Robert Aguirre and his wife live at the Jungle, a San Jose homeless encampment.
In October I visited what's believed to be the nation's largest homeless encampment, a tent city along a stretch of creek smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. A local preacher there introduced me to Robert Aguirre, a 60-year-old electrical engineer who had an incredible story to tell about going from being the owner of a successful tech firm to being homeless. Although I couldn't independently verify everything he told me, I determined that many details were definitely true. Here's his story in his own words, edited for length and clarity:
For many years, I had my own engineering consultancy in Silicon Valley. I helped get a lot of products approved under FCC and UL standards for companies such as 3Com, Dell, Microsoft, and Cisco—until all the manufacturers decided to move out of the country. I was offered a position in China. I've been there, and quite frankly I don't want to live there. That's why a lot of people are out of jobs. The jobs that do remain are very technical and usually they hire people right out of school or while they're still in school. Old farts like me don't have a chance of competing. I lost my business and the house I owned. When the economy took a dump it took me with it.
My wife is a medical clerk who makes about $3,000 a month. She's handicapped and couldn't take it going up and down the stairs in the apartment we were renting in San Jose, so we ended up finding another place. We gave our notice, and then as the day approached for us to move into our new place, that landlord told us he'd decided to rent out to relatives and we couldn't move in. So then we went back to the first landlord and she said, "Sorry, I already rented it out." So we had to put everything into storage and we started living in the car, trying to find apartments.
We'd been paying $1,750 a month, which is about as cheap as rent comes here unless you want to live in a roach motel. We were looking for places in that same price range, but all the rents had gone up and the cheapest ones we could find were around $1,900. The other problem was when you go and apply at a lot of different places it creates a hit on your credit, and eventually you don't qualify because your credit score gets so low. They told us it would take about a year to recover from that. We're really not making enough money to afford conventional housing, yet we make too much money for subsidized homes. So we're kind of floating between the oil and water somewhere in there.
"I'd easily say 75 percent of people in the Jungle wouldn't be there if they could afford housing."
After sleeping in the car for about two months, my wife's legs and feet were swelling up. The doctor said she had edema as a result of not being able to have her feet elevated. That's a very common malady for people who sleep in their car, who don't get a chance to really stretch out. So her doctor recommended we get a tent. All the campgrounds were too far out of the city, so we decided to move into the Jungle.
The Jungle is a forested stretch of Coyote Creek where about 300 people live in tents and shanties. They use the creek as a latrine or to bathe in; they just don't drink from it. I've heard that the Jungle is the largest encampment of homeless individuals in the United States. The city doesn't refer to it as the Jungle, which kind of connotes wild animals or wild behavior. It's actually really close to lots of tech campuses. Every day, a Yahoo bus goes by.
I've been in San Jose for about 40 years. The majority of people in the Jungle are from San Jose. They were born here, they were raised here, they saw what this land was like before it became this. And they talk about it. They say, "Oh man, you should have seen what it was like."
People are down in the Jungle for all sorts of different reasons—domestic violence, mental health problems, drug problems, or just being broke. I'd easily say 75 percent of people in the Jungle wouldn't be there if they could afford housing. The community here is organized into three or four different supergroups who have compounds that operate kind of like medieval castles. It's the same idea as gangs in any other neighborhood; as long as you don't choose sides or try to get yourself involved you're pretty safe. But a few weeks ago, there was a woman here who was badmouthing people. She'd also just received a very large sum of money from her mother. Some people decided they needed it more than she did and ended up slitting her throat and severing her jugular. When she continued fighting, someone else came up behind her and hit her in the head with an axe. The police didn't want to go down there without backup, so one of the residents carried her out. I heard that she died in the hospital.
"Tech companies have an obligation to help out. They're the ones who've outsourced middle-class jobs and driven rents far beyond many people's reach."
Our tent, which we pitched up top near the road, is much larger than those of other people around here. We have iPhones and a wireless hotspot. I even had solar panels at one point before they got stolen. We're in a different category from most of the other people here, though we're far from the only ones who are gainfully employed and trying to do things for themselves but just can't afford a place.
