Alto’s eastern border that is now home to Google and

LinkedIn. She was living off a small trust her family had set up for her when

she met James at a barbecue their apartment manager threw to foster

neighborliness among his tenants. James had grown up in a sharecropping family

in Georgia, moved west during World War II, and was more than 17 years her

senior, handsome and gentlemanly. Suzan thought: “I can learn something from

him.” They were an interracial couple in the late 1960s, which was unusual,

though she says her family didn’t mind. It was also an interclass marriage, and

it moved Suzan down the income ladder.

For years, James and Suzan lived together, unmarried. They bought

a house on University Avenue, just north of the county line and blocks from

downtown Palo Alto, in 1979, and four years later had their only daughter,

Nancy. It was the area’s ghetto, and the only source of affordable housing for

many years. It was also the center of violence in the region, and, in 1992, was

the murder capital of the country .

They never had much money. For most of their marriage, James ran a

small recycling company and Suzan acted as his bookkeeper, secretary, and

housewife. They refused to apply for most government assistance, even as

homeless elders. “My husband and I had never been on welfare or food stamps,”

she told me. “Even to this day.”

Suzan’s parents died in 2002 and 2003, and her older sister died

in 2009. (“I thank God that they’re gone,” she told me. “They would die if they

saw me now.”) It was a hard time for Suzan, who went to care for her dying

parents and nearly left James. She felt he’d checked out of the difficulties.

In retrospect, she thinks his dementia might already have been setting in;

James was already in his seventies. He had taken out a second mortgage on their

home, and they couldn’t pay it after he retired. They sold the house at a loss

in 2005; it’s now a Century 21 office.

After they moved into the van, they settled into a routine. On the

nights before James’s early-morning treatments, they slept in the dialysis

center’s parking lot. Otherwise they generally stayed at Cubberley. They were

still living off James’s retirement income, but most of it went to the $500

needed to rent the two storage units where their furniture remained, until they

lost one for nonpayment. Finally, a few months in, Suzan was able to use a

clause in a trust set up by her mother’s father to help her out in an

emergency. It doubled their incomemuch of which was eaten up by the costs of

gas, the remaining storage unit, parking tickets, and the other expenses of an

unsettled life. It was a respectable income, one that technically kept them

above poverty, but it still wasn’t enough for rent.

James was increasingly ill and van life was taking a toll. In

addition to James’s other problems, both he and Suzan were starting to

experience some of the health problems common among the homeless. The backseat

of the van filled with bags of clothes, papers, fast-food detritus, pens, old

parking tickets, and receipts. As the junk built up, the recline of their seats

inched forever upward, until they were sitting up all the time, causing their

legs to swell and nerves to become damaged, the medical consequences of not

being able to raise your feet at night.

Gentrification used to be about poor neighborhoods, usually black

and brown, underdeveloped and full of decrepit and neglected housing stock, run

by the occasional slumlord—often described as “blighted,” though that

designation has always been problematic —and how they become converted into

wealthier ones, usually through the influx of richer white people and their

demand for new services and new construction. It’s a negative process for the people

who have to move, but there’s occasionally an element of good, because

neglected neighborhoods revive. But what’s happening now in the Bay Area is

that people who’ve done nothing wrong—not paid their rent late, violated their

lease, or committed any other housing sin—are being forced out to make way.

Displacement is reaching into unquestionably vibrant, historic, middle- and

working-class neighborhoods, like The Mission in San Francisco, a former center

of Chicano power. (The Mission alone has lost 8,000 Latino residents in the

past ten years, according to a report from the local Council of Community

Housing Organizations and the Mission Economic Development Agency.) And it’s

happening to such an extent that the social workers who used to steer people to

affordable apartments as far away as Santa Rosa or Sacramento, a two-hour

drive, are now telling people to look even farther out. The vehicle dwellers I

spoke with said they’d heard of friends living in places like Stockton, once a

modest working-class city in the middle of the state, receiving

notice-to-vacate letters like the one Suzan and James received.

