[Hpn] Let's not overlook Silicon Valley's low-tech homeless

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 21 Jun 2001 16:05:16 -0700


Published Thursday, June 21, 2001,
in the San Jose Mercury News

Let's not overlook low-tech homeless
Mercury News 

Mike Schlenz had pretty much had it.

Yes, he was homeless. Yes, he had dabbled in high tech. Yes, he was down and
out in Silicon Valley, but is that really the point?

``I'm not interested in these interviews,'' he said. Then he got up from the
table at the Montgomery Street homeless shelter and walked away.

I had sat down with Schlenz, 35, to talk about what it's like to be the
flavor of the month: one of the so-called high-tech homeless. Apparently,
it's not a lot of fun.

Reporters have been calling local homeless shelters for months, looking for
people to illustrate the valley's downturn. But people don't fit so neatly
into categories.

``The media has been making a big deal that it's technical people or
educated people, when that's not the point,'' Schlenz said before he
abruptly ended our talk. ``The issue is that people here can't afford to
move out of here with the pay scales and the rents here.''

The ``people here'' are those living at San Jose's Montgomery Street Inn,
which is run by non-profit Innvision.

There are laborers, fast-food workers, employed and unemployed. They are
regular people, like most people are, who go through life largely unnoticed
whether they're living in a homeless shelter or next door.

They're not very sexy, and they're not the homeless the reporters want to
write about when they call.

The interest in Schlenz and his story comes after he was featured in an
Associated Press report on how the mighty have fallen. The story said nearly
30 percent of the men in Innvision's shelters were unemployed tech workers,
which it turns out includes those who worked low-paying assembly and support

Shuffling through phone messages Monday, Rebecca Elliot, who handles public
relations for Innvision, said calls have come from the San Francisco
Chronicle, the New York Times, the ``Today Show,'' KNTV (Ch. 11), ``Tech
TV'' and a freelance writer.

``This is phenomenal,'' she says. ``It's been constant for the last few

Reporters like a good story to write, and readers like a good story to read.
And those helping the homeless, well, they like almost any publicity beyond
the annual ``hungry at Thanksgiving'' and ``homeless at Christmas'' stories.
It's a chance to attract attention and maybe financial and volunteer

``If you don't know this is happening,'' Elliot says of homelessness, ``if
it's not brought into your life, then you don't have to see it.''

Sure, she wishes the media would focus on the bigger picture. So does
Schlenz, who, yeah, did some freelance networking work but who also worked
as a landscaper, a landscape designer and a plant inspector at San Francisco

``I kind of worked at discouraging them from taking that line of thought,''
he says of those who have come to extract his story. ``It's not necessarily
a tech problem.''

No. It's a problem of Silicon Valley's housing prices outracing prosperity
for many. And it's much more complicated for some. Divorce, domestic
violence, drug abuse and mental illness conspire to land some on the street.

Whatever the depth of the high-tech homeless problem, stories about it do
raise a significant question: Why should we care more about a homeless
high-tech worker than we do about a homeless low-tech worker?

In the end, the value of this latest story of the week might be in pondering
just that.

Hey! Have an only-in-Silicon-Valley story? Contact Mike Cassidy at
mcassidy@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5536.

 2001 The Mercury News

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