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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, JULY 6, 2014, AND THEREAFTER- In this March 18, 2014 photo, man walks along a pathway in the early morning in the Jungle, a homeless encampment in San Jose, Calif. The Jungle is home at times to as many as 350 residents, almost all San Jose locals, and is believed to be the largest homeless encampment in the U.S. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Breaking a cycle of homelessness in the Silicon ‘Jungle’
Slum life » A woman wrestles with finding a way out of U.S.’s largest indigent encampment.
First Published Jul 05 2014 06:48 pm • Last Updated Jul 05 2014 07:11 pm

San Jose, Calif. » She’s a disheveled woman, upper teeth gone, heavy bags slung over her shoulders as she nervously urges on two friends shoving her overloaded shopping cart up a dirt slope. Maria Esther Salazar has been either homeless, in jail, or squatting at someone else’s house for 30 years.

But today, she’s getting her first apartment.

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"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d get a house," said Salazar. It was overwhelming. "I don’t know anyone there."

In the Jungle — believed to be the nation’s largest homeless encampment — Salazar’s shelter is a gathering place where friends smoke pot, doze, swap stories, argue. Outside, they squat by her cooking fire, frying pancakes or warming soup — handouts from Sunday church groups.

It’s easy to forget that the Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are making millions just miles away. Salazar and as many as 350 others live in tents, makeshift shacks, caves and tree houses along polluted Coyote Creek, spending their days and nights in various states of mental confusion and intoxication.

Salazar’s journey out began on a cool morning four months earlier in February, when she limped out of her fenced compound and waved a broken cane at a passing homeless support team making its weekly rounds.

"You’re supposed to be helping me," she shouted, her voice gravelly beyond her 50 years.

When the social worker returned to her desk, she found that in a county with a seven-year, 20,000-person waiting list, Salazar had finally qualified for housing support: a new locally funded, $1,295 monthly subsidy aimed at ending chronic homelessness awaited her.

Now Maria Esther Salazar, a woman with a criminal record, two dogs, no phone and no identification, had to find an apartment in one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S., or the subsidy could disappear.

And she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave.

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San Jose, the 10th largest city in the U.S., is at the heart of the Silicon Valley, home to Google, Apple, Facebook and many more. Job growth, income, and venture capital top the country.

But as tech has boomed after the recession, housing costs have soared.

An average home sells for $1 million, and two bedroom apartments rent for $2,000. The widening gap between the wealthiest and everyone else is palpable.

Residents of the Jungle are well aware of the world that lies nearby. They call it "going up," walking the dirt path up to busy Story Road, where minivans of families heading to Happy Hollow Park and Zoo across the street never notice the despair below.

In the Jungle, trails wind through trees and bushes, and there are neighborhoods like Little Saigon, where Vietnamese residents have dug large rooms into steep hillsides and squat by the creek to wash dishes and get water.

Salazar’s life fell apart at 11 when she was kidnapped and gang raped.

"Now I make a joke about it," she says softly, smiling and crying at the same time. "I say I’m the president of the man-haters club."

She’s been arrested dozens of times, convicted of 17 felonies, almost all drug related. She had four children but raised none.

Jennifer Loving, executive director of the nonprofit housing agency Destination: Home, is spearheading a new, concerted effort in San Jose to house people and keep them housed — to save money. A homeless person can cost an estimated $60,000 a year, while housing someone can be just $16,000 a year.

On a clear June morning, Salazar clambered into her social worker’s car for a momentous journey. Ten minutes later, but a world away, they pulled into a clean, two-story apartment complex.

"Everything is so white! It’s my favorite color!" she said, bursting into her new home.

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