PALO ALTO — Homelessness crept up on Simone Underwood like an unexpected storm.
Four years ago, Underwood lived in a rental home in Palo Alto while making her way as a budding real estate agent. When she lost a big commission because of a foreclosure on a property she had sold, everything spiraled out of control: She and her son had to leave their home.
“Words can’t describe it,” Underwood, 40, said. “I was beside myself.”
Her narrative highlights a vexing problem in affluent Silicon Valley, where homelessness can hit the best-intentioned residents in a region with escalating housing prices. Even as the valley’s jobless rate dips, San Jose/Santa Clara County posted the country’s fifth-highest homeless population, according to a report released a year ago by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Underwood, who grew up on the Peninsula and once owned a barbecue restaurant in Fresno, worked the phones to try to keep her and son, Aiden, off the streets.
A social service agency gave her a one-time-only voucher for a month’s hotel stay. It didn’t provide enough time to find a permanent solution.
Underwood could have relocated to Fresno to live with a sister. But the mother desperately wanted to stay on the Peninsula because Aiden had made dramatic gains in a special education program at Lucille M. Nixon Elementary near Stanford University.
She also credits the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto with summer and after-school programs that greatly contributed to her son’s transformation, another reason not to move.
Underwood, who at 14 had worked as a waitress at a popular Palo Alto diner, contacted homeless shelters from San Jose to Redwood City seeking temporary housing. Because of overcrowding, the best she could do was get on waiting lists.
According to the 2013 HUD report, only 26 percent of the area’s homeless stay in shelters on any given night, the third-lowest percentage among major metropolitan areas. San Francisco recorded the fifth-lowest at 42 percent.
The bleak outlook led the mother and son to sleep in their SUV in a church parking lot in Santa Clara, where a kind security guard often watched over them instead of shooing them away.
The family fell into a routine that lasted for four agonizing months. After school, Underwood would take Aiden, now 9, to a park until dark. She sometimes used a friend’s microwave oven to prepare meals that she bought with food stamps. In the mornings, Aiden often got ready for school by using facilities at a Starbucks.
“Sometimes I would think I would not make it, but I always did,” Underwood said.
Underwood signed up for every affordable housing waitlist she could find in the Palo Alto area. Questionable credit and a lack of savings made it difficult to get a place quickly.
In the meantime, she got a job at a Hertz rental car office in Palo Alto while living temporarily with a friend in Newark.
In 2012, help finally came. Two months after she contacted Palo Alto Housing Corp., the agency found a studio at Alma Garden Apartments, a small affordable housing complex in Palo Alto owned by Community Working Group.
The two organizations represent part of a broad regional network to help keep people such as Underwood in housing. The volunteer-run nonprofit Community Working Group develops affordable homes and offers supportive services for low-income families and individuals in Palo Alto and neighboring cities. The agency co-owns a complex it recently opened near downtown Palo Alto, and it received 1,000 applications for the 55 units available.
“That just hurt that the need is that high,” said John Barton, a Stanford architecture professor who serves as Community Working Group’s board president.
Wish Book readers can help: $100 can provide a locker for a homeless client to safely keep possessions; $350 can provide one month’s rental subsidy, and $500 can help Community Working Group fund services such as job training, assistance with housing placement, and after-school activities at its Opportunity Center.
Underwood works six days a week to pay all of her bills, but she doesn’t complain every time she sees how well Aiden has adjusted to their home.
“I was numb,” she said when learning they got a place to live. “I wasn’t going to tell Aiden until I had the keys.”
It rained the day they moved in two years ago to the unit that costs $973 per month. When Underwood told Aiden they were headed to a new home, he asked, “Me and you?”
“Yes, just the two of us,” she replied.
Mom opened the door to the apartment in a complex with eight studios and two one-bedroom units. Aiden raced in with wet shoes and ran in circles around the new carpet.
He finally was home.
Comments about Wish Book stories? Email [email protected] or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972. “Like” our page at Facebook.com/mercurynews.wishbook.
HOW TO HELP
Wish Book readers can help Community Working Group provide housing and supportive services for low-income families and individuals: $100 can provide a locker for a homeless client to safely keep possessions; $350 can provide one month’s rental subsidy; and $500 can help fund services such as job training, housing placement and after-school activities. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Community Working Group, go to www.communityworkinggroup.org.