For the most part, the traits that draw people to Palo Altogood

schools, a charming downtown, nice neighborhoods in which to raise a family,

and a short commute to tech jobsare the very same things that made the

residents of Cubberley want to stay, even if it meant living in their car. The

destabilizing pressure of a real estate market is also felt by the merely rich,

the upper middle class, and the middle class, because the high-end demand of

the global elite sets the market prices. “My block has the original owners, a

retired schoolteacher and a retired postal worker,” said Hope Nakamura, a legal

aid attorney who lives in Palo Alto. “They could never afford to buy anything

there now.” Most people told me if they had to sell their homes today they

wouldn’t be able to buy again anywhere in the area, which means many Palo

Altans have all of their wealth tied up in expensive homes that they can’t access

without upending their lives. It makes everyone anxious.

The view inside a van parked outside a Palo Alto homeless organization.

The outcry from the neighbors over Cubberley was so fierce that it

reshaped Palo Alto’s city government. The city council is nonpartisan, but a

faction emerged that revived an old, slow-growth movement in town, known as the

“ residentialists .” Their concerns are varied (among them, the perennial

suburban concerns of property values and traffic), but their influence has been

to block any new development of affordable housing and shoo people like Suzan

and James away from Palo Alto. An uproar scuttled an affordable-housing

building for senior citizens near many public transit options that had been

proposed by the city housing authority and unanimously approved by the city

council. Opponents said they were worried about the effect the development

would have on the surrounding community—they argued it wasn’t zoned for

“density,” which is to say, small apartments—and that traffic congestion in

the area would be made worse. Aparna Ananthasubramaniam, then a senior at

Stanford, tried to start a women’s-only shelter in rotating churches, modeled

after the Hotel de Zink. She said a woman came up to her after a community

meeting where the same concerns had been raised by a real estate agent. “Her

lips were quivering and she was physically shaking from how angry she was,”

Ananthasubramaniam told me. “She was like, ‘You come back to me 20 years from

now once you have sunk more than $1 million into an asset, like a house, and

you tell me that you’re willing to take a risk like this.”

The trouble for Cubberley began when neighbors went to the police.

There’d been at least one fight, and the neighbors complained about trash left

around the center. At the time, Cubberley was home to a 64-year-old woman who’d

found a $20-an-hour job after nine years of unemployment; a tall, lanky,

panhandler from Louisiana who kept informal guard over her and other women at

the center; a 63-year-old part-time school crossing guard who cared for his

dying mother for 16 years, then lived off the proceeds from the sale of her

house until the money ran out; two retired school teachers; a 23-year-old Palo

Alto native who stayed with his mother in a rental car after his old car

spontaneously combusted; and, for about six months, Suzan and James. “They

didn’t fit this image that the powers that be are trying to create about

homeless people. They did not fit that image at all,” Suzan told me. “We made

sure the premises were respected, because it was an honor to be able to stay

there.” She and others told me they cleaned up their areas at the center every


“I said, ‘We have no place to go, and we’re staying right here.’ They were going to know about it.”

Pressured to find a way to move the residents out, the police

department went to the city council claiming they needed a law banning vehicle

habitation to address the neighbors’ concerns. Advocates for the homeless said

that any problems could be solved if police would just enforce existing laws.

Local attorneys warned the city council that such laws could soon be considered

unconstitutional , because the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing a

challenge to a similar law in Los Angeles. Carrie LeRoy, an attorney who

advocated on behalf of the unhoused, and other attorneys threatened to file a

class-action lawsuit if the vehicle-habitation ban ever went into effect. The

city council passed the ban anyway , in a 7-2 vote in August 2013, and the

police department and other groups in the city started an outreach program to

tell people about the law. “All of them had received these notices from the

city,” LeRoy said, “And it was basically like, ‘Get out of our town.’”

A few weeks later, the city council also voted to close the

showers at Cubberley and give it a 10:30 p.m. curfew, which made it illegal to

sleep there. On their last night there, in October 2013, Suzan and James left

around 8 p.m. so they wouldn’t get caught past the new curfew. They tried some

old haunts and got kicked out. The stress of living in the van was hard on

James. Around this time, James decided to end his dialysis. “Of course, we knew

what that meant,” Suzan said.

One night, about a month after leaving Cubberley, the police

pulled Suzan and James over. Their registration was expired. “This officer, he

got a wild hair, and he said, ‘I’m going to impound your car,’ and called the

tow truck.” Suzan told me. They got out of the car. Without pushing and

demanding, she realized, she was never going to get out of the situation. She

told me she said to the officer, “This is our home, and if you impound it we

will not have a home.” He insisted. “I said ‘That’s fine. You do that. We will

stay right here. I will put the beds out, I will put what we need here, right

here on the sidewalk.” Other officers arrived and talked to them. They asked

Suzan whether, surely, there was some other place they could go. “I said, ‘We

have no place to go, and we’re staying right here.’ I was going to make a

stink. They were going to know about it.” Suzan told me people were poking

their heads out of their homes, and she realized the bigger fuss she made, the

more likely officers might decide just to leave them alone.

Because James’s health had continued to worsen, he and Suzan

finally qualified for motel vouchers during the cold weather. They got a room

in a rundown hotel. “It had a microwave and a hot bath,” Suzan said. In his

last few days, James was given a spot in a hospice in San Jose, and Suzan went

with him. “It was so cut-and-dry. They said, ‘This is an end-of-life bed,

period,’ ” Suzan said. “And I never said that to James.” He died on February

17, 2014, and a few weeks later a friend of theirs held a memorial service for

James at her house. Suzan wore an old silk jacket of her mother’s, one that

would later be ruined by moisture in the van, and a necklace Nancy had made.

They ate James’s favorite foodscornbread, shrimp, and pound cake. Suzan had a

few motel vouchers left, and afterward stayed with friends and volunteers for a

few weeks each, but she felt she was imposing.

That summer, she returned to her van. It was different without

James; she realized she’d gotten to know him better during their van life than

she ever had before. Maybe it was his dementia, but as they drove around or sat

together, squished amidst their stuff, he’d started to tell her long stories,

over and over, of his youth in Georgia. She’d never heard the tales before, but

she’d started to be able to picture it all. On her own, without his imposing

figure beside her, Suzan was scared, and more than a little lonely. Most

nights, she stayed tucked away in a church parking lot, without permission from

the pastor, hidden between bushes and vans. The law wasn’t being enforced, but

sleeping in the lot made her a kind of a criminal. “The neighbors never gave me

up,” she said.

Suzan told me she was in a fog of denial after James’s death, but

it’s probably what protected her because homelessness is exhausting. “You start

to lose it after a while,” she said. “You feel disenfranchised from your own

society.” The Downtown Streets Team , a local homeless organization, had been

helping her look for a long-term, stable housing solution. Indeed, Suzan told

me that at various times, she and James had 27 applications in for affordable

housing in Palo Alto. (When he died, she had to start over, submitting new

applications for herself.) Her social worker at the local senior citizens

center, Emily Farber, decided to also look for a temporary situation that would

get Suzan under a roof for a few months, or even a few weeks. “We were dealing

with very practical limitations: having a computer, having a stable phone

number,” Farber said. Craigslist was only something Suzan had heard of. She’d

finally gotten a cell phone through a federal program, but hadn’t quite

mastered it.

For many months, Farber struck out. She didn’t think Suzan would

want to live with three 25-year-old Google employees, or that they’d want her,

either. She even tried Airbnb. Because Suzan didn’t have a profile, Farber used

her own, and wrote to people who had rooms listed to say her 69-year-old friend

needed a place to stay in the area for a couple of weeks. “We got three rejections

in a row,” she said. Finally, in November, they found a room available for rent

for $1,100about 80 percent of her income from the trust and her widow’s

benefits from Social Security. Suzan would have her own bedroom and bathroom in

the two-bedroom apartment of a single mother. The mother crowded into the other

bedroom with her 16-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. The only downside

for Suzan was that it was in Santa Clara, another charmingly bland suburban

enclave in the South Bay, a half hour south of Palo Alto and a world away for

Suzan. “It’s out of my comfort zone, but that’s OK!” she told me.

I met Suzan on the day she moved in, and the concept of being able

to close a door was almost as unsettling to her as the concept of sleeping in the

van had been. “I’m in this kind of survival mode,” she said, and had found a

certain comfort in her van. “I’ve got this little cocoon I’m staying in, and

everything is within arm’s reach.” She had a big blue mat in the back of the

van, like a grown-up version of the kind kindergartners nap on, but soon she’d

acquire a bed. She retrieved her old TV from her storage unit. She made a

comfortable room, with chairs and a bed and a small table, and decided to eat

her meals in there. She only signed a lease for three months, because it wasn’t

really sustainable on her fixed income. She’d also applied for an affordable

housing complex being built for seniors in Sunnyvale, one that would provide

permanent housing for 60 senior citizens from among the 7,000 homeless people

in the county at the time. She’d find out in April if she was selected in the

lottery. All her hopes were pinned on it.