Over time I've acquired five trash cans, and every night and morning I go out and pick up trash. I go to all the city hall meetings, the housing meetings, the county supervisors meetings to advocate for homeless people. We are trying to get this place cleaned up and to get people taken out of here as safely and quickly as possible and trying not to abandon anyone.
In September, the authorities announced plans to shut down the Jungle by December while giving everyone a place to live. My wife and I received housing voucher about four months ago, but so far it hasn't been a vehicle for us getting housing any quicker. The problem is that a lot of landlords don't want to deal with vouchers. They'd rather not divulge how much money they're making on their apartments. The other thing is that there's a certain stigma associated with homeless people. If they ask for your previous address you have nothing to tell them. "Oh, well, I live in the Jungle." That's unacceptable.
I'm among the lucky ones, though. There's only 200 housing vouchers; as quickly as they house people, others come in to fill the void. So we're trying to look at something that can house the 4,000 or 5,000 people who are homeless in Santa Clara County. I think the tech companies have an obligation to help out; they're the ones who've outsourced middle-class jobs and driven rents and property values far beyond many people's reach. Society is judged by how we treat those that are unable to care for themselves—the elderly, the young, and the mentally disabled. That's the real measure of who we are.
CORRECTION: Based on numerous eyewitness reports, this video reported that the homeless individual Lydia Hernandez was attacked and killed in the Jungle in October. Residents now say that Hernandez survived the attack.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, a stone's throw from Apple's headquarters, is a 68-acre homeless camp that's widely believed to be the largest in the country. The Jungle, as it's known, is more accurately described as a shantytown: a collection of shacks, adobe dugouts, and treehouses inhabited by some 300 people, many of whom have lived here for years. In a land of million-dollar bungalows, it's a last place of refuge for many locals who've missed out on the booming tech economy.
All of that is about to change, however. Citing safety and sanitation concerns, the city of San Jose says the Jungle's inhabitants must move out by Wednesday; whatever they can't take with them will be demolished and hauled off before Christmas.
"It's hard for us to find spaces for folks, especially when they are competing with young techies."
"These people have houses, and even though they are not traditional homes, they have been living here for years," says Robert Aguirre 60, an unemployed electrical engineer who has camped in the Jungle for six months. "And now they are going to kick them out and they are going to be completely homeless."
San Jose is spending $4 million to give 200 Jungle residents vouchers for subsidized housing. But it's far from enough, residents say. Overwhelming demand for vacant apartments allows landlords to rent to people with perfect credit histories and known addresses. "Saying, 'Oh, well, I live in the Jungle'—that's unacceptable," says Agurirre, who has been using his voucher to look for a place to live since July.
"It's hard for us to find spaces for folks, especially when they are competing with young techies," admits Ray Bramson, the city's homelessness response manager.
Despite Silicon Valley's immense wealth—or, perhaps, because of it—San Jose and surrounding Santa Clara County have the nation's highest rate of homeless living on the streets. And despite popular perception, most of these folks didn't move here looking for a free ride. Three-quarters of its 7,500 homeless residents were born in the county, and most live in one of the county's 247 tent cities, not in homeless shelters. Many of them have jobs, yet don't make enough to afford housing.
Aguirre, for instance, did tech consulting for Dell, Apple, and Cisco in the 1990s before losing his business when Valley companies outsourced manufacturing to China. His wife's salary as a full-time medical clerk wasn't enough to pay the bills. For more on how the couple gets by, read his first-person account of life in the Jungle.
Black Friday is best known as the day when big-box retailers rake in money, but it has also become a time for some of their employees to demand a share of the proceeds. At Walmart, this year's Black Friday protests will be the widest-reaching ever, organizers say, with pickets and strikes planned at 1600 stores in 49 states to remind shoppers that the people serving them often can't afford to feed themselves.
"I have to depend on the government mostly," says Fatmata Jabbie, a 21-year-old single mother of two who earns $8.40 an hour working at a Walmart in Alexandria, Virginia. She makes ends meet with food stamps, subsidized housing, and Medicaid. "Walmart should pay us $15 an hour and let us work full-time hours," she says. "That would change our lives. That would change our whole path. I wouldn't be dependent on government too much. I could buy clothes for my kids to wear."
