The Other Side of Silicon Valley

Right down the street from Facebook HQ in Menlo Park is an area that is often overshadowed by Silicon Valley’s prosperous reputation. Known as East Palo Alto — informally called EPA by locals — the area looks almost unrecognizable when compared to the affluent communities that feed the technology capital of the world. Many houses can be seen with metal bars over their windows, their front yards surrounded by chain-linked fences. Homeless people roam the streets while police officers constantly monitor the neighborhoods.

Just four miles west of EPA, a vastly different world exists. Palo Alto is also home to Stanford University, a private research university where innovation and cutting-edge technologies are staples. CEOs, doctors, and corporate lawyers all live in their gated mansions on the hills. Palo Alto is the model of Silicon Valley as the city is wealthy, prosperous, and continues to grow.

In Silicon Valley, the two extremes coexist, side by side. As Silicon Valley continues to grow, the gap between these two realities continues to widen.

Housing and homelessness is a big issue in Silicon Valley. With rent ever increasing and old houses being torn down for new developments, finding affordable housing is a problem for lower-income people. In Mountain View, the home of Googleplex, or Google’s headquarters, many lower-income families live with each other inside crammed garages. Reporters from The Mercury News found 16 people, including 11 children, living together in a single house.

A large contributing factor to this phenomenon is that many of these families are people who work multiple minimum-wage jobs. According to a recent report written by the labor advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, the average blue-collar worker makes about $19,000 a year. This amount is already too low for someone to live on, as the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,300 a month.

Recent efforts have been made to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is better but still not enough. In San Jose, for example, 54-year-old lecturer Ellen Tara James-Penney teaches four English classes at San Jose State University and earns about $28,000 a year while carrying $143,000 of student debt. Her job would probably be enough for her to survive in other areas, but in San Jose, she cannot afford a place to live. She grades papers, prepares lectures, and sleeps with her husband in their car parked at the local Grace Baptist Church.

Elsewhere in San Jose, neighborhoods of the homeless, known as “tent cities,” pop up in various parks, sides of freeway exits, and under bridges. A popular area for the homeless to stay is next to the Guadalupe River, which runs right next to three 16-story towers that belong to Adobe Systems. About once a month, city officials clear out the tent cities, displacing the homeless from their neighborhoods. However, the homeless soon return to the area and stay there until the authorities come back and displace them again.

Food is also a big problem in Silicon Valley. For those who can afford it, many people easily spend $200 a night at a steakhouse. However, for low-income individuals, finding affordable, quality food is a constant struggle. The Second Harvest Food Bank, located in San Jose, is the only food bank in Silicon Valley and helps with this issue by providing meals for 250,000 each month. According to researchers, about 26% of people in Silicon Valley — about 720,000 people — are considered “food insecure,” which means that they either skip meals, rely on food banks or food stamps, borrow money for food, or neglect bills to pay for food.

More troubling is that the number of people who rely on food banks has increased as the economy has improved. Since the recession, the demand for Second Harvest has increased by 46%. Silicon Valley resident Karla Peralta works at the cafeteria at Facebook and is constantly surrounded by food. However, she can barely afford to pay the high cost of rent and thus must sometimes resort to the food bank to feed her family. She is one of many people living in Silicon Valley who sacrifices money for food in order to afford a place to stay.

According to Steve Brennan, Second Harvest’s marketing manager, people often automatically consider the homeless when thinking about food insecurity. “But this study,” said Brennan in an interview with The Guardian, “is putting light on the non-traditional homeless: people living in their car or garage, working people who have to choose between rent and food.”

It is no secret that Silicon Valley has a vast amount of resources. According to a study conducted by JPMorgan Chase, Silicon Valley ranks third globally when it comes to GDP per capita. These resources, however, may not be enjoyed by all. The difference in median income between high- and low-wage workers is about $92,000. The wage difference greatly contributes to the poor living conditions that many individuals face on an everyday basis.

Living in Silicon Valley, despite its illustrious portrayals in popular culture, is yet another example of the difficult struggle individuals on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum face to obtain basic living resources.