After nine months living in an RV that had to be moved every three nights, Andrea Johnson thought she’d lost her two children behind one of the many doors in their new two-bedroom apartment.
Johnson was doing dishes when the place went silent so she mounted a search and found them in the last place she expected — already tucked into their slots in their new bunk beds, Jose, 12, on the bottom, Amber, 8, on top.
“It was the first time they ever put themselves to bed on their own,” said Johnson, 43, during an interview on her only day off from work, a Wednesday. “They were so thankful that they wanted to go to bed early.”
The bunk-bed set, with mattresses, built-in drawers and twin dressers, came courtesy of the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund. It was delivered, set up and made up to mark the end of an odyssey that began the way so many odysseys begin in Silicon Valley, with an eviction.
The Sunnyvale apartment complex where Johnson had grown up with a single, working mom, and where she was raising her own kids as a single, working mom, was sold.
Eight years on a month-to-month lease became a 60-day notice to vacate. The favorable rent she was able to cover while working as an in-home care provider could not be found anywhere else. She did not have much but she had an RV, so she loaded up the two kids and the two cats and went mobile.
“I’m used to doing everything on my own,” said Johnson, who has a diploma from Homestead High School in Cupertino, Steve Jobs’ alma mater, and national certification as a medical assistant. “I’m not a victim except of circumstances.”
Truth is, she didn’t mind life in the RV, getting up at 5 a.m. to boil water to get the kids washed before getting them off for school. She still had her car, which she parked near the RV, switching in and out to protect her parking spot. But every day was like a “three-men-in-a-boat” conundrum.
“The kids never missed a day of school and I never missed a day of work,” she said. “It was crazy trying to move cars and move kids, finding places to do your laundry and homework and juggling doctors appointments. And looking for a place to live at the same time and everybody telling you ‘no’ because they only want the techies to move into their building.”
There were only two aspects to it Johnson couldn’t work around. One is that her son, Jose, has special needs that require close monitoring and supervision.
The other is the parking restrictions in Sunnyvale. Stay anywhere more than three nights and she’d be towed. Stay anywhere for two nights and she’d be ticketed. She tried moving the RV to the rough side of town where the transients are, but then other hassles would ensue.
She finally found a spot next to Sunnyvale Community Services, an independent nonprofit that provides emergency assistance. Because the organization is located just outside a residential community, she could stay more than three nights without attracting police attention. She was even able to sneak the plug for her RV into an outlet at the agency to recharge her generator.
Johnson was trying to stay discreet but was unknowingly on the radar of Stephano Joseph , a case manager for Sunnyvale Community Services. One day, Johnson came over and inquired about a food giveaway, and that was an indication that she needed more than parking and power for her RV.
When Joseph knocked on the RV door, Johnson “didn’t know what a case manager was,” she said. “Here I am, a stubborn independent female who is used to doing everything on her own.”
She took some convincing, but once she was approved for the organization’s Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program, doors started to open. It took two months, but Joseph found Johnson and her children a two-bedroom apartment on a cul-de-sac in San Jose, on the side of Interstate 280 nearer the hills and just past the Santa Clara city line.
“The living room is bigger than the RV,” Johnson said, pointing from her front door to the vehicle in its own designated parking spot.
She has a one-year lease, and her rent is subsidized by the city of Sunnyvale. As Johnson’s income rises, the subsidy will drop proportionately. She is completing work for her licensed vocational nursing certificate, which will triple her earnings power, she said. She has a new job coming in about six weeks, with better pay. By next year, she expects to be able to cover the entire rent.
But she never could cover the furnishings.
“I worked my butt off to get this stuff,” she said. But she never could find free beds, so the three of them slept on blow-up mattresses until the day Joseph caught wind of this arrangement.
Sunnyvale Community Services has a three-way arrangement with the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund and a furniture store in Silicon Valley. The bedroom set, which has a double mattress on the bottom for Jose and a single on top for Amber, is the only brand new furniture in the apartment.
“We’re finally home, Mom,” Jose said when Johnson found her kids tucked in on their own that first night.
Then he slept through the night for the first time since their eviction.