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Young and homeless

Fellowship Story Showcase

Young and homeless

Picture of Mark Noack

This story was produced as part of a project for the 2017 California Data Fellowship, a program of the USC Center for Health Journalism.

Photo by Michelle Le
Photo by Michelle Le
Mountain View Voice
Friday, July 13, 2018

At 23, Francisco Vargas is in the prime of his life. Just a few years ago, he graduated from Los Altos High School. He has a girlfriend, a steady job and he's taking night classes at Foothill Community College in hopes of getting an anthropology degree.

But he's been depressed, with a sense of hopelessness about his future in the Bay Area. It's a gloom that's been hanging over his whole family for two years, he said, ever since they were priced out of their two-bedroom apartment on Montecito Avenue in Mountain View. They couldn't afford the rent any longer, but they were determined to stay in the area where they had laid down roots.

His parents planned to sleep in his father's work truck while Vargas would bunk in his sedan. Then, a friend located a 15-foot-long aluminum trailer large enough for all three of them, and the family began living on the street in Mountain View's Jackson Park neighborhood.

Vargas told the Voice he has been pushing himself to stay productive in hopes of being able to afford to rent an apartment. His family might be homeless, but it's not indigent. His father works a landscaping job, and Vargas said he was recently hired as a maintenance worker for the city of Los Altos. His mother can't work, due to her arthritis.

In many other parts of the county, Vargas would not be considered poor. He has a smartphone, a car, a dog and a steady income. Meeting at a downtown cafe, he refused to let a Voice reporter pay for his meal.

Yet stable housing still remains out of reach. Even with two incomes, his family would have had to pay 75 percent of their earnings to pay rent on an apartment, he said.

Living in the trailer was supposed to save money, but given all the costs, it still feels like they're losing ground, he said. While they aren't paying rent, the family has to pay for a storage unit for their belongings, fuel to stay warm, vehicle maintenance and frequent parking tickets. The pressure his family is under makes it difficult for him to concentrate on his studies.

"I have to worry about school, but also about work, and now also about housing. And I have to keep constantly thinking about this, every day," he said.

"It feels like I'm trapped. But if you want to live in this area, what else can you do?"

California's housing crisis

That California has a housing crisis is no secret: decades of insufficient residential development created a distorted housing market that's heavily tilted against low-income renters. Locally, suburban Eichler homes that sold for $23,000 a half century ago are considered a bargain at $1.5 million. About half of all renters in Santa Clara County are considered cost burdened, meaning they're paying more than 30 percent of their total income toward monthly rent, according to U.S. Census data.

Following the recession, the cost of rental housing has . Since 2010, the median price for rental housing across the Bay Area has increased by $1,100 a month, surpassing almost every other region in the U.S. In Mountain View, monthly rents have increased by $1,470 over the same period.

This surge has been a windfall for older Californians who bought a house back when they were cheap and plentiful. California's housing crisis predictably dovetails with a growing homelessness crisis -- one that is falling hardest on the youngest generation. Youth homelessness has spiked across the Bay Area and other large California cities in recent years, leading experts to warn of a new generation plagued by unstable housing.

Last year, more than 2,500 youth under the age of 25 were considered homeless across Santa Clara County, nearly triple the number from just two years earlier. The number was derived as part of a biennial .

The South Bay isn't alone: the same count found homeless youth rates spiking in other parts of California. In Los Angeles County, 2,493 additional homeless youth were counted, a 93 percent increase; about 530 more in San Diego County, an 85 percent increase; and nearly 700 more in Alameda County, a 230 percent increase. This was all compared to just the last count done two years prior.

"Holy mackerel!" Lorraine Flores said she remembers thinking when she first saw those numbers. As an associate director at the Santa Clara-based Bill Wilson Center, which provides services to at-risk youth, she helped organize the 2017 count in Santa Clara County.

Her team put more effort than ever before into the job. Flores recruited homeless youth to serve as guides, who helped her team chart out common "hot spots" where street youth would gather, such as Rengstorff Park in Mountain View and Greer Park in Palo Alto. They spent seven hours on the count, nearly double the time spent any previous year, Flores said. If she had her druthers, they would've spent the whole day walking the streets if it meant getting a more accurate number.

Still, when the numbers came back, Flores said she felt her stomach sink a little -- 1,650 more homeless youth in Santa Clara County than recorded in 2015. That figure is likely still an undercount, she said.

"It was an alarming number, but at the same time it also made sense for why we're seeing so many homeless youth at our center, and on our waiting list," Flores said. "And I have to believe there's far more homeless youth than any of these counts have found."

Like Santa Clara, counties across the United States made a concerted effort in 2017 to count as many homeless youth as possible. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Department, the chief government agency in charge of homelessness, provided an incentive, stipulating that 2017 would serve as a baseline that future years' funding would be compared against.

These numbers are likely just scratching the surface, capturing only a fraction of the true number of young people who lack stable housing, according to experts. Homeless youth are notoriously hard to track -- at a glance, many street youth may look like any other teenagers. Compared to the general homeless population, they tend to avoid shelters, soup kitchens and service agencies where unhoused individuals would normally be counted. Many of them are struggling out of sight.

As homeless survey teams were out on a January morning in 2017 to canvass the streets of Mountain View, they may have counted Vargas and his family living in their trailer. But there would be no way for this survey team to know about his relative and her baby, who were sharing a bedroom in someone else’s Mountain View apartment. The same goes for his classmate who is couchsurfing in East Palo Alto. All of these unstable living situations meet most definitions of homelessness, but they are almost always missed in homeless surveys, according to experts.

