How an IBM Developer Became Homeless and Turned into an Advocate

Robert Aguirre is an organizer and advocate for the Homeless in Silicon Valley and a dear friend of De-Bug. We have been blessed to be able to share his story and stand in solidarity with him as homelessness and housing issues continue to be one Silicon Valley's most pressing issues. Once affectionately called The Mayor of the Jungle, Robert's work has been impactful and his sincerity has been undeniable. Robert's story mirrors The Valley as he narrates his journey from small business owner to homeless, to a homeless advocate.

There’s a common misconception to how people become homeless. The stereotypical view is that homeless are drug crazed, violent and lazy people. That they choose to be homeless and expect society to provide for them and aren’t interested in helping themselves, choosing instead, to live in filth and garbage, hoarding useless junk and using stolen shopping carts to haul it all around town.

I am living proof that this is not so. I used to own my own business here in Silicon Valley, making $200K a year. I provided consulting services to manufacturers of electronic devices, designed and manufactured here in Silicon Valley. Many of the companies decided it was cheaper to manufacture their products outside the country, taking advantage of lower labor costs. This was the beginning of the end for me, as manufacturers moved out of the country, I lost clients and competition grew for the remaining few. I finally moved my equipment to a storage facility, but without income, I soon was unable to pay my storage fees and lost all my business assets. Soon thereafter, I was unable to pay my mortgage and lost my home. My wife grew tired of the minimum wage jobs I was able to get and soon left me as well through divorce, taking our children with her. I lost everything.

I bounced from job to job trying to get back in my field with no luck. As time progressed it became impossible to return to the type of work I had been doing for so many years. I then met a truly beautiful and wonderful woman that has remained at my side. She is unfortunately, handicapped and has difficulty getting around for very long periods of time. This has made her life painful and difficult to do tasks that most people take for granted.

We were living in a townhouse style apartment with the bathrooms and bedrooms upstairs and the kitchen and living room downstairs. Going up and down the stairs became extremely difficult for her and her doctor suggested we move to a single story apartment. We found one not too far from her work and it seemed as if we had found the perfect solution.

We gave a 30-day notice to our landlord. Unfortunately, we did not sign papers with the new landlord in time. As we approached what we thought was our move in date, we went back to sign the papers and were told he had decided to rent it to a family member.

When we returned to the current landlord, our apartment had already been rented to someone else. They could only give us an additional four days. We then packed everything and moved it into storage.

Now that we were homeless, we began looking for another place to live. We submitted countless applications only to find that we did not qualify for one reason or another. One potential landlord told us that our credit score was too low. It was only then that we discovered that every time we applied and they performed a credit check, our score took a hit. We had now reached a point that would take over a year to correct.

Living in our car seemed to be our only option. We tried staying in library parking lots, taking advantage of free WiFi as we continued searching for options. Soon we were run off location after location being told that we could not stay overnight. It became more and more difficult to find places where we could hide.

Then, my wife’s legs started swelling up to the point that they were causing extreme pain. She said it felt like her legs were about to burst. We went to the emergency room and they eventually figured out she was suffering from edema of her legs due to not elevating her legs at night. Her doctor recommended we move into a tent. That’s when we moved into the jungle [the largest homeless encampment in the country, only recently shut down by authorities].

At first we really didn’t know what to expect. I started going to the jungle during the day while my wife went to work. I started meeting people and getting to know my way around. I found most people were willing to be helpful. My wife and I found a spot and we went shopping for a tent that was large enough for her to stand in and fit a bed in.

The first few nights we had to sleep on the floor until someone donated an air bed that was elevated off the ground. The air mattress that was part of the bed had a leak and became a constant battle to keep inflated throughout the night. Eventually, we found one that didn’t leak and we could finally have a comfortable night’s sleep.

Over time, we started buying things that would make our lives much more comfortable. My main concern was making sure she was as comfortable as possible. Once those things were in order I started helping our neighbors. I started a campaign to keep the area clean from trash. Twice a day I would walk around the top of the jungle picking up trash. I placed trash cans in appropriate places and soon others started using them and the place was cleaner.

Once the city placed notices on the campsites they unleashed the advocate in me. Together with the help of members of the Affordable Housing Network, CHAM, H.O.M.E.L.E.S.S., and food providers, we called a news conference. The media came out in droves reporting on the city’s plan to fence in the jungle and keep the folks who fed the homeless out. That day and the next were a tremendous win for the jungle and the feeders. The city didn’t show up at all and denied ever placing the notices.

It was then that I knew that I must continue fighting and be the voice of the homeless community. Together with all the supporters for the homeless community, we continue to fight with the city of San Jose, the county of Santa Clara, the state of California and the entire system that criminalizes homelessness and fails to provide affordable housing for all citizens.

I now live with my wife in a condo belonging to a friend who relocated to Boise, Idaho. My wife still works at the same place she was working at before. I am still working, for no pay, as an advocate for the homeless community in Santa Clara County. I have a database of feeders, providers, supporters and media that are all useful in providing for them. I belong to a team of advocates and housed persons interested in helping the homeless community where the needs are greatest. I just wish there was a place where they could not have to be in survival mode to then work on their individual problems, so that one day they can be able to move back into the society from which they came.

 Robert speaking to a group of residents and advocates at a new campsite.

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I got impress by this testimony , I like to help him. Im a 74 years old soon 75, but I go here where i live to take food to the homeless ,I have a radio -via I'm a ,evangelic christian believer,for 32 y years. I own 4 christian bookstores years back. now i dedicate my life to serve the Lord, and do w2hat he tells me to do. thankyou have a great day. with love Grace.Yuba City,Ca.

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