Facebook, Google and hundreds of other companies that drive our digital lives call Silicon Valley home, but so do people who find it almost impossible to make ends meet, even if they are key to keeping billion-dollar industries running.
In a new book, photographer Mary Beth Meehan presents a series of portraits that show another side of the people who power the world’s tech capital.
Imelda works for a cleaning company. Six days a week she is picked up early in the morning by a co-worker to drive her to Atherton, one of the wealthiest towns in the US. Owning or even renting a house is out of reach on her wage so Imelda lives in a trailer parked in a friend’s driveway and uses the bathroom and kitchen in her friend’s house, itself home to three generations living together. The flowers in the picture were a gift from one of her clients.
In 1962, Ted moved to Silicon Valley from Louisiana. He worked in construction and bought his house for $9,500. Belle Haven is a historically Black neighbourhood, located close to Facebook’s head office. Realtors are constantly sending letters, phoning and knocking on his door, asking if Ted would be willing to sell. His house is now valued at close to a million dollars. But Ted refuses to move: “If I sell my house,” he says, “where am I gonna go?”
As a teacher, Konstance is one of the thousands of public servants in Silicon Valley who can’t afford to live in the area they work in. The commute from more affordable parts of San Francisco Bay can take hours on congested roads, so when Konstance and her two daughters were offered an apartment subsidised by Facebook near their Menlo Park headquarters, she was thrilled. The project was a pilot scheme however, and the family still face uncertainty.
Victor moved to Silicon Valley from El Salvador over 25 years ago. He lives in a small trailer in Mountain View, not far from Google’s campus. He used to live in an apartment nearby but had to leave when the rent increased. His trailer is one of many parked in a long line, where many other people who have lost their homes stay.
A United States Army veteran, Cristobal served his country for seven years, three of those in the war in Iraq. He now works as a contract security officer at Facebook. Starting at dawn, Cristobal stands at a crosswalk guiding traffic and looking out for pedestrians crossing the road who are too busy staring at their phones. He earns $21 per hour, not enough for a flat or house in Silicon Valley. So he lives in a shed in someone’s back garden.
A Stanford graduate, Elizabeth works for a major tech firm. But she is also homeless. She said, “Please remember that many of the homeless – and there are many more of us than are captured in the census – work in the same companies that you do. Sometimes we’re serving you food in the cafeteria, or sitting in the lobby, checking your badge when you come in. Sometimes we’re going to be cleaning the floors when you leave. But other times we’re in mid-level jobs. It is possible to have a mid-level salary and still be living paycheck to paycheck in Silicon Valley.”
All images copyright Mary Beth Meehan, reprinted with permission from Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America by Mary Beth Meehan, published by the University of Chicago Press © 2021.