From growing up with an estranged mother to being homeless on the streets of Palo Alto
By Marianna Moles
Whoever visits Jorge at his studio apartment will most likely be introduced to his new friend, a kitten named Buddy, and hear about how much he loves his bathtub. It’s no wonder, since for nearly four years Jorge was homeless and alone, working three jobs, without any way to regularly clean up while living in a tent in downtown Palo Alto.
Jorge adopted Buddy at one of Humane Society Silicon Valley’s free adoption days. “When we went to go see him, he was alone in the cage,” said Jorge. “The woman said his mother and brother were taken but he was left. He came towards me. He picked me.”
One might venture that Jorge was just as drawn to Buddy as Buddy was to him, because not unlike his new furry friend Jorge feels like he’s been left to fend for himself several times in his young life – at 12 years old, again at 15 and then most recently at 26.
Up until nine months ago he was homeless for four years, until his case manager at Abode Services let him know he would be getting a studio apartment. He is one of thousands of people who have taken a housing survey that assesses their immediate needs, prioritizes them on a list for housing referrals, and connects them with homeless services that meet those needs.
Jorge qualified for a subsidy through the County of Santa Clara Office of Supportive Housing (OSH) called Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), which provides long-term support for people with disabilities and mental health issues. People who qualify for PSH subsidies score higher on the vulnerability scale, meaning their situation is more critical than people who score lower, and they require immediate services.
“I like this place. It’s huge. I wasn’t expecting this nice place. I really like the tub,” said Jorge. Sitting in a rolling office chair in his apartment, he leans back and mentions the medication he’s taking, hinting that major depression is the culprit. Without a pause, he goes onto talk about the interview he has on Friday with a restaurant in Willow Glen.
He has always made a point to stay employed, as well as make a little money on the side with his hobbies, like repairing smart phone cameras, chargers and screens. He also airbrushes shoes, but stopped when he got Buddy. Cats and fresh paint don’t mix.
Jorge managed to stay employed the entire time he was homeless by simultaneously working three different jobs in downtown Palo Alto, including cutting sea food at a restaurant. “I reeked of fish. No one wanted to sit next to me on the bus,” he said. He goes onto emphasize the importance of remaining employed, “I wanted to keep myself occupied. I saved a bit of money and bought a tent.” Unfortunately, it was one of eight tents he obtained that year because they kept getting stolen. Sometimes when he returned to his little home hidden within the bushes he’d find everything was gone.
He is no stranger to having his belongings disappear. In fact, the first time it happened was five years ago when he became homeless at 26 years old. He was returning home to the one-bedroom he was renting in a woman’s home for $800 a month, and he couldn’t unlock the door. His landlord had unceremoniously changed the locks. Everything he owned was inside.
He says that a few days prior the landlord mentioned she was raising the rent $200 a month, or 25 percent. According to California Civil Code, a rent increase of 10 percent or more requires 60 days written notice to the tenant. Jorge told her he couldn’t afford the rent increase; he had been living there for two years. He blames the high-tech companies sprouting around for pressuring her to increase the rent.
Jorge asked for his deposit so he could put it towards another place, but she blamed him for the marks on the walls and wouldn’t budge. Luckily, when Jorge moved in he took photos of each mark. With the evidence stacked against her, she caved and returned his deposit.
Even so, Jorge had no luck finding a place he could afford, so he relied on the kindness of his boss, who offered to have him stay in the basement of the hookah lounge where he was also working. But it couldn’t last long enough. He made a “hidden” home outdoors by digging a ditch among the bushes with a borrowed a shovel. Going to and from work, he would sneak around so he wouldn’t be spotted by anyone, including the police. Sometimes he waited hours before returning to his tent, all to avoid being caught.
“I didn’t know how to tell people [that I was homeless]. I didn’t tell my mom and brother. I didn’t want no one to see me. I knew a lot of people,” said Jorge. Bumping into friends seemed unavoidable, and when he did they noticed the stench lingering around him. He felt ashamed and ostracized. Later, a friend confided that he was suspicious, and wished Jorge had let him know because he would have helped.
During his years of homelessness, Jorge received help from his step-father who paid for several stays in hotels. He has never met his biological father, and no longer cares to meet him. Jorge notes that since he moved into his apartment last December, his sister-in-law has been a huge help, and his brother built a computer so he could play video games.
Jorge and his mother have an estranged relationship. When Jorge was 12 years old, she asked if he wanted to go to Disneyland. He was excited, but quickly realized it was a trick to send him to military school. Then when he was 15 years old, she sent him to live at Fred Finch Youth Center in Oakland, a center specializing in young adult services, including school and education, mental health services and housing. He says his mother didn’t visit him once when he was there but his step-father did.
“My mom told me she wished I was dead,” said Jorge, as Buddy walks across his lap. “‘You were a mistake,’ she said.” He hasn’t talked to his mother in quite some time.
“I’m just glad I’m not on the streets anymore,” said Jorge. “There were a few times I was starving. A couple of times I wanted to end my life. I cried a lot. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
He says the only thing he wanted to do when he moved into his apartment is sleep, and sleep and sleep. “I hear that from a lot of people,” said Kenya Rawls, Housing Services Coordinator with Abode Services. She’s working with Jorge now that he’s housed. She looks at him and says, “You’ve come so far. I am so proud of you.” Jorge smiles and scratches Buddy behind the ears.