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Finding a home on Hotel 22

Isabel Angell
Elizabeth Garber talks to the bus driver at the Palo Alto Transit Center

Santa Clara County has the seventh biggest population of homeless people in the United States. The people affected often have to find their own solutions, doing things like camping along the creek or spending the night on the 22 bus line.

It’s the county’s only overnight bus service and it’s been used as a makeshift homeless shelter for more than a decade. But this year, the Valley Transportation Authority is considering shutting down the all-night service. KALW's Isabel Angel took a ride on the 22 a couple of years ago and met some of the people who called it home.

I’m on the Valley Transportation Authority’s Line 22 bus somewhere between East San Jose and Palo Alto. It’s 2:30 a.m., and it’s raining. I start a conversation with a man sitting down, and ask him if he’s heard the nickname for the bus.

“Yeah, well there's the Motel 22 or Hotel 22. That's the big one I've heard.”

I ask him what he calls the bus.

“I call it home.”

That’s Michael Garber. He’s spending the night on the bus with his wife, Elizabeth.  

“[We’ve] been homeless for about eight months so far, riding the Bus 22 every -- as many times at night as we have money for,” she says.

Around us, some people are covered in blankets, settled way down in their seats. Others are surrounded by bags.

During the day, this is Line 22, a regular city bus. But at night, it makes an unofficial transformation into Hotel 22.

Santa Clara County has the fifth biggest homeless population in the United States. County officials estimate that means about eighteen thousand people are homeless over the course of a year, and there just isn’t enough shelter space to house them all.

For years, the homeless in the area have turned to alternatives to find a place to stay -- like in encampments in the county’s network of creeks, or spending the night on Hotel 22.

For over a decade, people have been using Line 22 in this way -- it’s the county’s only overnight bus service. The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the agency that runs these buses, knows this, and they should -- it’s been going on for over a decade.

“They are like any fare-paying customer, we can't discriminate on who and why they're riding,” says VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress. “So the customers, whether they have a home or not, they're riding and they're following the rules, as long as they're doing that, we have no reason for them to be denied the services.”

Dozens of people like the Garbers pay the two-dollar fare, and use this bus as a shelter for the length of its route -- a two-hour ride. So that means, once every two hours, everybody has to get off and stand out in the cold, to wait for the next bus.

Also riding the bus tonight is Jose Diaz. He’s been homeless for 14 years, and usually sleeps outside. He’s on the bus tonight to get out of the rain.

Up ahead, we come to a stop.

“We gotta get off and go to Denny’s, I got a little bit money, go get some coffee,” he says. He looks out the window.

“Oh there’s a Denny’s right there, pull that thing!” he says to the woman next to him, and they both rush off into the night.

Staying on the Hotel 22 means it’s the middle of the night, the lights are on, you’re surrounded by thirty or so people you hardly know, and it’s loud.

There’s a chatter rising above the sounds of the bus, mostly from people heading home after a night out. There’s also a drunk man talking loudly to whoever will listen, and a woman sharing her history of drug abuse with her seatmate.

And Michael Garber tells me, it’s not just the noise.

“Your stuff’s not secure, you're not secure,” he explains. “I think that's the greatest hardship of all, it's almost this paranoid sense of vigilance you have to maintain...if you have to ride this bus, you got to be prepared to defend what you've got and really sleep with one eye open.”

Garber says he averages about three hours a night. And that takes a toll.

“I've missed interviews because I've fallen asleep on the bus in the morning and missed my stop, I've missed court dates, all kinds of stuff,” he says. “So I don't know how many opportunities I've lost because of it, you know.”

Garber had a job, working for Walmart, but they didn’t keep him on. He and his wife Elizabeth used to live with her mother, but they couldn’t contribute enough rent after he lost his job.

“We ended up on the street, and we've been doing that ever since,” Elizabeth explains.

They’ve tried to sign up for affordable housing, but nothing has panned out.

That’s because Santa Clara County has a 3% vacancy rate -- the lowest in the country. That means finding housing is competitive for everyone -- and landlords are much more likely to go for someone with a stable job history and good credit over a person coming off the streets...or a bus.

We’re getting close to the last stop. I head to the front to talk to the driver, and I ask her what she thinks of driving people who have nowhere else to go.

“It doesn't bother me,” she says. “I mean, everybody who gets on, they're getting on for a reason. Either they're going to sleep from end to end or they're going home, or they're going to work, or it doesn't bother me, I just do my job.”

We pull into the Palo Alto Transit Center-- the end of the line. It’s about 3:30 in the morning. A guard steps on, and gets on the loudspeaker.

“Good morning, this is the last stop, please deboard the bus.”

Everyone files off, some more willingly than others. Then they cross to the other side of the terminal, and wait for the next bus.

Click here to see a New York Times video about the Hotel 22.

This story originally aired in April 2014.