Couchsurfing and doubled-up sharing of bedrooms, garages and other spaces is believed to account for 75 percent of the homeless youth nationally, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Far from perfect, the regional Point in Time count offers one snapshot of homelessness, said Dr. Colette Auerswald, an associate professor at University of California at Berkeley who has closely studied youth homelessness. She strongly believes all the Point in Time numbers should be seen as a crude baseline, the outermost layer of a deep-rooted problem, she said. If it were to get a grade, she would give it a D- for accuracy.

For a slightly better study, she points to the data provided by the McKinney-Vento law, the landmark 1987 bill that created the first federal homeless program. As part of that study, McKinney-Vento has been expanded to require school districts to assign a staff member to be a liaison tracking homeless students and gauging the nature of their living situations.

The most recently reported numbers, from 2016, shows that about 1 in 20 public school students in California are homeless. The vast majority of homeless students -- about three-quarters -- are living doubled up with multiple family members or others sharing the same room.  is a data map of the high school and unified school districts.  is a data map of elementary and unified school districts.

But the McKinney-Vento data has its own flaws. The school data only tracks students 18 years old and younger who are enrolled and don't drop out of school.

"I'm old enough to remember when homelessness was rare," Auerswald said. "What we have now just didn't exist. Period. There was poverty, but it wasn't anything like this."

According to Auerswald and others, things have gotten so bad in the Bay Area that people are starting to believe that homelessness is normal. Doubling up in a single room or sleeping on a colleague's couch sounds like a typical Silicon Valley living situation for many millennials. But for anyone who has to endure such unstable housing for prolonged periods, it is essentially the same as homelessness and carries many of the same issues, said Sparky Harlan, executive director of the Bill Wilson Center. Especially for young people, lacking stable housing can have huge negative repercussions on their development, education and future prospects, she said.

"Every homeless person starts out on a couch," Harlan said. "Depending on what day it is, a youth could be sleeping on a friend's couch or they could be out on the street. They go back and forth, and the idea they're two distinct populations is inaccurate."

A more plausible theory is that youth homelessness has not suddenly skyrocketed; instead, it has gone unnoticed. It may have been widespread for years, and data is beginning to trickle in that shows its extent. Many of the experts who were interviewed by the Voice say they believe youth homelessness has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, when the federal government ceased most direct funding of affordable housing.

"People talk about this group as the invisible homeless," said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project. "Our society overemphasizes substance abuse and mental health as being pathways into homelessness, but really, many of these folks just don't have an economic and social safety net. We put an undue emphasis on personal responsibility on this issue, but that ignores the national crisis that is growing."

Kids living in vehicles

Victoria, a mother of four, moved to Mountain View last year because her husband had family in the area, and he thought he could find stable work in the bustling construction industry. Back in Los Angeles, her husband's boss didn't pay him for months and the couple drained their savings waiting for a paycheck that never came. At her request, the Voicechanged her name to protect the privacy of her children, who attend local schools.

When the family arrived in Mountain View, the plan to bunk with relatives didn't work out ("family issues," Victoria said.) Instead, her husband's relatives gave them a car and for a time, the family of six squeezed inside the sedan and tried to sleep in a Safeway parking lot.

They began renting a trailer for $500 a month that had barely enough room to fit everyone. Her older children, ages 12, 10 and 8 years old, sleep up in the trailer loft while her 2-year-old sleeps in a car seat. Victoria and her husband sleep head-to-head on the floor.

During last summer's grueling heatwave, Victoria said she often stayed up through the night to fan her children so they could sleep.

"I cry at night when I look at them," she said in Spanish.

The plight of Victoria and Francisco Vargas and their families is not unique. In Mountain View, homelessness has become harder to ignore, as several neighborhoods have transformed into de facto trailer parks for people living out of cars, RVs and trailers. As of March, there are nearly 300 inhabited vehicles throughout the city, nearly double the number from last year, according to city officials.

A series of new studies are beginning to show just how prevalent youth homelessness has become in the U.S. and especially the Bay Area.

The study with a widest scope came from a national survey of more than 26,000 people conducted by the University of Chicago Chapin Hall school. Unlike the routine on-the-ground counts, this study was a conducted in 2017 as a phone survey by the Gallup polling firm. Households with young people were called up and respondents were asked whether any youth had couchsurfed or been homeless over the past year.

From that survey, the study found that one in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were experiencing some form of homelessness -- roughly 3.5 million people. Between the ages of 13 and 17, at least one in 30 were experiencing homelessness, or about one in every classroom, according to the study. Surprisingly, the Chapin Hill study found homelessness was prevalent in both rural and urban areas; it was a problem shared by San Francisco as well as South Dakota.

These findings are mirrored in a mix of other recently published reports. About one in 10 college students in California are homeless, according to a 2016 report by the California State University system. About one in five college students lacked enough food to eat.

More locally, the Santa Clara-based Bill Wilson Center surveyed South Bay community colleges and reported that 44 percent of students -- nearly half the student body -- identified a classmate who was experiencing homelessness. The study eliminated duplicate student names provided by those surveyed, Flores said.

While the growing body of research shows that youth homelessness is becoming widely prevalent, federal and state policy for the most part continues to ignore this segment of the homeless population. Most resources for homelessness are directed toward the so-called chronically homeless, who are defined as individuals with a disability who have been living on the street for a year or more. But focusing on helping only the most dire cases ignores the source of homelessness, experts say.

"People don't just fall out of the sky and one day become chronically homeless," said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. "The pipeline for homelessness is youth homelessness, and the failure to address youth homelessness is leading to more homelessness."

Michelle Le and Ana Sofia Amieva-Wang contributed to this report. Spanish translation was provided by Amieva-Wang.

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