Residents of a Silicon Valley city protested on Wednesday as officials evicted homeless families and others living in RVs from their parking spots over public health concerns.
The location of the showdown was suggestive: next to the future site of a private school for low-income students that receives funding from a philanthropic initiative by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Schoolchildren living in the vehicles were among those evicted and the outcry highlighted the profound poverty in the local school district, which includes the Facebook campus in its catchment area.
Homelessness in Silicon Valley is deeply intertwined with the technology boom and the real estate crunch that has ensued. The foundation said it had nothing to do with the RV removals, and construction was still more than a year away.
According to data gathered by the school district based on federal requirements, about 58% of its students experience homelessness, defined as couch-surfing or doubling up with other families, or sleeping in RVs and shelters, said the superintendent, Gloria Hernandez-Goff. Previous data had put the number at more than one-third of students.
âNo matter what we do, theyâre only Band-Aids,â Hernandez-Goff said of her efforts to help the students. She was critical of the city.
âWe need to come up with a solution instead of just moving people out,â she said.
The town of East Palo Alto has long been a pocket of poverty amid the staggering wealth of Silicon Valley â the median household income there is $52,000, while in the neighboring town of Palo Alto it is $137,000.
RVs have gathered on a largely deserted street jutting into marshland for several years, and at one time there were as many as 15 vehicles housing 75 people, said a neighbor, Patricia Finau Lopez. Recently she thought there were about 10 school-age children residing there. Conditions are dire: a family of five living in an RV in the city told the Guardian in 2015 that they could not store food because their refrigerator was broken and they were forced to shower at a YMCA.
âAt first it was an eyesore,â Lopez said of the campers, âbut then when I went out there to see what was going on. I witnessed that those were families, blue-collar families that worked. I saw that they were struggling to pay rent.â
After that, âthe prejudice I had in my heart at first disappearedâ. Finau has herself opened up her home to a homeless woman, who lives there on and off along with Finauâs seven family members.
The city said it had acted because RVs were emptying their chemical toilets into a storm drain, filling it and presenting a public health hazard. The assistant city manager, Sean Charpentier, said the city did its part for low-income residents â almost 40% of its housing is considered affordable. But the city had not countenanced providing public toilets.
âWhat we did do is give them a list of providers where they could empty their toilets.â
About 60 people turned up to the protest. By Monday lunchtime, the only RV left on the street was one that couldnât be moved, its sides patched with wood and a blue tarp slung over the top. A 70-year-old retiree, Javier Godinez, appeared in the distance on a red bicycle: he had been forced to move that morning.
âYou can see how nice they keep the streets,â he said, gesturing to swept sidewalks as evidence of why the families should have been allowed to stay.
âThey came and said: âEveryone has to move out,â like weâre living in Russia or something.â
He explained that it was impossible to pay for housing as well as for his car, food and other necessities on the $1,067 a month he receives in social security payments. He had once owned a janitorial business, he said, and lately had lived with his brother-in-law and his family, but they moved to a smaller home, and even the garage was too full of belongings for him to inhabit.
A spokesperson for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is providing funding for the new school, said it was not involved with the evictions. It had made grants to support local housing solutions.
âThe issues families and children are facing in this episode is frustrating and emblematic of larger housing issues in the Bay Area,â the spokesperson said by email. âWe are actively supporting our families affected by this change. The Primary School was not aware of these actions prior to today and has not been engaging with the city on this matter.â
The RVs did not move very far â in fact, they lined the streets just a few blocks away in an industrial area.
A 42-year-old man named Jason, who declined to provide his last name, said he had become homeless after his business went under following the recession and a car accident necessitated a six-month hospital stay.
âI bought me a 40ft home, Iâm living the American dream,â he said, as he pulled up in an old, white sedan driven by a friend.
After he got out and she left, he confided that she might soon be joining the local RV dwellers. âSheâs having a rough time. Iâm trying to get her a trailer.â
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