Unhoused below the San Jose river banks, these immigrants carve out their own American Dream
In the center of San Jose, California, the Guadalupe River splits from Los Gatos creek and continues northward, a walking trail winding in pursuit.
Just below its steep embankments, a sprawl of communities nearly hidden from passing view — but not quite — form a separate world.
“Would you like a chair?” Julio asked.
He pulled over a plastic seat and wiped it off with a rag.
“I have some Coca Cola.”
After calling down to his neighbor Jose about an hour before, I had climbed down the bank — carved out by he and Julio to accommodate living space.
The earthen floors, sculpted in layers, shouldered tents — reinforced with logs and bamboo that grows nearby — spaces to cook, eat and work. Finally, at their lowest levels, they gave way to the river, an asset which can be used for cleaning, bathing and — in emergencies — drinking, although one woman I spoke with told me it gave her a rash for months.
Julio grabbed a coffee cup and cleaned it with soap in the river, satisfied that he could pour me a cup of soda.
“Ya no queda trabajo,” he said. There’s no work left. So seven months ago, when he lost his job in construction and after, his apartment, he came to the river and made a home.
Frankly, it’s impressive. There are dirt steps to offset the steep grade. A garden — sprouting with tomato, jalapeño, banana pepper and nopal plants. Laundry lines. Storage units. Fire pits for cooking. And areas to work on his current industry: fixing and custom painting bicycles.
He brought out one frame to show me: using three different colors of spray paint and sheet metal, he had designed piercing, snakelike patterns.
So much of this feels like the life we condone as “normal” — people maintaining homes, graciously socializing, being creative, trying to make a buck — except for a pertinent set of facts: Julio, like others here, was essentially pushed out of functioning society: unable to find basic wages or affordable housing, he exists on the fringes; sans city services, running water and plumbing; making meals via money achieved from scrap jobs, his own cultivation and the fish that swim in the creek below.
“I worked for a month-and-a-half,” he said, just to buy a $100 smart phone
Then, a few days ago, Julio was robbed.
From his tent-based home constructed beneath the Guadalupe’s steep banks, there was a point of chaos while trying to assist someone even less fortunate than himself.
Thirty minutes later he realized his cellphone was gone, along with a small bag of personal items.
When he jumped on his bike and found me in downtown to tell me, he handled this traumatic incident with more poise and calm that many people — with significantly more resources — probably would have. Still, finally, tears spilled out of his eyes.
With his only income dipping caverns below minimum wage, replacement would take months.
This wasn’t the plan. This was not the American Dream Julio sought when he came to the US from the Mexico City area some 20 years ago. He landed first in Virginia. When construction work dried up, he moved to California.
But earlier this year, amidst the pandemic, jobs grew scarce again. He lost his apartment and instead constructed a home on city land, utilizing a meager budget, found items and conscious community.
“Even if you can find work,” he said, “the rents are so high.”
But unhoused in the Bay Area — perhaps the epitome of a worsening US housing crisis — he still feels lucky.
The day before, he met Claudia. After losing her shelter bed because of missing curfew, she was wandering the streets when he found her.
The next day when I showed up, we called 11 emergency shelters (at her request) and the city hotline. On the other end of the phone, the story was the same. No beds, and the queue was long. One organization quoted the waitlist at nine months.
There was literally nowhere to go.
Without city-sanctioned help, Claudia got on the next bus out — just after likely seizing the only control she could in such a state of desperation: taking items from those who had precious little more. Julio’s cellphone.
Even so, when I returned the next day, Julio had a different mindset.
“En la tarde, estaba enojado,” he said. “Pero en la noche, me sentí algo diferente.”
While he had been angry the day before, now he just felt sad.
“Porque ella no tiene un lugar para vivir.”
She doesn’t have anywhere to live.
I worked the wood with the machete while Julio manned dinner.
Earlier, we had traipsed across the river’s protruding stones and fallen logs to find leña, hacking away at the underbrush to achieve something we could call firewood.
Now, the fire had been lit and Julio had onions and chilies sizzling in the pan as I attempted to rough up the giant dead tree we’d returned with.
“Ya has ganado dos cervezas!” he called jokingly, to lift my sweaty spirits. I’d already earned two beers, according to him.
