SAN JOSE, Calif. – She’s a disheveled woman, upper teeth gone, 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 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 Sunday church groups.
It’s 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 polluted Coyote Creek, spending their days in various states of mental confusion and intoxication.
Salazar’s journey out began on a cool morning four months earlier 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 locally funded, $1,295 monthly subsidy aimed at ending chronic homelessness awaited her.
Now Salazar, a woman with a criminal record, two dogs, no phone and no identification, had to find an apartment in one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S., or the subsidy could disappear.
And she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave.
San Jose, the 10th largest city in the U.S., is at the heart of the Silicon Valley, home to Google, Apple, Facebook and many more. Job growth, income, and venture capital top the country. 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. The widening gap between the wealthiest and everyone else is palpable.
Freeways back up with commuters who can’t afford to live near their work. Lines form at food pantries. With one of the largest unsheltered populations in the country, homeless people camp under bridges, and along creeks.
Residents of the Jungle are well aware of the world nearby. They call it “going up,” walking the dirt path up to busy Story Road, where minivans of families heading to Happy Hollow Park and Zoo across the street never notice the despair below.
“We’re like the scum of the earth,” said Salazar. “We’re like nobody.”
Salazar’s life fell apart at 11 when she was kidnapped and gang raped.
“Now I make a joke about it,” she says softly, smiling and crying at the same time. “I say I’m the president of the man-haters club.”
She’s been arrested dozens of times, convicted of 17 felonies, almost all drug related. She had four children but raised none. Her mother, or foster parents, took them in. One daughter is a nurse, another drives a school bus. She lost track of a son who was adopted while she was in jail. Another, Bobby, is in a small tent nearby.
She said she never took any welfare, perhaps not realizing her $347 a month in public assistance is just that.
On a clear June morning, Salazar clambered into her social worker’s car. Ten minutes later, but a world away, they pulled into a clean, two-story apartment complex. Salazar checked out the clubhouse, the barbecue areas, a fitness center. Her dog rolled on the lawn. And then a property manager handed her the keys.
“Everything is so white! It’s my favorite color!” she said, bursting into her new home, a carpeted, corner apartment.
Two weeks later, she was settling in.
She gave her rambling, trashy, makeshift tent at the Jungle to her son Bobby.