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One family’s story illuminates the Bay Area housing crisis

Recently, I met a mother facing a complex set of challenges. Patricia Gutierrez is a single mom raising three children in San Mateo County, just north of Stanford. Gutierrez has a limited income, but until a few months ago, it was OK: She was able to afford to live nearby because her family was sharing an apartment with her sister and her sister's four children.

The apartment allowed the family to stay near the medical care team at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford that has been caring for Gutierrez's youngest child, 5-year-old Joy, who was born with a genetic disease that causes blindness.

Then, earlier this year, the family's world was upended. My latest story in Stanford Medicine magazine explains:

'She likes to be independent,' Gutierrez says of Joy, who was beginning to learn her Braille letters in preschool and was becoming adept at using a white cane to navigate the shadowy world apparent through her extremely limited vision. 'If it’s hard, she wants to try.'

But in June, Gutierrez and her sister received an eviction notice on their shared apartment. By early August, unable to find housing she could afford, Gutierrez and her children were living in a shelter 12 miles from their old neighborhood. Joy misses their apartment, their neighborhood, and her aunt and cousins. She keeps asking why they can’t move home. 'She wants to go back,' Gutierrez says. 'It’s been very hard.'

Gutierrez's story isn't unusual; many families with chronically ill children are being pressured by the Bay Area's skyrocketing housing costs. Physicians at Packard Children's, including Joy's doctor, pediatric ophthalmologist Deborah Alcorn, MD, and Lisa Chamberlain, MD, a longtime physician advocate for kids in need, are concerned:

Chamberlain worries that the financial engine of Silicon Valley is leaving a lot of families behind. 'Because of our economy, we’re facing really significant risks right now,' she says. There’s more food insecurity as families shift their incomes to meet rising rents, many extended families are crowded into small apartments, and parents often face very long commutes to reach their jobs. All of these elements of the housing crisis can hurt kids’ health.

The broader outlook is important to doctors on the ground, Alcorn says. 'You don’t just take care of the child; you kind of inherit the whole family,' she says. 'I want to do more than just ophthalmology for kids. It’s not like I’m just coming in, checking their eyes and they’re out the door.'

My article, and the video above, tell more of the Gutierrez family's story.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine puts spotlight on pediatric careLocal knowledge key to building healthier communities, Spotlight on homelessness: What medical providers can do and How your neighborhood can affect your health: A real-life experiment from Sweden
Thumbnail photo by Leslie Williamson

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