It’s Saturday night, and the work studio TechSpace in downtown San Jose is nearly empty. For Chrystie Mariano the quiet allows her to concentrate on the repetitive motion of the laser cutting and engraving machine.
"The beautiful thing about working on the laser is that you can just keep loading it," Mariano laughs. "And you can kind of just be a lazy butt and watch it."
Producing art gives Mariano a temporary escape from her problems, like finding a place to live. Mariano lost her home in the Coyote Creek flood in February. When we met, Mariano had just spent her first night sleeping in a car. It was scary -- her mind was racing all night.
"I kept thinking, is someone going to break into the car while I'm sleeping?" Mariano says. "There's only a window separating us from the outside."
About 40,000 people were evacuated after Coyote Creek flooded on Feb. 21. Most were able to return to their homes, but Mariano is one of many San Jose residents experiencing long-term displacement. According to Catholic Charities, the lead agency in providing long-term services to flood victims, about 153 people are homeless, many living in hotels, temporary apartments or shelters.
'I'm Coming Up on That Last Domino'
Like many residents, Mariano was teetering well before the flood. In the 11 years she lived on the bottom floor of her triplex, the rent had gone from $850 a month to $1,295 a month. Between selling art and her disability check, Mariano barely brings in $2,000 a month.
Then there are the hardships you can’t put into numbers. Mariano’s mom died a few years ago, and her husband had a stroke and had to move in with his parents. And then Mariano was diagnosed with kidney disease. She’s now on dialysis three times a week.
"I feel like there's a set of dominoes. And I don't mean to be dark, but I'm coming up on that last domino," she says.
After the flood, there was an outpouring. People gave money and landlords offered temporary housing. In partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, San Jose was able to distribute $6.9 million to nonprofit relief organizations, which in turn assisted families in getting back on their feet. Mariano was able to secure a temporary apartment, but her lease ended in August -- and much of the goodwill she received has dried up.
'We Can't Fix Everything'
Emily Prado is with Catholic Charities, the lead agency providing long-term disaster relief in San Jose. She says they’ve helped over 600 people find permanent housing, but there are still about 150 others like Mariano, who are striking out.
"There are so many reasons why, but I've noticed that some of the clients are coming back to me saying that some of the landlords are requesting three times the rent," Prado says.
This is a major hurdle because most of the people who are still looking were paying below-market rents and living on a fixed income.
"Some of my thoughts are, 'Wow, I'm never going to find housing for them,' " Prado says. "But then, I have that one client who lands permanent housing, and that gives me hope for the next client."
It’s a plight that disaster victims often face after the support dries up. But high rents in the Bay Area pose a unique problem, says Prado.
"We can't fix everything and sometimes I go home with that, but you know the next day I get up and I try my hardest to do what I can on my end," Prado says.
She says Catholic Charities has been developing relationships with landlords, trying to get them to see the benefit of housing these people who have lost so much. She’s extending her searches beyond Santa Clara County and nudging her clients to think about moving farther away -- to more affordable areas.
But Mariano says she's not ready to leave the only city she’s ever really called home.
"I was fine with where I was," Mariano says. "It wasn't the nicest place, but it was home. I want my home back. Whether it's my original home, or somewhere I can afford."
Catholic Charities has put Mariano up in a hotel while she continues to search for a permanent place to live.