If you go to the intersection of East Curtis Avenue and Hammond Way, not far from the Century Theaters entrance at Milpitas’ Great Mall, then head a ways down Hammond, sticking with it, shedding the density of your urban surroundings, you’ll soon see them…or at least their dwellings.
The homeless residents of Milpitas.
By day, you’re more likely to see dwellings and belongings there than the homeless themselves. Come the sun, they’re out and about, often begging. And some work jobs.
Others go to school.
It’s hard to humanize homelessness, at least from the outside of it. For the majority of the population, our homeless encounters come about when we’re on the receiving end of begging. In a split second, we elect to give or walk on. And even if we give, we still walk on.
For the homeless, of course, mobility comes less easily…
Since 2017, Santa Clara County has seen a staggering 31% increase in its homeless population. Said Supervisor Dave Cortese, upon the release of this info, “Given the human suffering that we see every day on the streets and along our creeks, the numbers, while disheartening, are not surprising.”
Since 2017, the county’s housed close to 4,000 homeless people, while taking measures to prevent homelessness for 1,500. The county’s housing capacity, however, cannot keep pace with the homeless population’s growth, with roughly 1 person receiving housing for every 3 people who end up homeless.
Cortese cited a familiar list of root causes: “…the economy, a reduction in safety nets, failed housing policies and other social ills, but these numbers are sending a strong message that, as a community, we all need to do more.”
What about our community, specifically? The homeless, of course, aren’t just down Hammond Way: We see them in parking lots, sleeping in their cars. We see them in front of Safeway, gray hands held out for change.
But surely, we reckon, there can’t be that many of them. At a county level, their population’s spiked by 31%, but we’re not the county. We’re Milpitas: safe, sound, stable, secure.
It can’t be that bad, can it?
Strikingly, it’s worse. According to the county’s 2019 Homeless Census & Survey, Milpitas had 66 homeless residents living in it in 2017.
By 2019, the number had gone up to 125.
An increase of 89%.
But that’s not all of them, as it happens. For that’s a bare measure of the unsheltered, and “homelessness” can take on different definitions.
One such definition comes from The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, a federal law geared toward providing funds to ease homelessness. Per McKinney-Vento, living in substandard housing (garages, sheds, cars, RVs, shelters, hotels, motels, transitional homes, group homes…) qualifies people as homeless, as does living in “double-up” housing (i.e., more than one family under one roof) due to the guest family’s financial hardship.
The Beat spoke with social worker Nicole Steward about the city’s homeless population. Steward’s in her fourth year as Milpitas Unified School District’s (MUSD) School-Linked Services Coordinator, McKinney-Vento/Homeless Liaison, and Foster Youth Liaison. She works from Milpitas High School. Her job consists of helping to remove barriers to student success and graduation. In a wide variety of contexts, she harnesses support for Milpitas’ homeless youth.
“I’m kind of that quiet force behind the scenes,” Steward explained.
McKinney-Vento was a bipartisan effort, back when such a thing was more common than it is today. The Act recognized that young people between the ages of 5 and 18 spend most of their waking lives in school. As such, it stands to reason that homeless youth are uniquely positioned to receive support within their school environments.
Though the Act’s been around for 32 years, it saw renewed relevance surrounding 2008’s Great Recession. As Steward explained, schools nationwide felt the shift resulting from a culture in which foreclosures, short sales, job losses, and home losses were becoming increasingly common. Likewise, double-up housing surged, switching from what had once been a temporary stopgap to a mainstream American way of life.
As we spoke with Steward near the beginning of the school year, she was in the midst of processing 4 new homeless kids in the MUSD system. The present total stands at 381.
It’s during students’ registration process when their homeless status is made official. Since school enrollment requires the presentation of a lease and key household bills to school officials, it’s easy to separate official owners and renters from those with less fixed living situations. When families are missing certain documents, it’s possible that they’re just in transition, perhaps financially stable yet in the process of moving. Yet sometimes, missing documentation points to more serious issues.
An intake form absorbs the details. If homelessness is verified, Steward then receives the form in question.
Her first move? As a matter of course, she signs up the homeless child for free lunches. She then reaches out to the family to see if they need help with other needs. Perhaps they’re grappling with custody issues. Perhaps they’re facing immigration problems.
Steward looks to county agencies to provide support. Whereas homeless youth constitute a lot of her focus, she works intensively with foster youth, as well.
Even in her 4 years with the District, she’s seen numerous families leave Milpitas in search of cheaper housing and/or more forgiving job markets. Families take off for Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon. Those who stay in the state may hit the road for Fresno or Sacramento. Shining a light on our area’s high cost of living, Steward cites one family that lived in an RV here, yet bought a house in Nevada, where the father was able to get a job with Tesla.
Also inside of her 4 years, Steward has seen the amount of homeless students increase year over year. Partly, this is due to increasing awareness. But Milpitas’ absence of rent control, a heated topic for many, has been widely cited as an additional source of pressure on lower-income residents. (Note: During the writing of this story, California made advancements toward statewide rent control.)
Through McKinney-Vento, Steward does what she can, from ensuring access to free lunches to securing VTA bus passes for homeless students in need of vehicle transportation (some of whom actually don’t live in Milpitas, as the Act provides “school of origin” rights, meaning students who have to live outside of town due to hardship have the right to continue learning in the system they originally came from). “I work very closely with members of the city and local community to try to figure out how we can make things work,” Steward said.
In the end, it all comes down to providing kids in need with a feeling of stability.
As she does so, Steward isn’t always in direct contact with the families she’s serving. For one thing, the families far outnumber her. For another thing, she defers to other professionals within the district who might enjoy closer relationships with the students under her care. So when it comes time, for example, to hand over a new backpack to a student, Steward’s inclined to let the student’s teacher do so. It’s “a nicer handoff,” she explained.
The face of homelessness, from the point-of-view of those who aren’t, often belongs to an adult rather than a child. When homelessness does wear a child’s face, it’s generally out on the streets and sidewalks, in the context of begging or dwelling. Rarely does it cross our minds that homeless children walk the halls of our schools.
Come nighttime in Milpitas, those without stable dwellings work with what they have, from RVs parked alongside the road to cracked mattresses bare beneath the darkening sky. In a town marked by affluence, the homeless tend to go unseen and forgotten, a counterpoint to the prevailing American dream, an asterisk tucked beside our sterling salary averages.
Yet their presence grows steadily, year in, year out, to the point where the old custom of calling them a “they” becomes more and more exposed in its crude arrogance.
They’re not they. They’re us. They are Milpitas.
Cities gain pride from measures of their wealth. Perhaps, though, in the meantime, cities gain soul elsewhere. Perhaps we gain soul when we look to the disadvantaged. By the cover of night, they may go cloaked, unnoticed.
Come the brightness of day, though, we gain a chance to look and see.