homeless palo alto

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

homeless palo alto

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 Saratoga—and spent some time in school in Switzerland—she 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 town—you 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 income—much 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 Alto—good schools, a charming downtown, nice neighborhoods in which to raise a family, and a short commute to tech jobs—are 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.

Read the remainder of the article here.