The New Homeless: Aspiring Web Developer Ends Up on San Francisco's Streets
The descent into homelessness can occur with terrifying speed. For Mike, a 33-year-old aspiring Web developer, it happened after an emergency loan from a relative suddenly fell through, driving his family out of a motel and onto the streets of San Francisco in September.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% His wife and two kids were lucky to get a bed at a shelter, but there was no room for Mike (he asked us not to disclose his last name). So he ended up spending four nights in Golden Gate Park, a sprawling urban greenscape that, while popular with tourists and locals alike during the day, can be dangerous after dark.
"I couldn't believe it," says the former Washington state resident. "I wasn't technically well off, but I could keep a job, and I was thinking, 'How the hell did I get here?'"
Just one year ago, everything seemed possible. Mike was living with his family in the pleasant beach-side community and was in the middle of an exciting career change. After a decade of working as a chef, he was looking forward to finding a job as a Web developer. To make ends meet while he was finishing up a bachelor of science degree in software engineering at a state university, he was working for a company that did catering for private jets.
A Sobering Reality
In February, the catering company Mike worked for dramatically cut his hours. Thanks to the Great Recession, people just weren't flying in private jets much anymore. Mike was no longer able to pay the bills and started collecting unemployment, which he viewed as a stopgap measure until he could graduate in June and get a job working for a tech firm.
By the time graduation came, however, Mike was confronted with a sobering reality: "I was looking for tech jobs all over the place, but no one would hire a guy fresh out of college," he says. "I was even looking for restaurant jobs, but restaurants had all cut back as no one was going out to eat."
Mike and his family decided to make a bold, if risky, move. In the beginning of September, they scraped together what little money they had left and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area, the nation's tech mecca, where Mike was certain he would find a job. For weeks, the family stayed in cheap hotel rooms booked on Priceline.com while Mike looked for work, cold-calling recruiters and sending out resumes.
The Money Dries Up
Toward the end of September, the unemployment money that was supposed to last them through the entire month ran out. Making matters worse, a relative who'd promised to give them a loan changed her mind at the last minute. Their only option was to try to get beds in one of San Francisco's shelters, already maxed-out with all of the other newly homeless looking for places to sleep.
Mike and his family ended up at Hamilton Family Center, one of the largest providers of homeless shelter and support services in San Francisco. The city has the highest per capita rate of homelessness -- nearly 1 for every 100 residents -- of any major U.S. city, and Hamilton and other nonprofit agencies like it have their work cut out for them. Even more disturbing is that homelessness is increasingly a family affair here. As many as 40% of homeless people in San Francisco are part of a homeless family.
"It's organizations like ours that are the last safety nets for this community," says Hamilton's Executive Director Beth Stokes, adding that funding cuts are leaving this net increasingly frayed. "We're all worried about what's going to happen next year."
According to Mike, Hamilton only had enough space for his wife and their children, ages 6 and 4. That's when he headed to Golden Gate Park.
Help in the Nick of Time
"I found a little private bush and made sure nobody saw me," Mike says. "I chose a part that wasn't very popular since I know there are areas where the homeless like to congregate."
After four nights sleeping outside, another unemployment check came through. The money allowed Mike and his family to move back into a cheap motel in early November. A few weeks later, they finally caught a break. Thanks to money made available through the federal economic stimulus program, Hamilton was able to enroll the family in its First Avenues program, which helps families keep or find homes, depending on their situation. Since it started in 2006, First Avenues has prevented 375 families from getting evicted and helped another 500 homeless families get permanent housing.
Through the program, which will last 18 months, the family has received money for a deposit on an apartment in Oakland, Calif., as well as assistance paying the $875 rent. Mike says the neighborhood is much grittier than their old community, but he's grateful for the roof over his family's head.
"It's a really nice unit," he says. "The kids are less stressed out."
The one-year anniversary of Mike's unemployment is approaching in February. He is trying to stay positive, but sometimes it's hard to remain upbeat. He's sent out more than 75 resumes for tech and cooking jobs and has gone on a few interviews. One potential tech employer told Mike that he didn't have enough experience. A recruiter at another firm said he would like to hire him, but would wait to see if he had the money to do so in next year's budget.
Mike finds what little solace he can in the kind gestures of others including the folks at the First Avenues program who helped them get their apartment. "They've been really nice," he says.
To find out how you can help Hamilton Family Center help San Francisco's least fortunate, please visit its website.
More from The New Homeless series:
The New Homeless: Candido Gonzalez at New York's Bowery Mission.
The New Homeless: Shawn Martin at the Coalition for the Homeless
The New Homeless: A Young Widowed Mom's Bleak Christmas in Camden
DailyFinance Readers Chip in to Help Homeless Mom in Camden