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Though it may not always make the headlines, Santa Clara County has the ninth biggest homeless population in the United States.
Two years ago, reporter Isabel Angell and I spent the night on Bus 22, a 24-hour bus line that runs from Palo Alto to San Jose. It’s the only overnight bus route in Santa Clara County. So for over a decade, people have been using the 22 at night for shelter.
On the bus, we met a couple: Michael and Elizabeth Garber. Michael told us that the bus was nicknamed Hotel 22, but he called it home. When we first met the Garbers, they’d been homeless for eight months.
The bus is a kind of shelter, but it’s clearly not a permanent solution. The Garbers said they were worried their stuff would get stolen. It was hard to get more than three hours of sleep since they had to get on and off the bus.
“I’ve missed interviews because I’ve fallen asleep on the bus in the morning and missed my stop. I’ve missed court dates, all kinds of stuff,” Michael said.
We wanted to find out what had happened to the Garbers since we last spoke to them. So I recently followed up with them, and found that though they left the bus just a few months after that original story aired, they still haven’t been able to move off the streets.
An early start to the day
The Garbers tell me to meet them where they now spend nights in downtown San Jose. I get there at 6:30 a.m. That’s cutting it close, because they have to be up and out of their sleeping spot before the security guard comes and opens the building at 7 a.m.
Michael is pretty shy, so Elizabeth is kind of the spokesperson for the couple. She tells me they’ve been sleeping at this place for about 10 months. They don’t want to lose it, which is why she asks me if I could please not mention the name of the building.
Here, they can sleep next to each other. In a shelter, they’d most likely be separated. And their sleep isn’t interrupted as much, like it was on Bus 22. Elizabeth says trying to find affordable housing seems out of the picture right now.
“The rent is excessive, cost of living is excessive — everything is excessive,” she tells me.
Elizabeth packs up their belongings and stuffs them into a black suitcase — a fleece blanket, a big comforter and a blue tarp that they place on the cement. It’s starting to tear in the middle. They’ll have to get a new one soon.
“I know a lot of people like to use the shopping cart method but that prevents us from going into the library,” Elizabeth says.
The public library is where they spend most of their days, hanging out, searching for jobs on the internet, and using the quiet space to make phone calls. One call Elizabeth wants to make today is to a sporting goods store, to replace Michael’s backpack. The right strap is completely frayed, so he has it slung over just one shoulder.
But before they go to the library, they’re headed to Elizabeth’s mother’s house. She also lives in San Jose.
“We are going to … get showers, new clothes, and drop off some of this excess baggage. And we at least have another backpack [there] that he can use,” Elizabeth says.
Elizabeth says they aren’t allowed to stay there much longer than that: a few hours, three times week. Her mom has a small apartment, can’t afford to house two extra people, and her partner doesn’t get along with Michael.
A long string of bad luck
For the Garbers, being unable to stay at her mother’s house is just one bit of bad luck in a long string of it. We make our way to the light rail station, a quarter mile from their sleeping spot, and Elizabeth tells me how it all started, back in 2010.
She was 26, Michael was 23, and they had a young son. She says they were trying to make ends meet on $600 a month, with all three of of them living in one bedroom in a shared apartment. Elizabeth says she knows it wasn’t a healthy environment, but they were just trying to survive.
“We tried to do the best we could under the circumstances we had. There were times where our son was eating ground beef and vegetables and a little bit of starch, and [Michael] and I were only having rice and a little bit of salt and pepper, or potatoes and salt and pepper.”
At one point, Michael got in trouble with the law, and their son was put into the foster care system. Since then, Michael’s record has made it hard for him to find work. They lived in a few more low-income apartments and then crashed at Elizabeth’s mother’s apartment before she couldn’t house them anymore. On May 13, 2013, the Garbers became homeless, and they’ve been in and out of it ever since.
“Half the time we can get through on our own, and if we can’t, we fake it until we make it,” Elizabeth says.
Last fall, Elizabeth thought things were looking up. She got a job at the deli counter in a Safeway. But she tells me they fired her after two months. Maybe it was because she wasn’t used to standing for eight hours a day, she says. Or maybe it was because her manager found out she was homeless.
“I didn’t want to lose that job, that job was hope for me,” she says.
When the light rail comes, Elizabeth and Michael grab their belongings and hop on. I’m not allowed to go to Elizabeth’s mother’s house, so we meet up again in the afternoon at the public library.
Biding their time in another world
I find Elizabeth and Michael set up at a booth in the back of the library. Packaged food is spread out over the table: cans of SpaghettiOs, cookies, and chocolate milk. This is their breakfast, lunch and their dinner. Elizabeth says they went grocery shopping earlier this afternoon with their remaining food stamps. Right now, they are both hunched over their laptops playing a game called Minecraft. The fans on their computers let out a loud hum.
“It’s a way to be creative, and creativity helps me kind of mellow out. It’s just one of those things that helps me get through my day,” Elizabeth says.
In the game, you can build different worlds out of blocks. You can even grow food and tame animals.
“I mean, here in Minecraft — this is my house. I built this from the ground up. It still needs work, but at least it has a roof on it,” she says.
Elizabeth plays this game almost every day, after she’s looked for work, and made all her necessary phone calls. Earlier today she got through to the sporting goods store and was able to get a replacement backpack for Michael.
And she made a few other phone calls on what she calls her “Obama phone,” a free federal phone service for low income and homeless people.
“I called social services. They were supposed to call us for an interview so we could have our food stamps renewed next week,” she says.
Looking hard to find hope
Here at the library, Elizabeth also likes to work on a novel she’s been writing for over 20 years, and catch up on Facebook. They haven’t seen their son since he was adopted a few years ago, but she can look at recent pictures of him online. She also likes to watch funny animal videos.
It’s these types of things that keep her happy and give her faith their situation will get better.
“Hope is definitely one of those hard things to keep going,” Elizabeth says.
I ask them what they hope for. They say they simply want people to realize that even though they don’t have a home, they’re still human beings.
“Not all of us want to be homeless. We need to stop stereotyping the homeless,” she says.
Elizabeth says she hates it when people automatically assume that because they sleep on the streets, they’re alcoholics and addicted to drugs. She says she’s never touched drugs in her life.
“You know, just because we’re lower on the socio-economic ladder does not invalidate us as human beings,” Michael adds. “You cannot brand us non-persons because we don’t carry home a check every week.”
He would prefer if people called it “houselessness,” not homelessness.
This isn’t ‘living’
Elizabeth’s goal is to find a job first, before they start looking for housing. They’ve been on one affordable housing waitlist for over eight years. In Santa Clara County, there are over 25,000 families on the waitlist for Section 8 housing. Even if she and Michael were able to get jobs, they worry they still might not be able to afford “affordable” housing.
“Because this isn’t living,” Michael says. “Not in the sort of romanticized version of it. This is like, ‘Okay, I’m alive, I’m in a physical building for another…20 minutes, and then I go out.’ I want to be able to go outside because I want to, not because I have to.”
At 8:00 p.m. the library closes, and the Garbers have to go back outside. They pack up their stuff again, throwing away the empty cans of SpaghettiOs and putting their leftover food into Ziploc bags.
We wait for the free downtown shuttle that takes us back to their sleeping spot, a few blocks away. They unpack their things, and get ready to settle down for the night. Elizabeth points to the lights and security camera on the overhang above them.
“We feel safe here. When they turned these lights on, they just made us feel safer,” she says.
It’s 9:00 p.m. when I say goodbye. They’ll stay up for another hour, talking about their day, and charting out how to tackle the next one.