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Booming Silicon Valley confronts cold reality of homelessness

By Giselle Alejo, Michonni Hughes, Judy Ly, Jeana Rose Meneses and Pauline Velazquez

Staff Writers

Shantel Montoya, a rapid rehousing case manager at HomeFirst, reminisced fondly on the time she reached out to a woman who was resistant of getting assistance from any services. While she tried endlessly to gain the woman’s trust, she was met time and time again with hesitation. Instead of giving up though, she found other ways to try to get this woman to open up.  She discovered the woman likes coffee in the morning.

Shantel Montoya, a rapid rehousing case manager at HomeFirst

With this in mind, Ms. Montoya bought her hot coffee, using the McDonald’s $1 coffee deal, every morning in hopes of gaining a trusting relationship. After several cups of the warming beverage, the woman complied in getting and seeking shelter alongside the help of Ms. Montoya.

“Sometimes it’s just about that. It’s gaining their trust and letting them know that you care. So building that relationship with them. Sometimes, with like [the homeless woman], I had to go out there sometimes in the morning and talk to her and she became willing to come in for services, check out the shelters, willing to go to the other places like Sacred Heart for other resources,” Ms. Montoya said.

Ms. Montoya has been helping the homeless population of San Jose. This includes finding landlords who are willing to rent out spaces for clients and making payment plans. Depending on the status of the client and their needs, HomeFirst can pay up to nine months rent and two years of support. Additionally, they give help in overcoming addictions, finding sources of food, and locating job opportunities. From there, Ms. Montoya and the HomeFirst team finds the needs of the client and tackles them together.

When asked about his reaction to the huge population of the homeless community, Program Coordinator at HomeFirst Sani Momoh exclaimed, “I didn’t know there was a high amount of homelessness in Santa Clara County, especially on behalf of Silicon Valley.”

The current grad student, who is working on getting his masters in social work, went on to explain, “Who would ever think that an environment like 

Sani Momoh, a program coordinator at HomeFirst

this or a community like this, that is full of technology, still has a high amount of homelessness? If you go around you see Google and Facebook and all these big companies making communities look good, but again there are still problems of homelessness that people aren’t talking about.” 

To elaborate on Mr. Momoh’s comment on the high number of homeless people in Silicon Valley, a study by Harvard University and the AARP stated, “587 of the 7,394 homeless counted in Santa Clara County this year, 43 percent were over 51 years old compared — a 23 percent increase since 2015. It’s a trend that’s occurring across the country as Baby Boomers, particularly those born between 1955 and 1965, grow old.”

It’s not just adults who are struggling, but also the youth.  A report by the Mercury News showed the growth rate of the youth homeless population in San Jose: “a 185 percent increase over 2015 in the number of people under age 25 who are homeless, nearly double the previous high set in 2011. People under 25 now make up more than one-third of the overall homeless population.”

These numbers are so large for multiple reasons. According to Mr. Momoh, one reason is that people fall through the cracks in our society. He stated, “In grad school I am writing a paper on homelessness among families and children, and one of the reasons that I include in my paper is capitalism.  Again, people are really into making profit and making money than actually paying attention to things that actually affect individuals and affect society … but not everyone will see that as a reason.”

A statistic from the organization Democratic Socialists of America reads, “… poverty under capitalism is largely maintained by a skewed distribution of wealth and services, not by lack of a work ethic.”

Another reason that Mr. Momoh identified for the large number of people without homes is the way the government decides to spend money. He stated, “If you look at it right now, the federal government is spending way more money in defense and military action in other countries around the world, millions … versus homelessness and poverty, a single mother, a child or at-risk youths. So if you ask me, why aren’t we spending those monies in social work, social development instead of spending all these billions and billions of dollars in getting military equipment and invading countries?”

He continued to talk about the stereotypes that the homeless community face from an outside perspective by explaining, “Definitely a lot of stereotypes about homeless individuals … according to the conflict theory, which suggest homeless individuals are seen as lazy, and seen as … lacking motivation to get a better life.  So that’s a stereotype, and when you see a homeless man around the corner of a sidewalk, you’re not thinking about how this society is affecting that individual, but what you’re thinking about is ‘this person is too lazy to get a job or get a place?’”

Although the large number of people looking for help can be intimidating, HomeFirst does what it can to help folks when they come to them, and they are not the only organization that works to eradicate homelessness in our community. While working downtown, we found a number of different businesses, ranging from Starbucks to the Martin Luther King Jr. library, also doing their part to lend a hand to people in need.

When walking into Starbucks, one of the organizations that do what they can to help, we were welcomed by the warm air and inviting scent of espresso. When we asked Brandon Tiretta, a Starbucks barista, how he would describe the community of downtown San Jose he said,“Underprivileged community if I do say so. On a real note, underprivileged and a less appreciated community and open for potential.”

Brandon Tierrita, a local Starbucks barista in Downtown San Jose

Mr. Tierrita furthered his description of the community and what he sees by saying, “When you turn this corner you can see tens of thousands of homeless people, and honestly that is probably the worse. You see like hundreds of homeless people, with no homes, sleeping on the corners and girls looking like you, and you, and you, coming to me with blankets.”

Finally, Mr. Tierrita explained what Starbucks does to help the people he sees on the street by saying, “Whenever they need food we have free water …when we have extra food we give it to the homeless whenever we can.”

Jeff Frank, a university access service coordinator at the MLK library

Another organization that reaches out to the homeless community is the SJSU Public Library System. Jeff Frank, a university access service coordinator at the library, commented on the workings of the library’s services.  Mr. Frank said that there is a career center on the third floor of the MLK library. This career center does what they can by offering a job search program and hiring people to work with others looking for a job one-on-one.

Phil Reyes, a former war veteran

Phil Reyes, who is a Vietnam War veteran and was homeless himself for some time, commented on the fact that there may be services out there for people, but they may not be aware they can get help. Mr. Reyes states, “A lot of them can get help but they don’t realize it. They don’t understand the policy – like veterans like us, we get compensation from the Vietnam War…” He continued, “It’s just so sad to see them laying there. It’s not that it ruins the community, but it ruins people’s lives.”

In contrast to the facilities that are trying to help when they can or to create programs, there are definitely others that recognize the seriousness of the situation but do not do much to provide support.

Joanna, a Safeway checker in downtown San Jose.

When asked what Safeway, a popular grocery store placed in the center of downtown San Jose, has done to help the otherwise forgotten homeless community, a checker at the store who asked to be identified only by her first name of Joanna said, “It’s really hard to help them, but they do come in here and they do shop for their food and what they need.” In short, as of this moment Safeway is not doing much to help the homeless community other than offer groceries when they find the money to buy food themselves.

Further in the interview, Joanna commented about the customer’s reactions when the homeless do make their way into the store saying, “Some people feel uncomfortable. Some people, if they need help and they see it, that they’re really trying to buy food, they’ll lend a hand or help them out with what they need.” She elaborated on her answer by saying, “It depends on how people are, I guess.”

For those concerned with the issue of the underrepresented homeless community, Mr. Momoh enthusiastically gave examples of what we as individuals can do by saying, “Just keep doing more interviews and spreading the word on homelessness and encouraging people to help … encourage senators or congress to increase more funding for homeless population and speak up for this population. Advocate for them and let them know what is going on.”

Here is a Story Map of all the places discussed in the above column.


San Francisco struggles to serve the homeless in the Bay Area

Youth writes about the ignored side of the homeless population

Teen uses voice to amend legislation

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