The nation's largest employer, Walmart employs 1.4 million people, or 10 percent of all retail workers, and pulls in $16 billion in annual profits. Its largest stockholders—Christy, Jim, Alice, and S. Robson Walton—are the nation's wealthiest family, collectively worth $145 billion. Yet the company is notorious for paying poverty wages and using part-time schedules to avoid offering workers benefits. Last year, a report commissioned by Congressional Democrats found that each Walmart store costs taxpayers between 900,000 and $1.75 million per year because so many employees are forced to turn to government aid.
The group behind the Black Friday protests, the union-backed Organization for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) was founded in 2011 to pursue a new approach to improving labor conditions at the retail giant. Rather than try to overcome Walmart's union-busting tactics, OUR Walmart has focused on publicly shaming the company through a relentless PR campaign and mass demonstrations. Organizers say the approach is working: Since 2012, Walmart has instituted a new pregnancy policy and a scheduling policy that helps workers get more shifts.
Like the holiday retail season, this year's Walmart protests actually started before Black Friday. On Wednesday, Jabbie walked off her shift along with other workers who are demanding a $15 wage and full-time hours. Other Walmart workers walked off the job in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. Here's what the strike looked like:
A strike this week at the Walmart in Alexandria, Virginia Jamie Way, OUR Walmart
"It felt great," Jabbie told me. "I feel like doing it over and over again until they get the message."
On Thanksgiving Day, 12 striking Walmart workers and community members began a 24-hour fast to protest wages so low they leave employees hungry.
Today thousands more workers will be at it again—and tweeting under the hashtag #WalmartStrikers. I'll be posting updates below.
UPDATE 3:06 a.m. EST: A protest is already underway at the Walmart store in Long Beach, California.
UPDATE 11:07 a.m. EST: On a press call with OUR Walmart, Shomari Lewis, a worker for a Walmart store in Dallas, said 100 picketing employees attempted to enter the store but were denied access. "I'm 32 and I am nowhere near where my parents were at this time in their lives," he said. "I thought getting a job a the nation's largest employer would be a great way to start a career, but boy, was I wrong." He makes around $9 an hour and can't afford a car. "I can't just go out and buy food during the pay period because I don't even know how much I'll have money for… I don't know how we are supposed to have families or raise them when Walmart is keeping us in poverty."
"We know that the Waltons can afford to pay us better," says Ronee Hinton, a Walmart employee who participated in a sit-down strike in Washington, DC, this morning. She gets paid $8.40 an hour for 20 to 30 hours a week, and her schedule arbitrarily shifts "all the time." This forces her to choose "between going to a doctor's appointment and missing a shift at work," she says. "It's not a choice that I want to make especially now that I am expecting a baby… I don't know how I will raise a child on Walmart's pay."
At a Walmart in Los Angeles, community members and Walmart workers are continuing a 24-hour strike to protest the company's hunger wages. "The hunger I'm experiencing right now is all too familiar," says Richard Reynoso, a stocker at the store who hasn't eaten since yesterday. "Many Walmart workers experience it every day… [but] nobody who works for the richest company in America should ever experience that kind of thing."
Many of today's protests have a festive feel. There's a live band in DC, and a Santa Claus in Denver who will deliver coal to managers.
In Chicago, seven Walmart workers were arrested while blocking traffic on the road on front of the store.
In Washington State, there are protests at 64 stores—every store in the state.
Here are more protest scenes from around the country:
Michelle Flores thought she had everything worked out for Thanksgiving. The 20-year-old San Francisco State junior was planning to join friends this Thursday to make pineapple-crusted ham, a family favorite. But last Friday, the Safeway where Flores works as a part-time cashier informed her that she'd be expected to work during on the holiday. She reluctantly called her friends to cancel their Thanksgiving plans.
Flores is well acquainted with the stressful unpredictability of part-time work. Last semester, she found out just three days before her midterm exams that the supermarket expected her to work 30 hours that week, 25 percent more than what she typically put in. One night, she got off work at 9, made it home by 10, and had to study all night for a 9 a.m. exam. "I definitely would have done better if I'd had more sleep," she says. "Had I been notified sooner I could have studied more beforehand."