Mapping Suzan Russaw’s Life in Silicon Valley

In the first few weeks after her move to Santa Clara, Suzan spent

a healthy portion of her limited income on gas, driving the Explorer back and

forth to Palo Alto. After all, her post office box was there, and so were her

social workers. Her errands demanded a lot of face time, and in some ways, she

still filled her days the way she had before she got her room, moving around trying

to solve her problems. Her car was still packed, too, as if she hadn’t let go

of the need to drive in it, to move forward, to keep her stuff around her

within arm’s reach, as if she were still without a home base.

Two afternoons a week she went to a Palo Alto food closet. She

usually made it right before it closed, in the early afternoons. When her

number was called, she went up to the counter to watch the volunteer sort

through what was left on the shelves, finding the most recently expired itemsthese

were older goods grocery stores couldn’t keep past their sell-by dates. Suzan’s

politeness was, as always, almost formal, from an earlier era, when being

ladylike was a learned skill. The volunteer would ask her if she wanted milk,

or peaches, or a serving-size Baggie of cereal, and she’d say, “Yes, very much

so!” These days, she got to take raw eggs instead of the boiled ones, a treat

reserved for those with kitchens. Her requests were glancing rather than

direct. “Have you any lettuce?” and the answer was often no. I said it seemed

like an efficient operation. Suzan said, “I really know the drill!”

Suzan needed to visit her social worker, Julia Lang, at the

Downtown Streets Team office to get the form that allowed her to go to an even

better food bank. She asked the receptionist whether her social worker was in.

She wasn’t, and Suzan explained she was looking for the food bank vouchers.

Then the receptionist asked for her address. That stopped Suzan. The

receptionist explained that the pantry was for Palo Alto residents, and Suzan

was considering, for the first time, whether that counted her. Suzan explained

that she and her husband had gone to the pantry the year before, and said they

should be in the system. We waited while the receptionist looked. Suzan waved

at someone she’d seen around for years, from her car-dwelling days. Suzan told

the receptionist, again, that they really should be in the system. But they

weren’t. Suzan said that was OK, and she would come back. The receptionist

said, “Are you sure? I just need your ID and your address.” Suzan demurred. She

needed to talk to her social worker. This is what it meant to have to leave her

hometown. She was leaving the city where she and James had known people, the

city where James had died, the city where she’d grown up and near where she’d

raised her own daughter. It was the city where she knew where to go, where

she’d figured out how to be homeless. It was the city where she knew the drill.

That homelessness persists in Silicon Valley has puzzled me. It

has an extremely wealthy population with liberal, altruistic values . Though it

has a large homeless population relative to its size , in sheer numbers it’s not

as large as New York City’s or L.A.’s . Some of the reasons could be found in

the meeting on November 17, 2014, when the city finally overturned the

car-camping ban . It had never been enforced because, as predicted, the Ninth

Circuit had overturned L.A.’s ban. In the end, all but one person who’d voted

for the ban the first time around voted to overturn it . The lone dissenter was

councilman Larry Klein . “The social welfare agency in our area is the county,

not the city,” he said. “To think we can solve the homeless problem just

doesn’t make sense.”

This idea was repeated many times among city officials—that

homelessness was too big an issue for the city to resolve. The city of Palo

Alto itself has one full-time staff member devoted to homelessness, and it

coordinates with county and nonprofit networks to counsel, house, and feed the


Suzan shows where she stored food in her car while homeless.

During the fight over the ban, the city tried to devise an

alternative —a program that would allow car dwellers to park at churches—but

then left the details up to the faith community to work out. Nick Selby, an

attorney and member of the Palo Alto Friends Meeting House , said he and his

fellow Quakers met with community resistance when they tried to accommodate

three or four car dwellers on their tiny lot. Neighbors circulated a petition

listing concerns like “the high prevalence of mental illness, drug abuse, and

communicable diseases in the homeless population” and the risk of declining

property values. But Selby said some of their concerns were fair. “People who

objected were saying to the city, ‘What’s your program?’” Selby said. “And the

city really had no answer to those questions.” Without a solid plan and

logistical help from the city, other churches were reluctant to step forward.

