Karima Aucar is getting her hands dirty at a summer camp in San Mateo. She dips them in a vat of clay and begins pounding. As she starts to shape the clay into a turtle, her dad, Shauky Aucar, hovers over her before leaving for work at UCSF Medical Center.
On the surface this could be any day camp in the Bay Area. It’s full of giggling kids dressed in Warriors T-shirts and sneakers. But the reality is that Karima and the other kids here aren’t your typical carefree campers. They live just a few feet away in transitional housing provided by LifeMoves for mostly low-income working families.
The apartment and day camp are a slice of normalcy for Karima, who was sleeping on a garage floor with her family just a few months ago.
“Well, it’s like better than sleeping on a cold floor,” says the 13-year-old. “I had to wake up on my birthday sleeping on the floor, and I didn’t get to celebrate it because my parents didn’t have any money. It was hard.”
The Aucar family still feels raw after abruptly losing their stable home. In December 2015, Aucar says they got pushed out their $2,400-a-month rental.
“Everything started when we were living in Daly City for 10 years and the landlord went to sell the house,” says Shauky Aucar.
Aucar, his wife and seven children moved into his mother-in-law’s studio apartment nearby but the neighbors quickly complained. They then slept in the family’s large van until it got so cold they ended up back at his mother-in-law’s place. This time they were sleeping in the garage. They had to hide like outlaws, getting up early and returning late at night so the neighbors didn’t complain.
“I don’t think this is the American Dream,” says Aucar. “I saw my kids on the ground and I said, ‘I don’t want this future for them.’ ”
Aucar coped with the upheaval by keeping his routine, going to work every day. He says he has worked full time at UCSF for 23 years, taking people in and out of surgery.
He also continued taking his 20-year-old daughter, Anshi Aucar, to community college so she can be the first family member to graduate from college. She has aspirations of going to medical school after she gets her degree in respiratory therapy. But there’s little doubt that being homeless has taken its toll on her.
“There are some people who were like, ‘Oh wow, you’re homeless,’ and there’s always that one person who’s going to be like judgeful,” says Anshi. “It’s life. Life happens and even though I didn’t want this to happen to my family, I didn’t wish it to anyone else neither.”
But homeless outreach advocates say more and more people are having the same experience — which is why cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are launching new efforts to find, count and help people they call the hidden homeless.
Sabrina Delgado walks the streets in San Mateo County as a Homeless Outreach Team leader for LifeMoves, the organization that found temporary housing for the Aucars. She says it’s not easy to find the people they are trying to count.
“Because they’re at work,” says Delgado. “So we can have a couple, and both are working minimum wage jobs. And so, even combining the two incomes together, they can’t make the rents in the Bay area.”
Teachers, police or neighbors often refer people to groups like LifeMoves, says Brian Greenberg, vice president of programs and services for the nonprofit.
“A second- or third-grader will go to their teacher because they have no ego and say, ‘We’re homeless, we’re living in a car,’ ” says Greenberg.
Greenberg says there are more than 8,000 homeless people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, with San Jose having the largest homeless population. He expects the number of working homeless people to grow.
“Service-sector jobs on the Peninsula and in Silicon Valley don’t pay that much more than other parts of the country, but the price of housing obviously is outstanding here,” says Greenberg.
Aucar says that after working his entire adult life, he never thought he would wind up in temporary housing — much less sleeping in the family van or on a garage floor — with no guarantee of finding affordable housing again. LifeMoves is doing everything possible to place the family in permanent housing, but Aucar knows the family has a limited amount of time before they have to move on.
“A little scared about what happens after we finish the program here. Where we are going to go?” says Aucar. “Are we going to end up in the car again?”
For a man who tries to do everything right for his family, Aucar now knows how quickly the bottom can drop out.