On a bus to nowhere

Google Map: Bus Route 22 

Santa Clara County in the south Bay Area has the fifth biggest homeless population in the United States. Over 7,600 people are without a home on any given night, in Silicon Valley's backyard.

People like Elizabeth Garber. At 2:30 in the morning, she sits on on a crowded Valley Transportation Authority bus somewhere in San Jose.

"I've been homeless for about eight months so far, riding the Bus 22 every night, as many times at night as we have money for," she says.

Bus 22. It's a regular city bus line during the day - traveling between East San Jose and Palo Alto. But at night, for $2 a ride, it unofficially becomes Hotel 22 to dozens of people like Elizabeth Garber.

She stays on the bus every night with her husband Michael, who explains they ride the bus for the full two hours of its route. Then they stand out in the cold, waiting for the next bus to head back the other way.

"Back and forth, back and forth. I try to get sleep when I can, and then it's just figuring out where to go in the morning from there," he says.

Michael says they get about three to five hours of sleep a night, which takes its toll.

"I've missed interviews because I've fallen asleep on the bus in the morning and missed my stop," he says. "I've missed court dates, all kinds of stuff. It's like, okay, I have to get off at this stop, and then you don't even feel yourself going, next thing you know, you wake up, oh you're at the end of the line. I don't know how many opportunities I've lost because of it."

The Garbers say they've tried to sign up for affordable housing, but nothing has panned out.

"There's a one percent vacancy rate in the county," says Bob Dulci, homeless concerns coordinator for Santa Clara County, "which makes it extremely difficult to provide housing for folks, even though we have a lot of rent subsidy dollars."

With the market so competitive, Dulci says, landlords are much more likely to go for someone with a stable job history, instead a person coming off the streets.

Michael Garber said sleeping on the bus is the lowest point of his life, but it could be worse.

"At least out here I'm still free, I'm not incarcerated or somthing like that. It could be a lot worse," he says. "Although sometimes it does feel like jail, you're crowded and shuffled along, no sense of privacy, no sense of decency or anything like that."

I ask Michael what he thinks about the nickname "Hotel 22."

"I call it home," he says.

And next winter, one of Santa Clara County's biggest shelters is closing -- possibly forcing more people onto Hotel 22.

About the author

Isabel Angell is a reporter with KALW in San Francisco, California.

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