“The churches weren’t prepared to deal with this,” he said. After the church

car-camping plan fell through, the city council said it had no choice but a

ban .

Santa Clara County, too, struggles to address the problem. The

county is participating in federal programs to build permanent supportive

housing for the chronically homeless population, the population of long-term

homeless who typically have interacting mental health and substance abuse

problems. But land is expensive here, and the area is shortchanged by the

federal formula that disperses funds. California, ever in budget-crisis mode,

provides limited state funds. There isn’t a dedicated funding stream from the

cities, which don’t necessarily pay a tax to the county for these projects, and

local affordable housing developments are often rejected by residents as Palo

Alto’s was. In September, the city of San Jose and the county announced a $13

million program to buy old hotels and renovate them as shelters, which will

make 585 new beds available. While advocates credit the county’s efforts with

cutting the estimated homeless population by 14 percent since 2013, the number

of people like Suzan, who hide in their cars, is almost certainly

underestimated. But most such efforts are centered in San Jose. Chris

Richardson, a director of the Bay Area’s Downtown Streets Team, said what needs

to happen is not a mystery: Other cities have to fund affordable housing, they

have to fund more of it, and they have to do it in their own neighborhoods,

without relying on San Francisco and San Jose to absorb all of the area’s

poverty and problems. “You can’t just ship them down to the big, poor city,” he


When Palo Alto originally passed the car-camping ban, it also

devoted $250,000 to the county’s homelessness program. When they voted to

rescind the ban, council members asked for an update on what happened to the

money. The city staff was not prepared to report on how it had been spent at

that council meeting, more than a year into the funding. Members of the council

again reiterated their desire to help the homeless. “Helping the homeless” was

tabled, as a general idea, for another agenda at another meeting, as it always

seems to be, or passed off to the county, or to someone elseand so helping

the homeless is something nobody does.

Through the winter, Suzan remained ill; it was a bad flu season.

She kept paying the rent on her room, on her storage units, on her P.O. box in

Palo Alto, and she tried setting aside money she owed on parking tickets. Some

months she’d run out of gas money to drive the 15 miles to Palo Alto and check

her mail or visit her social workers. She was waiting to hear about the

affordable apartment.

In May, she was denied. Suzan had bad credit, both because of the

unpaid storage unit she and James had lost and because otherwise her credit

history was so thin. Julia Lang, one of her social workers, told me she couldn’t

even get a credit score for Suzan. Lang said people get denied on credit, or

because they make too little for affordable housing that’s supposedly intended

for extremely low-income people, all the time. “When you’re that destitute and

have gone through so many complicated situations, what are the chances that

your credit’s going to be good?” she said.

Suzan was livid and despondent, and she decided to appeal. “I

wasn’t going to take that lying down,” Suzan told me. “I was proud of myself.”

Catholic Charities helped her appeal. Suzan had to write a letter showing how

she intended to repair her credit, and that she understood why it was bad in

the first place. During the months of back and forth, Suzan bought a new Jeep,

only one year newer than the Explorer, in case she needed to sleep in her car

again. In July, she learned she’d won her appeal. She had two weeks to get her

affairs in order, pay the first month’s rent and security deposit, and move in.

Her social workers helped her with some of the move-in costs, and she signed a

lease for a year.

I saw Suzan again in August, about three weeks after she’d moved

in. Her hair was trimmed. She was wearing a brightly colored muumuu, blue and

green with tropical flowers“It’s a housedress but you can wear it out on the

street!”and a green sweater tied around her shoulders. She seemed relaxed and

rested, and I told her so. Her bed was full of folded clothes, and her room was

still in disarray. She was trying to cull her storage unit so that she could get

a smaller one and cut down on rent. Most of the people in her complex had been

in the same boat as Suzan, or had been worse off. She pays $810 a month, the

amount determined to be affordable for her income. It had taken her more than

three years, help from at least three social workers, and thousands of dollars,

but she was finally stably housed. At least, for a year.