I just came back from a superb meeting on affordable housing at Sacred Heart Community Services, an agency known for practical, street-level work. Then I started talking about the issue with friends. Here are a few jolts that stuck with me:

photo by Darafsh Kaviyani

  • In Silicon Valley, the greater San Jose area, the list for subsidized housing is around 40,000 names long; it would be longer, but they aren’t taking names any more, so we can’t know the true extent of need.

  • Even veterans have been bounced from one agency to another with no one making help a priority. One of them, an articulate person not immediately recognizable as homeless, attended the meeting. He said he had been homeless “only a couple years.”

  • The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Jose is $1,900. Even a third of that, the typical amount Section 8 renters are expected to pay, is still more than $600. The true monthly income for many retail and restaurant workers is $960 because almost none of them can count on getting forty hours a week. Work out the math.

  • If you are number 40,000 on the list for subsidized housing, your estimated wait is ten years.

  • If you’re a homeless couple, where do you make love? Under a bridge? In the bushes? You can’t spend the night together in a shelter. Like prisoners, the homeless are divided by gender. Even if you’re gay, the beds are single, and there’s no privacy anyway.

  • One homeless couple used to go to a $60 hotel, but it just went up to $85 a night.

  • One woman’s son had to drop out of college and take a second job because his rent went up $200/month. The cost of mere shelter is destroying the present of deserving people and the future of our youth, preventing our area from reaping the full benefit of motivated, educated people.

  • The official national count for homeless schoolkids is now at one million. Some classrooms, according to an article at Huffington, have a majority of homeless students, their needs and wounds overwhelming, dragging others down with them, creating resentment.

  • I did a little random searching. An apartment called Monte Alban offered low-income apartments, but you had to earn double the rent to apply, ($1081 for a two-bedroom) and there’s an application fee of $37. 50. But that doesn’t matter. Their waitlist is closed. Another unit had a wait list of eight months for 2-bedroom apartments costing $1138.

  • Some “low-income apartments” require a minimum income: $15,200/year. The wait list is 8-12 months. What happens to people who have lost their jobs and maxed out their unemployment benefit? Minimum income for low-income housing? How screwy is that?

Low-Income housing Grand Rapids, MI.

  • On billboards, one sees laughable (or cry-able) signs: “affordable housing, starting in the low $500,000s.” Right.

  • My recourse for overwhelming rage and despair is concrete action. I hang onto the blessed truth that Measure D, the measure to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour, passed in San Jose. A large majority saw the impossibility of survival on starvation wages. Maybe next we will take mindful action in the area of housing.

  • One thing we can do is to look at where Redevelopment Agency money is going, now that the Redevelopment Agencies (sometimes for good reason) have been shut down. However, the money originally slated for affordable housing is coming back to cities and counties. Alert your county supervisor and city councilor. Make sure the money slated for affordable housing doesn’t get shunted off into other areas.

  • A friend said this: “My mother came to this country with 3 small children. I was the oldest at 9 years old after my father passed away. My mother didn’t speak English, or know how to drive and had no work experience. With no one to help us or take us in…. My mother worked a graveyard shift at a convalescent hospital to pay for a 1 room studio for the 4 of us. We all 4 slept on one mattress. We never complained for it was our HOME. She was disqualified from any public assistance because she earned $81.00 a MONTH!! This is where my passion to volunteer and help my community comes from.”

  • Several friends reminded me of the uncounted homeless: a woman and her daughter who bounce around from friend to friend’s house, teens who sleep on whoever’s couch they can find. Officially, they are not “homeless,” but they have no home. One of my students said casually, “a lot of my friends are homeless.” They aren’t ragged, raving, or dirty. There are no external signs, so no one knows. They “pass.”

  • A San Jose acquaintance who’s a teacher told me that she and her daughter were able to get a subsidized apartment for thirteen years, and that made all the difference.

  • Can you imagine paying only $200/month for rent? Another acquaintance shared this story: “Twelve years ago, I was living in a housing co-op (Ofek Shalom, which is part of Madison Community Cooperative, a housing co-op organization that has 11 houses of various sizes). I went from paying $300 a month for my share of a 3-bedroom apartment to something around $200 a month for a huge room of my own, and maybe another $100 or so a month for food (because we could buy in bulk – we were a 14 person house – it was super-cheap).”

  • Maybe co-op housing isn’t just for students. Could community colleges which usually serve the poorest populations, and other “opportunity organizations” help sponsor co-ops? (see my article on co-ops in the Winter, 2013 edition of Tikkun magazine)

Lita Kurth stands outside the Audre Lorde Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin.

    LATER: I had made cookies for the affordable housing meeting, but the group turned out to be bigger than I expected, so I didn’t share them. Later, I saw a homeless woman who’d attended the meeting sitting on a curb and asked if she wanted the cookies. She gladly accepted and enthused, “I can’t remember the last time I had a homemade cookie.” Of course not, I realized. No home, no oven. And who donates homemade cookies to food banks or shelters? It’s not practical. But such a thing as hunger for a homemade cookie, the wish for a private bed in which to make love – these are unmet needs that fester.

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