Tech companies are ousting Bay Area locals

California: Under the bridges of Stockton


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If you want to visit the former entrepreneur Kathleen O'Neill in her new home, drive 90 minutes inland from San Francisco - and come to another world. The highway is first four, then three, then two lanes; the green hills turn yellow, then brown. In between manure silos, warehouses and fast food chains. Eleven runs lead to Stockton; the city is flat and stretched out, like the Central Valley itself.

Kathleen O'Neill lives under one of the motorway junctions - it's an address she doesn't like to give. Here tents line the street, boards and blankets protect against the wind and prying eyes. Smoke rises, an old woman boils water on an open flame. There is an overcrowded homeless shelter next to the camp.

"Years ago I would have thought: 'Homeless? Those are the drug addicts who let themselves go. Can't happen to me.' Vans full of tourists in the opposite direction, to Yosemite National Park. If you don't have to leave here, you don't leave. But O'Neill had no other choice.

The 49-year-old would not attract attention in a tourist van, nor in a German supermarket. Here already. She pushed her blonde hair back with sunglasses, it looks attentive and fresh. "Everyone is seven steps away from homelessness," says O'Neill - a phrase one hears a lot in Stockton. "For a long time, my nine-year-old son and I were only a food stamp away from hunger, a month's rent from homelessness. And yet I was shocked and ashamed when we stood here in August." O'Neill grew up in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, her parents were upper middle class, as she says. Her first husband was a concert pianist, with the second she ran a shipping company.

"I've always worked hard and thought it would pay off," says O'Neill. When she tried to help a patient in her job as a nurse, she sustained a serious injury to her spine. Kathleen O'Neill lost her job. Her son and herself were left with grocery stamps and $ 535 a month in welfare - far too little to pay the rent in Stockton. The landlady gave them notice, and they ended up here: in Northern California's largest homeless shelter, which is getting bigger every day.

"People like Kathleen are coming here more and more," says employee Kimberly Maxwell. "Our 400 bunk beds have long been occupied." Hundreds of other people sleep shoulder to shoulder on the common room floor. Many of the homeless, Maxwell says, walk from home to work in the morning "where they no longer earn enough to pay rents in Stockton."

The proximity to Silicon Valley is damaging

Some residents call Stockton the "Far Far East Bay" - as if they were hoping that the fame and fortune of the San Francisco Bay Area would rub off on the city. It's the other way around: the proximity to Silicon Valley harms Stockton. Young IT engineers with annual incomes over $ 100,000 are driving rents soaring in the San Francisco Bay Area. Families and non-techies are being displaced and are moving to the Central Valley - for example to Stockton, where their commuter salaries are triggering a second wave of gentrification. Rents in Stockton are increasing by ten percent every year, more quickly than in almost any other city in the United States.

The locals are ill-prepared for this: on average, everyone here makes $ 23,000 a year, less than half the average San Francisco resident. One in six people is unemployed, one in four lives below the poverty line. Many Stocktonians, as they call themselves, still carry their debts from the financial crisis with them.