Leaving the Jungle

Story by Martha Mendoza

Photos by Marcio Jose Sanchez and Jeff Chiu

SAN JOSE, Calif. — She is a disheveled woman, upper teeth gone, heavy bags slung over her shoulders as she nervously urges on two friends shoving her overloaded shopping cart up a dirt slope. Maria Esther Salazar has been either homeless, in jail, or squatting at someone else’s house for 30 years.

But today, she’s getting her first apartment. ‘‘Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d get a house,’’ said Salazar. It was overwhelming. ‘‘I don’t know anyone there.’’

In the Jungle — believed to be the nation’s largest homeless encampment — Salazar’s shelter is a gathering place where friends smoke pot, doze, swap stories, argue. Outside, they squat by her cooking fire frying pancakes or warming soup, handouts from church groups.

It is easy to forget that the Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are making millions just miles away. Salazar and as many as 350 others live in tents, makeshift shacks, caves, and tree houses along Coyote Creek.

Salazar’s journey out began on a cool morning four months in February, when she limped out of her fenced compound and waved a broken cane at a passing homeless support team making their weekly rounds.

‘‘You’re supposed to be helping me,’’ she shouted, her voice gravelly beyond her 50 years.

When the social worker returned to her desk, she found that in a county with a seven-year, 20,000-person waiting list, Salazar had finally qualified for housing support: a new locally funded, $1,295 monthly subsidy aimed at ending chronic homelessness awaited her.

Now Maria Esther Salazar, a woman with a criminal record, no phone, and no identification papers had to find an apartment in one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, or the subsidy could disappear.

San Jose, the 10th largest city in the nation, is at the heart of the Silicon Valley. But as tech has boomed after the recession, housing costs have soared.

An average home sells for $1 million, and two bedroom apartments rent for $2,000. 

Jennifer Loving, executive director of the nonprofit housing agency Destination:Home, is spearheading a new, concerted effort in San Jose to house people and keep them housed, not just out of compassion, but to save money.

A homeless person can cost an estimated $60,000 a year, including trips to the emergency room and jail. The cost of housing someone can be just $16,000 a year.

In a 24-month pilot, they’ve housed 630 people, 76 percent of whom were still in their home a year after moving in. 

New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have seen similar success with Housing First initiatives.