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

Published on September 28, 2021

Silicon Valley; specifically, the North First Street area of San Jose, looking southbound down Interstate 880 towards downtown San Jose
Silicon Valley, looking towards downtown San Jose. Image Credit: Coolcaesar CCA-SA 3.0

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.

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.”


Continue reading at NBC News.

Originally written by Cyrus Farivar for NBC News.
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