Andrea Urton, who grew up homeless in Los Angeles, has seen how little corporate interests tend to care about helping the impoverished.
“I have never had an Apple or a Google or a Facebook reach out to me personally and say, ‘We really want to work on developing this property that we own and we don’t just want to kick people off,’” said Urton, the CEO of HomeFirst, an organization that provides services to homeless people in Santa Clara County, the Silicon Valley home to numerous tech companies, including Apple.
So it was with some surprise when she received a phone call from an Apple representative.
“I haven’t had a company approach me for this level of support and their willingness to pay for it,” Urton said.
It’s the kind of antipoverty effort that some of the California tech giants have embraced in recent years even as their expansions have reshaped communities, strained local housing supplies and led to an increase in homelessness. In 2019, Apple announced it would spend $2.5 billion to address California’s housing crisis, and Facebook committed $1 billion. NBC News has reached out to ask Google about its efforts to address the state’s housing crisis.
Apple offered to pay her organization millions of dollars to help relocate dozens of people from a homeless encampment on a plot of land in San Jose owned by Apple to a nearby motel or a “safe parking” lot for RVs — all of which Apple will pay for for nine months, with social services provided for 12 months, Urton said. In early September, Apple began clearing the camp, one of many that dot communities around Silicon Valley.
That same year, a study by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute concluded that at least $12.7 billion would be required to end homelessness in the nine-county Bay Area in upfront construction costs, with ongoing costs of around $3.5 billion for the next decade.
But while Urton thinks Apple “wanted to get it right,” other activists see the efforts as falling short of addressing the ongoing issues around housing that they say are largely fueled by Big Tech. Median prices for a single family home in nine counties in and around the Bay Area hit $1.34 million in May — up almost 40 percent year over year.
“It’s ironic because it’s largely these tech companies that are creating homelesseness,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a 51-year-old longtime Bay Area homeless advocate who has gotten to know many people from this now-displaced community. “There’s no housing for all the workers. There’s housing for the tech workers, but there’s no housing for the janitors.” Apple spokeswoman Rachel Tulley declined to answer any questions on the program but provided a corporate statement.
“Apple has long been focused on helping to combat the housing crisis across California and working with partners to support at-risk communities and provide new affordable units,” the company said in the statement. “As the challenges for renters and potential homeowners continue to increase, we’ve accelerated our support and have already deployed over $1 billion for new projects since the start of 2020.” Broader problems
California is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. It’s an issue that looms over almost everything in the state — from the unsuccessful recall vote of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who campaigned on the issue, to the state’s role as a bastion of liberal politics. And while many parts of the state are dealing with housing challenges, the areas in and around San Jose, where many of the world’s largest tech companies are based, offer a particularly stark juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. The 43-acre vacant property where Apple hosted the encampment sits not far from the headquarters of the payment processing company PayPal and across the street from some eBay offices, just a few miles north of downtown San Jose. Apple purchased it for more than $138 million in 2015 and public records show the company has plans for an office facility for 15,000 workers. It remained a largely dusty, heart-shaped piece of property, bisected by a street, Component Drive. A light rail station and low-rise office parks are also nearby.
Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, is one of the most expensive parts of California: According to Zillow, the median home price is now $1.4 million, having doubled in under a decade. Over time, the community on Component Drive grew at one point to an estimated 100 people living in clusters around the lot. Prior to the sweep of the site, San Jose city officials estimated that there were “200 tons of hazardous trash” there, along with at least 30 to 35 people living there, with at least twice as many vehicles.
Homeless realities While some residents say that the move by Apple was jarring, they feel they have been more fortunate than other people in their situation. Lynn Shipman, 57, said that she had been living at Component Drive near Orchard Way, along the southern end of the plot, since March. Shipman moved to the lot after having relocated from a different encampment on the other side of the San Jose airport where, she says violence drove her away.
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