For many families in Mountain View, just one minor disaster could mean losing everything -- the loss of a job, a medical emergency or even a car breaking down. One setback can result in not being able to afford food or rent for the month.
Day in, day out, the economic desperation that underpins Silicon Valley is evident at the Community Services Agency headquarters, located just north of Castro Street. Every weekday, a line of people snakes outside the building, waiting for free bags of groceries from the CSA pantry. Many of them are employed, some with two or three jobs. But it's still not quite enough for financial stability, said Anita Grossman, CSA's development director.
"These people aren't losers; they're working as hard as the rest of us for their families, hoping for a better life," she said. "And my sense is that there's going to be more and more people who will be needing our services."
The Community Services Agency has been the critical safety net for people struggling to sustain themselves in Mountain View and the surrounding communities. And more people have begun to rely on its support, from free groceries to rental assistance and help with other expenses. In the last six months, the social services nonprofit has been providing regular assistance to just under 1,300 households, about one-sixth of whom are homeless.
CSA is one of seven local nonprofit organizations that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations to the fund are divided equally among the nonprofits and are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at no cost.
"We can't stop the current dynamic and we can't suddenly make housing affordable. So our job is figuring how we can provide the best services we can," said Nicole Nosich, CSA's associate director. "Sometimes that means just providing the ability for people to just hang on."
Yet, CSA administrators still fear there's a larger pool of people in need of help who aren't being reached. In recent months, Nosich and her colleagues have been trying to test new ways to reach families in need. They realized some households were too strapped for time to seek help at CSA. Other families, they believe, are apprehensive about asking for help, especially with the federal government's scrutiny of undocumented immigrants.
Over the summer, CSA dramatically expanded a program at Castro Elementary School to provide free groceries for families when they pick up students. The program was made possible due a $100,000 grant from the Inspire Mountain View program, and about 350 families are now getting regular food, four times a month, through the initiative. A similar program has also been launched at Theurkauf Elementary.
Starting in February, CSA began an outreach effort to the growing number of people living out of vehicles on the streets. Outreach Manager Thomas Herena single-handedly met with nearly 300 households living out of vehicles around Mountain View. He asks about their situation and tells them about any programs at CSA for which they are eligible.
"Living out of a vehicle isn't exactly a place that people want to be in," Herena said. "But many of them grew up here, they have family here, so this is home and they don't want to leave."
On a temporary basis, CSA offers some rent assistance for emergency cases. For example, if someone's work hours are cut or they've lost money in a crime, CSA can provide temporary funds to help "stabilize" the situation and prevent an eviction, Nosich said. In rare cases, CSA case workers advise their clients that it is simply unsustainable to stay in Mountain View, given the high cost of living. Those people are redirected to a partner agency in other area, such as Sacramento. About 12 people were advised to do this since last summer, she said.
"We hate having to do it, but it's a better option than having someone vulnerable to becoming homeless," Nosich said. "Being homeless is not really an option; we can't allow that."
The 30 staff members at CSA are supplemented by hundreds of volunteers. CSA administrators are working to grow that pool of socially minded volunteers, especially younger people who recently moved to the area. In recent weeks, the organization held its first networking event aimed at younger tech workers, and more similar events are planned for the future.
Donations to the Holiday Fund are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and may be made online here.