When Annette Rodrigo didn’t have anywhere else to go, she spent her nights on the bus.
She picked the same one every time: Line 22, a route long enough that she could catch some sleep before it ended. Rodrigo would settle in at the back — attendants woke her up if they caught her asleep, she said — and nod in and out of sleep as the bus wound its way down the Peninsula from Palo Alto to the far side of San Jose.
That’s why when you ask her now, four years later, what her favorite part of her new apartment is, her answer is simple.
“My bed,” Rodrigo says, laughing.
Rodrigo, 59, is quiet and soft-spoken, but she has a lot to talk about these days: her job, her walks in downtown Palo Alto and her new boyfriend. After four years of homelessness in the Bay Area, she moved into a low-income studio apartment in Palo Alto two months ago and found a new lease on life.
The path to get there wasn’t easy. But Rodrigo’s story shows how a network of shelters, case managers and housing providers can eventually come together to move some of the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Santa Clara County off the streets— if they can make it through all the obstacles, and the waiting, to get there — and how much of a difference having a roof can make.
“It makes me feel stable,” Rodrigo said of her apartment. “I feel confident that I’ll be able to go to work every day and live an independent life.”
Stability was hard to come by when Rodrigo first came to the US in 1984. She came from the Philippines, eloping with her then-boyfriend to escape a difficult relative. She settled in San Francisco ten years later and worked as a nurse assistant for a school in Daly City.
Things changed over the years — new jobs and relationships, marriages and splits — and all the while, her rent increased too. And she missed her family overseas. In 2017, Rodrigo returned home to the Philippines to visit them, a trip which she sheepishly admits cost too much of her money. She was evicted from her apartment soon after she returned and left with nothing but a backpack of her clothes. When she couldn’t find shelter on the streets, she looked for a bus stop.
“I would take the bus for the whole night,” Rodrigo said. “Transfer from one bus to another until dawn. And that’s how I made it.”
Rodrigo knew to look for help. After getting evicted, she sought out the Opportunity Services Center, a drop-in site in Palo Alto run by homelessness nonprofit LifeMoves that provides case management and hygiene facilities. There, she met a case manager, Robert Smith, who helped her file applications for housing and find some work with the Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that employs unhoused people to work on community clean-up projects.
Rodrigo counts herself lucky — the Opportunity Center helped her save money and navigate a long process to apply for housing at various apartments, which required access to facilities she otherwise didn’t have.
“They’re very helpful,” Rodrigo said. “[Smith] was the one who made the copies, he was the one who faxed it to the owners.”
Rodrigo and Smith explored all their options. They signed Rodrigo up for the waitlist for the state’s Section 8 emergency housing vouchers, but she never heard back. Smith lost count, but guesses they applied to over 20 different affordable housing units. But for four years, no-one would take her.
“Even with us engaged and advocating for her, some of the apartment managers were just like, ‘I’m unable to give her a chance because she has these things on her record,’” Smith said.
Just an eviction on Rodrigo’s record, they found, was enough to sink many of her applications.
“I think that’s the main point I would take from it,” Smith added. “Having a system where people, on fixed income especially, can get a little bit of leniency on certain policies and certain regulations for low income housing would be extremely helpful.”
Every week, Rodrigo would check in with Smith at the Opportunity Center and ask for updates. Some landlords never replied. Others would take months to follow up, only for applications to stall or be rejected. And then they’d go back to searching.
“I was overwhelmed,” Rodrigo said. “You’d almost give up.”
While Rodrigo waited, Smith was also able to refer her to several homeless shelters — first one in Sunnyvale, and then one of LifeMoves’ own interim housing sites in Mountain View. Rodrigo credits the LifeMoves Mountain View site for connecting her to employment specialists who helped her find her current job in customer service at a Goodwill store in Santa Clara.
Rodrigo was at work sorting through donations in October when a text finally came in from Smith with the news she’d been waiting for — she’d been approved to move into a studio in an affordable housing complex in Palo Alto. It was such a shock that she struggles to recall how she reacted right afterwards.
“I got so excited, I don’t even remember,” Rodrigo said, laughing.
LifeMoves helped to pay her deposit, and Rodrigo moved in within days. Now, two months later, she eagerly points out the comforts of her studio: internet, a TV so she can watch the 49ers on the weekends, and a small Christmas tree in the middle of the room she’s kept up since the holidays.
None of that, though, trumps her new bed.
“Being homeless, you won’t be able to sleep,” Rodrigo said. “Here, I can sleep good and wake up at a later time. In the homeless shelter, you have to get up early, you have to leave at a certain time. That wasn’t very good at all.”
Rodrigo doesn’t sleep in on most days, though. She’s up at seven in the morning to grab coffee before heading to Goodwill for her morning shifts. For the first time in four years, getting her own apartment has given Rodrigo the breathing room to start thinking about the future, and that means more saving up. She wants to eventually buy a car — a Nissan Santoro, she’s decided, the first car she ever had — and return to the Philippines to see her siblings next summer.
“I’m going to tell them that I love them,” Rodrigo said. “And I’m going to tell them that I missed them so much for all the years that I’ve been away.”
Rodrigo’s still soft-spoken and quiet, but she carries an optimism and confidence now when she thinks about her hopes for the next few years And she’s grateful. Rodrigo knows she’s beaten the odds, even with the long and arduous wait she endured.
“They really told me it takes years for somebody to get housed,” Rodrigo said. “I was lucky it only took me four years. Some people are still waiting for housing and they’ve been there, I don’t know [how long].”
Rodrigo intends to make the most of the new opportunities she’s found. And, fittingly, they’ve brought her back to Line 22. She takes the same bus to work that she used to sleep on — now, she gets off near Goodwill in Santa Clara in the mornings instead of curling up in the back until the end of the line.
It reminds Rodrigo of how far she’s come.
“I feel good about myself now,” Rodrigo said. “I don’t feel worried. I used to worry every day, ‘What’s going to happen If I don’t get any housing?’ Getting a home makes me feel secure.”
Daniel Wu graduated from Stanford University in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in History. He has interned with the San Jose Mercury News and the Seattle Times and worked as a managing editor, graphic designer, news and sports reporter for The Stanford Daily. He’s interested in features and investigative reporting as well as multimedia journalism, and maybe doing them both together. Daniel grew up in Beijing, Shanghai and London and enjoys sports, cooking and making lots of playlists on Spotify.