Ellen Tara James Penny is a full-time college professor in San Jose, and she’s homeless. She and her husband Jim and their two dogs sleep in their car in a protected spot not far from the home where she was born. We sat together on a noisy street in Morgan Hill, and — over several hours — they shared their journey to homelessness with me. It’s an important story.
We tend to assume that homeless people are alike in some way, and that they must suffer from mental illness or drug addiction or some other common challenge. But the only thing that’s similar about all homeless people is that they lack housing. Like all people, homeless people are much more than just one thing, with their own lives and circumstances. Ellen is no exception. She is a hard-working, college educated, married woman with a sharp mind and no substance abuse issues. The fact that she’s homeless says more about our society, than it says about her.
Ellen grew up without money. She’d been adopted/rescued from a dysfunctional family, and raised by a family that had financial struggles. From an early age, she’d focused on achieving the basic American dream. If she did well in school, she’d get a decent job, eventually buy a home, cover her healthcare, and put away some savings. She was quick, hard-working, and combative. After working several jobs as an admin, she was admitted to San Jose State. There one of her professors recognized that Ellen had a special talent for literature, and recommended her for a master’s degree. She became a star student, and landed a teaching position in San Jose State’s English department. The middle class life she’d strived for was happening just as she’d been promised.
But some of the things Ellen counted on didn’t materialize. She expected to be healthy, and that as a professor her health benefits would cover any medical needs she might have. Instead, she had some complicated health issues, and the coverage was expensive and incomplete. San Jose State and other colleges were relying more on adjunct lecturers who receive low pay and few benefits to keep college costs low. Although Ellen taught full-time she could never quite get enough classes for three-consecutive years to qualify for full-time benefits. Medical treatments ate up all of her savings. Her pay did not come close to keeping pace with housing in the Bay Area, and so inevitably she took on debt to stay housed and get the treatments she needed. Her husband lost his job as a machinist, and it was hard for him to find a new one as a middle-aged man. Ellen fought with the hospitals and the administration. She did not want anyone’s pity. She just wanted them to show they cared enough to do their job and cover her healthcare issues. But there were simply too many people just like Ellen, and the responses grew increasingly indifferent. She could not afford to lose her job in San Jose, but she could not afford to live anywhere near San Jose either. And so she and Jim started sleeping in their car.
One in five Californians lives below the poverty line including millions of working people. Many of them are one health problem or one lay-off or one bureaucratic snafu away from Ellen’s situation. Her story isn’t important because it is unique — its important because it isn’t. I’ve heard aspects of Ellen’s journey all over the State of California — the effects of health care costs, the lack of any affordable housing, job losses among middle-aged people, and a loss of faith in institutions they’d trusted. Ellen has had to part with nearly all of her possessions, and make special arrangements just to shower, dress, and prepare for her classes at San Jose State.
All she wants, she tells me, is for people responsible for our government to work as hard as she works, and be held accountable. She said her students would have no idea she is homeless — her job is to teach them, and she shows up fully prepared each day and does her job. She plans to work hard, provide for herself, and ideally keep working until the end of her life. She thinks if more people had that same attitude in government, we’d have fewer people struggling.
I tell her that I’m not a professional politician. I just want to do the job of Lt. Governor and do it well. She says, “That’s all I needed to hear. Seriously, that’s all I’m looking for. I don’t care what party you’re from.” There are a lot of other people in Ellen’s situation. And if leaders don’t listen to her story, there may be even more soon.
Jeff Bleich served as Chair of the California State University Board, President of the California State Bar, Special Counsel to the President, and U.S. Ambassador to Australia. He is a candidate for Lt. Governor of California.