Silicon Valley’s Homeless Aren’t Jobless--They Just Don’t Earn Enough

Times Staff Writer

Each afternoon at 5 o’clock, as most of the people who work near here are crowding onto overcrowded freeways, a few dozen jobholders crowd into one of Barry del Buono’s homes.

They do not visit for fun. They come--with their children, their pride and little else--because they have no place else to go.

Del Buono’s “home” is a temporary shelter for the working homeless of the Silicon Valley--those security guards, convenience-store clerks, electronics assemblers and others of modest means trying to live in one of the nation’s costliest cities.

There are perhaps 5,000 homeless people in San Jose, Del Buono estimates; a total of 8,000 in all of Santa Clara County, which has shelter for only 1,300. Most of the adults at his large family shelter have jobs, he said, but few can afford the cost of housing.


“Whenever most people think of the homeless, they think of a mentally ill ragamuffin with no shoes on,” said Del Buono, whose Emergency Housing Consortium runs most of the charitable shelters near San Jose. “But some of our homeless have more education than I do. And most of them are small--about two feet tall. They’re called kids.”

Similar tales are told by other relief agencies. Administrators at the Food Bank of Santa Clara County, for example, said a survey last April showed that there was at least one jobholder in 38% of the households receiving short-term supplies of free donated food. Still, some aid was needed to ease hunger.

On paper, San Jose and its environs is one of the wealthiest metropolitan areas in the country. Median household income is $29,513--25% above the rest of California and 35% above the national average.

The average salary paid in San Jose ranks third in the nation; Los Angeles, by comparison, ranks 107th. San Jose’s jobless rate runs two percentage points below that of the rest of the state. The percentage of residents who live below the federal poverty line, 8.2%, is half that of Los Angeles.


A Wisconsin-based research company, Runzheimer & Co., in 1984 crowned the San Jose area as the nation’s costliest, figuring that a family of four here must earn $57,975 a year to live as well as a family with $46,000 in median-cost towns nationwide.

But although such figures accurately reflect the affluence earned and enjoyed by a large majority of San Jose residents, they also explain the curious sort of poverty plaguing people at the low end of the pay scale.

Despite San Jose’s image as one of the last outposts of moderately priced, middle-income houses in the Bay Area, the supply of low-income homes is small and--as an ironic result of the city’s growing economy--shrinking.

As a relatively new city, where nearly three-fourths of the housing is less than 25 years old, there are few pockets of older, often run-down but affordable housing usually available to low-income residents of other cities.

Pockets that do exist are either being bulldozed to accommodate the city’s vigorous redevelopment effort or are being sold at higher and higher prices to affluent people drawn by the new downtown or unable to find other housing.

“The problem is, we don’t have any ‘wrong side of the tracks’ anymore,” Del Buono said. “The ‘wrong side of the tracks’ is now the hot part of town. Everyone wants to live in the old Victorians that we used to call slums--and used to house poor people in.”

Many people, of course, live outside the valley and commute to the low-paying jobs--an estimated 100,000 people a day drive into the county to work. But as commutes to affordable housing get longer, commute costs get higher and the area’s relatively underdeveloped freeway network gets more congested.

Santa Clara County’s relative affluence not only squeezes more people into homelessness, it makes it difficult for them to qualify for government aid. So Del Buono, a former Catholic priest who calls himself an entrepreneur for the homeless, turns to Silicon Valley’s other entrepreneurs, the electronics wizards, for their support.


“Government benefits are based on whether an applicant has a job or not,” Del Buono said. “We are penalized because our homeless are working poor. They have jobs; they just don’t make enough to live on.”

A semiconductor assembler making $12,480 a year may not fit the statistical model of poverty, which the federal government has set at $10,989 for a family of four. But in San Jose, $8,400 can go for rent for a two-bedroom apartment--leaving $78 a week to feed and clothe the family and pay taxes and utilities.

“God forbid anyone should get sick,” Del Buono said. “If someone sneezes wrong, you’re back out on the street.”


estimate projection 1980 1985 1990 San Jose $22,887 $29,513 $37,390 San Francisco 16,034 21,317 27,123 California 18,522 23,679 29,691

Sources: United States Census Bureau and Donlevy Marketing Research.

POVERTY Percentage of families / people living below the poverty line.

%of %of families people San Jose 6.3 8.2 San Francisco 10.3 13.7 California 8.7 11.4