San Jose sits in Silicon Valley — one of the wealthiest regions in the country — yet homelessness is a persistent problem. Take a look around some of the biggest streets in East San Jose and you’ll notice what are essentially modern nomadic villages. On Lucretia Avenue, right across from Yerba Buena High School, we found numerous people living out of cars and campers.
That’s where we spotted Joseph Luprete sweeping the sidewalk in front of his camper. He bought it about a month ago for $690 and recently blacked out the windows.
“At night with the lights on, the cops will drive by and try to ticket me or tell me to move along because it’s illegal to live in your car, “ Luprete says. “I blacked it out so, at night, it doesn’t look like anyone is in here.”
Luprete works nearly full time as a valet parking cars and makes $2,500 a month. He says it’s not enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, so he takes his chances every night living on the streets, knowing he’ll probably get cited by the police. “Oh yeah, they will bang on the door at 2, 3 in the morning and look at you like a homeless piece of crap. They just say, ‘You gotta move, you can’t be here.’ ”
It’s estimated there are more than 4,000 homeless people in San Jose. About 500 of them are living out of their vehicles, according to Ray Bramson, San Jose’s homelessness response manager.
“One of the solutions the city is looking at is finding safe parking lots where people can park and get connected to housing and long-term services,” Bramson says. He notes the city has identified one potential partner and is working out some issues to have it as a pilot site.
Unlike San Francisco, where tent encampments are easily spotted on sidewalks and under freeway overpasses, many of San Jose’s homeless stay out of sight by setting up shelter deep along the city’s 140 miles of trails, creeks and riverbeds.
This was the case with The Jungle, which was one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments until the city shut it down in 2014. More than 300 people were moved out and the area was fenced off.
We returned to the site of The Jungle recently with Leonard Jackson, who says he spent five years living there. The area is now overgrown with weeds. But when Jackson called it home, The Jungle resembled a small community.
“It was tents. It was couches, tarps, stoves, it was motor homes,” he says.
Jackson ended up homeless due to drug addiction. He says many people in the Jungle struggled with drugs and mental health issues, but there were also plenty of people who were working and barely surviving.
“9-to-5 good paying jobs. They just didn’t have no place to live,” Jackson says. “I knew people who worked for Google, who worked for Cisco, and they were homeless right here in The Jungle with us.”
The Jungle’s closure led to new doors opening for Jackson. Outreach workers helped him get off drugs, find a job and move into a new home subsidized by the city. According to San Jose housing officials, more than 200 former residents of The Jungle now have homes, but the city still faces a daunting challenge.
“People can’t find units in the market. The vacancy rate for rentals hovers around 4 percent,” says Bramson. “We’re doing everything we can, rehabbing a lot of hotels and motels, buying manufactured housing that’s assembled elsewhere and bringing it on site to get people into supportive services that they need to keep them stable and safe.”
In what’s being hailed as the largest effort yet to end regional homelessness in the South Bay, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently approved a $950 million affordable housing bond measure for the November ballot. A 2015 survey found that Santa Clara County has more than 6,500 homeless people, which would make it the fourth-largest homeless population in the nation.
Leonard Jackson is grateful he won’t have to wait until November to find out if more help is coming. He says he’s thankful every day for the outreach workers who found him in The Jungle.
“By the grace of God, these people came along and saved a lot of us,” Jackson says. “It feels great to have my own place, my own job, security. It feels like I am on top of the world.”
Thuy Vu reported on this story for “KQED Newsroom,” a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.