That morning, I’d grabbed supplies and Julio made the list for his signature Huevos Mexicanos short: eggs, onions, tomatoes, chilies … and ganas de comer. The desire to eat!
He agreed to the idea of adding beers to the list too, mulling the concept dryly and then — rubbing his chin, in dramatic accord.
“Pues, solo no perdimos la costumbre,” he said with a wink. Just so we don’t lose the habit.
Just above us was the center of downtown San José. Tall, glass-paneled corporate buildings gave way to dirt paths, aided in the case of Julio and Jose, by a yellow tether line installed to ease the descents and — especially — the ascents.
Below, we were in the campo; an experience similar to mine in rural Central America.
To say what is happening above and below the banks feels like different worlds would be wrong. They are different worlds — one characterized by high-rise living, and the other, something off the grid. Something where the idea of a functioning free market is in tatters and the rats run so free that Julios has jokingly taken to calling them his conejitos (little bunnies).
When we go to another country and see people living on river banks without city services, electricity or clean water, we wring our hands about the state of poverty in third-world countries.
But this is America, so instead we ask our cities to “clean them up.”
Across the country — and prominently, California — cities are doing just that. In March, Los Angeles forcibly cleared a community of 200 at Echo Park, and has now begun removing swaths of the unhoused along the Venice boardwalk. Some have been put in empty hotel rooms; some in permanent supportive housing; others have already been forced out of their relocated accommodations and shuffled down the line.
Just weeks ago, on the other side of the sprawling park in San José, a vacant field apparently owned by the SJC airport was filled with tents. Then, on June 23, San Jose — responding to threats from the FAA to clear the land or forfeit future funding for airport projects — distributed fliers to all of its unhoused residents.
“You are TRESPASSING and will be subject to CRIMINAL PROSECUTION,” it read in part, the flier weighted with exclamation points, all-caps lettering and the city’s proud designation as “Capital of Silicon Valley.”
By last week, the tents were gone — some responding on their own out of fear, and some forcibly ousted by city workers, an RV dweller named Scott told me.
Those at the center of this crisis are largely shut out of discussions about it.
“It’s not just that people don’t want to hear my voice, I’ve learned they can’t stand it,” a woman named Hope told me. “It’s like they hear it in their teeth. You can see that they can’t even stomach it, so I’ve tried to stop talking about (my experiences).
“But its hard.”
With just a mere fraction of affordable housing units in the country’s second most expensive rental market available for those who need them, all of the city’s shelters full and waitlisted for months and the helpline listed on the flier short on any other ideas, it’s hard to know where the people who made up this former community went.
Perhaps like Claudia, they simply gave up and boarded a bus out.
Last Thursday, in the wee morning hours a parking enforcement officer had cruised down the passage where Scott lives — an isolated street wedged between a community garden and the empty field, and lined with stationary vehicles and their occupants — and made parking tickets rain. I got one, too.
“The city is tired of it,” Scott said, “and they’re cracking down.
“But come on. There’s nothing over here. We’re not bothering anyone. We’re just trying to live.”
For so many in the Bay Area — which even pre-pandemic had a shortfall of 699,000 homes — that is getting harder and harder to do.
In Santa Clara county, where the median household income was $141K/year in 2021 but minimum wage workers net just $32,136, the waitlist for affordable housing stretches to the decade mark.
Even emergency shelters have monthslong queues, though concerns should not stop there.
“I stayed in a shelter for a while,” Julio told me in Spanish. “The man above me used to masterbate openly. I knew two women who were assaulted in a shelter. One time, one woman killed another one — in her bed in the night.”
For now, there have been no threats to clear the river banks where Julio and others have made their home. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it is coming and when — and what would happen to Julio; out of work and without family.
If he had to leave, I asked him, where would he go?
He paused to consider. Tapping the firewood log he had just picked up to feed the dirt oven, he looked across the thin stream that was the Guadalupe River in this season of drought.
Down the banks from the tall buildings of downtown, it offered resources — land, fish, flowing water, a space to call his own — that he couldn’t achieve above.
“I guess,” he said with a smile, “I’d go to the other side.”