Spaces and Flows’s Updates

Dispossessed in the Land of Dreams

New Republic | Article Link | by Monica Potts

Image courtesy of Jay Mantri

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.