Sun, Apr 16, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Homeless spike in California linked to Silicon Valley

By Lauren Hepler  /  The Guardian, PATTERSON, California

At first glance, the rusted metal pens in the central California town of Patterson look like an open-air prison block.

However, for Devani Riggs, “the cages,” abandoned since the days they were used to store the bounty of the self-proclaimed apricot capital of the world, play a very different role.

“This one was mine. That one was Patty and Pete,” said Riggs, a 30-year-old homeless woman, adding that dozens of people had slept in the cramped enclosures.

California’s Central Valley is best known for supplying nearly 25 percent of the US’ food, including 40 percent of the fruit and nuts consumed each year. Yet today, backcountry places, such as Patterson, population 22,000, are experiencing an increase in homelessness that can be traced, in part, to an unlikely sounding source: Silicon Valley.

The million-dollar home prices about 137km west, in San Francisco and San Jose, have pushed aspiring homeowners to look inland. Patterson’s population has doubled since the 2000 census.

Average monthly rents have climbed from about US$900 in 2014 to nearly US$1,600, according to the apartment database Rent Jungle, compounding the hardships of the foreclosure crisis, the shuttering of several local agricultural businesses and surging substance abuse rates.

“The rents in Patterson are crazy,” said Romelia Wiley, program manager of the local nonprofit organization Community Housing & Shelter Services. “Why? I-5.”

The freeway offers commuters access to high-paying job centers near the coast and the number of people commuting to the Bay Area from the portion of the Central Valley that includes Patterson more than doubled between 1990 and 2013, to about 65,000 people, or at least 15 percent of the local workforce, according to an analysis by the University of the Pacific.

One fast-growing city, Turlock, in August last year began running buses with free Wi-Fi to Bay Area train stations.

Development advocates, such as San Francisco’s Bay Area Council, are promoting proposals to expand rail service between the Central and Silicon valleys, including a planned high-speed line.

Ultimately, the group predicts a “northern California megaregion” fueled by growth in tech jobs, with the Central Valley offering ample land for bedroom communities.

“The families who live here just can’t compete with the commuters,” Patterson housing authority deputy director Michele Gonzales said.

A hulking new Amazon.com Inc fulfillment center has opened just off the Patterson exit on the freeway, but otherwise, good-paying local jobs are hard to come by.

For locals such as Randy Albrea, the Silicon Valley sprawl is already hard to miss in small towns such as Patterson.

“It’s become what I would call a commuter city of the Bay Area,” said Albrea, a 69-year-old air force veteran who lives at the town’s only homeless shelter, which has 16 beds.

Albrea was raised on a nearby farm that grew “a little bit of everything.” After a legal dispute claimed the family home, he lived in his car with his son and his pit bull, Lady.

“You know an animal chasing its tail?” Albrea said. “That’s what I feel like sometimes.”

Some of Albrea’s friends have struggled, too, though a few with land have been able to sell their farms to housing developers.

Just off a palmy thoroughfare not far from the Wal-Mart that opened a few years ago, there is a development called Bella Flora.

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