For millions of retail workers, similar disappointments are all too common. According to a recent study by Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, nearly half of young part-time retail employees receive their work schedules less than a week in advance. This is partly a symptom of retailers' increasing reliance on computerized "on call" scheduling systemsthat track weather predictions and real-time sales data to schedule work shifts—maximizing efficiency but wreaking havoc on workers' ability to manage their personal schedules.
But for Flores and 40,000 other retail workers in San Francisco, that's about to change. Yesterday, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed two lawsthat will sharply curtail "on call" scheduling at the city's major chain stores.
Nearly half of young part-time retail employees receive their work schedules less than a week in advance.
"We see this as one exciting way to address the inequality gap and pull low-wage workers out of poverty," says Gordon Mar, the executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco, a coalition of community and labor groups that has lobbied for the measures for more than a year. He sees them as important complements to San Francisco's new $15 minimum wage. While the wage is highest in the country, it still "isn't enough on its own to really create security for low-wage workers that are struggling to survive," says Mar.
The bills, known as the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, will make sweeping changes to how large service-industry employers hire, schedule, and retain their workforce. The new rules require employers to post worker schedules at least two weeks in advance. They discourage arbitrary or inconvenient "on call" shifts by requiring employers to pay workers when the shifts are canceled at the last minute, which can happen when real-time sales slow down. Employers are essentially banned from relying entirely on part-time workers, a common strategy to avoid paying benefits; they must now offer available shifts to existing employees before hiring new ones. And they must offer part-time workers the same opportunities for promotions, raises, and time off as full-time employees.
"It's really exciting to see San Francisco break ground on solutions for low-wage workers," says Carrie Gleason, the director of the Center for Popular Democracy's Fair Workweek Initiative. "The workweek has changed a lot in recent years, but the last time we legislated workplace standards on these issues was 75 years ago. It's long overdue that we set new standards."
More than five years into the recovery, the economy has added middle-class jobs much more slowly than part-time service positions such as cashiers and fast-food clerks. Consequently, since 2007, the number of part-time workers who'd like to work full-time positions has doubled. As Jodi Kantor reported in a gripping New York Times profile of a Starbucks barista, the shift towards part-time work and "on call" scheduling has had the effect of "injecting turbulence into parents' routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families."
"It's more convenient for them, without considering what is a better option for you."
Several states, including California and New York, already have "reporting pay" laws that require employers to pay workers extra if they send them home early from a shift. Last year, SeaTac, an airport town between Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, became the first in the country to require employers to offer additional hours to part-time workers before hiring new employees. But San Francisco's Worker Bill of Rights goes much further than these efforts, and labor organizers expect it to help catalyze similar worker rights laws elsewhere.
Jobs for Justice, the group that lobbied for the San Francisco bills, is pushing similar measures in the Washington, DC, and Boston. Minnesota and New York are consideringtighter regulations of "on call" shifts. Those two states and Michigan may also adopt laws that would bar employers from discriminating against part-time workers who request more stable schedules. The Service Employees International Union is pushing for a mandatory 30-hour workweek for security and janitorial workers in multiple states.
The Schedules That Work Act, introduced in this July in Congress by Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), mirrors many of the provisions of the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, including advance notice for shifts and pay for workers sent home early. Labor groups don't expect the bill or a companion measure in the Senate to pass, but see them as rallying points for other state and local legislation.
The new San Francisco laws go into effect seven months after the mayor signs them and apply to chain stores with more than 20 employees and 20 global locations. For Flores, the changes come as a relief, albeitnot soon enough to salvage her Turkey Day. The current system "does deteriorate your quality of life," she says. "It's more convenient for them, without considering what is a better option for you."
Remember the holiday formerly known as Thanksgiving? It had a pretty good run for about 390 years—until around 2011, when it began to be replaced with a shopping extravaganza. In the past few years, the traditional dividing line between Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the official start of the holiday retail season, has blurred. At many major retail stores, this Thursday won't be a day of turkey and family time but a mad rush for XBoxes and iPhones. Here's how Black Friday's Thanksgiving creep became a full-blown takeover: