According to Chang’s analysis, each dot is likely a man who died in his 50s rather than his 80s. Heart attacks and diabetes are common causes of death. Accidents and overdoses are also frequent.
Most of the deaths are preventable, Chang says, with better access to care. Insulin treats most people with diabetes, for example. But it’s hard to get regularly, let alone affordably, for people living on the edges of society.
Not all of the dots on Chang’s map represent 50-something men. There are two infants represented there—a boy and a girl, each under a year old. And a pair of toddlers under 3 years old. Another dot was a 91-year-old man who died without a home in 2017.
Chang’s research includes hours working with students and others to interview and listen to those who live without homes. It gets us closer to understanding why so many die on Silicon Valley’s byways and riverbanks. Because of that work, for the first time, there is evidence drawing a line between how we respond to homelessness and such outcomes.
Each death represents a societal failing, Chang says. She has lost loved ones to homelessness, but it doesn’t require a personal tragedy to care. “Looking around our very own communities, I am sickened that we have constructed a society that lets people suffer, languish, and die in extreme poverty,” she says. “It’s wrong—it’s that simple. All of us are the architects of this injustice, unless we actively work to counter it.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
“This is an emergency,” says Phil Mastrocola ’71, who operates a shelter out of Grace Baptist Church in downtown San Jose. “We need to treat it like an emergency. It is a life-or-death thing. And until we treat it that way, nothing will change.”
About a dozen SCU religious studies students have gathered outside the dark brown church doors. As the students tour the sanctuary and file down a hallway behind Mastrocola, associate professor of religious studies Phillip Boo Riley asks big questions: How do we treat people who are outsiders with dignity? How do we create community? Riley has spent decades helping people without homes. This spring, his students teamed up with students in Chang’s class to understand the humanity behind the health crisis on Silicon Valley’s streets. He is a co-author on her most recent study, “Harms of encampment abatements on the health of unhoused people” in Qualitative Research in Health. During the tour, a volunteer recalls washing the feet of homeless people suffering from trench foot—a condition where the skin breaks down because the feet don’t get a chance to dry out after becoming wet—Riley reminds students of class readings that the poor embody Christ in a special way. “God is present in these diseased feet,” he says. The group settles into chairs on a basketball court in the back of the church. Cots are stacked on a stage at one end. The walls are lined with banners declaring “God Is Love.”
This gym, Mastrocola tells Riley’s class, started as a space for college students to play basketball—a way for the church to welcome the neighboring community in. By the 1970s, the congregation put it to a different use. It operated as a day center for people who had moved into halfway homes from state institutions under then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s underfunded plan to shift mental health care from state facilities to community ones.
Over the years, Mastrocola says, the population using the center began to change—and fewer of them had homes. The church would let them pitch tents on its lawn.
At one point, a new preacher arrived. “He said, ‘Why are those people sleeping on the lawn in tents?’” Mastrocola tells the students. Because they have nowhere to go, was the answer. “But why aren’t they sleeping inside?” he asked.
And with that, the old gym became an overnight shelter. Today about 30 people sleep there each evening, mostly men. Women tend to avoid shelters, Mastrocola says, preferring the safety of known communities. Before COVID, the number of guests here was 60. Volunteers from the Catholic Worker House in downtown, Casa de Clara, help.
What happened at Grace is a microcosm of what happened all over California, says Riley. The population grew. People had babies. Others moved here, as people do, drawn by family ties, job opportunities, or good weather. But the number of houses being built in the state didn’t keep up.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, there were about three new Californians per new home built, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today for every five new residents, only one new home is built. Over time, those annual gaps accumulated into a yawning deficit. According to a 2016 report by auditing firm McKinsey, there are 358 houses, apartments, condos, or other homes per 1,000 people in the state.
The mismatch between need and availability sent housing prices—and the cost of living—ever higher, making it easier for people to find themselves without.
In Silicon Valley, where tech salaries continue to drive up rents and fund bidding wars on the homes that do exist, the disparities are even more significant than elsewhere in California. There are many paths to homeless here—most people on the streets are from the area, and a single blow like medical debt, divorce, or job loss can be catastrophic.
“It seems even more pressing in one of the richest parts of the world to have 10,000 people experiencing homelessness,” says Cassandra Staff MBA ’11, strategic initiatives director at Destination: Home, one of Santa Clara County’s most prominent nonprofits serving people without homes.
Even as more people became housing insecure, meaning homeless or unsure of their ability to pay for housing, the number of emergency shelters didn’t grow to catch them. In 2019 in Santa Clara County, there was temporary shelter for fewer than 2,000 people, but 9,706 people were living without housing, according to a county report.
That gap is one Malisha Kumar ’99, MBA ’17 knows deeply. She helped create the Here4You Call Center at the Bill Wilson Center, a nonprofit that supports homeless children and young adults, where she works to match people in need of housing with resources. Often when people call, particularly if it is late in the day, there are no shelter beds to direct them toward.
“I try to keep them on the phone,” she says, to help them run through potential other solutions to their crisis. “Do they have a friend they can stay with tonight? A family member?” A few nights of those solutions can provide enough time for some people on the cusp of homelessness to regain their footing. Others can wait on the county’s list for housing for as long as seven years. People wait for shelter that may never come, activists say.
“Our shelter system is overcapacity. We don’t have safe parking systems. We don’t have managed encampments,” says Andy Gutierrez, a public defender in Santa Clara County. “All we have are unsanctioned, unsafe encampments and waiting for the golden ticket.”