SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — A professor teaching at San Jose State University who can’t afford a place to live in the South Bay tells KPIX 5 she is spending most nights sleeping in her car.

Ellen Tara James-Penney is adjunct professor at San Jose State.

She teaches four classes of English 1-A and has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

That has not kept her from becoming another member of San Jose’s homeless population.

“With what I make at San Jose State, I can’t pay $2,000 a month rent. Can’t do it,” said James-Penney.

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Her take home pay is about $2,500 a month. Her usual routine is nearly constant motion.

After classes she parks in library or Walmart parking lots where she grades papers.

“I sit there until it gets dark. Then I sneak into a neighborhood, park there, then go to sleep,” explained James-Penney.

She says when people find out they are shocked.

“Because there is a stereotype, and that stereotype is drug addict, alcoholic, lazy,” said James-Penney. “I just asked my students, and that’s what they answered.”

Glen Peterson works with the San Jose branch of the Christian nonprofit organization CityTeam. He calls it the changing face of homelessness.

“Not everybody is in a position to have jobs that pay them enough to keep up,” said Peterson.

When CityTeam first started helping the homeless 60 years ago, clients tended to be mostly men with those stereotypical addictions.

That is not the case anymore.

“People in this situation are now right alongside us,” said Peterson. “They could be in the next cubicle or teaching your children. It’s a tremendous challenge for us.”

James-Penney used to be an admin in high tech, but was laid off in the dot-com bust and was forced to live on her savings.

She went back to school and paid tuition with student loans.

“I’m $143,000 in debt. And I’m in my 50s. But I pay that loan back every month,” said James-Penney. “That is mandatory for me. But that chunk I pay also affects how much I can afford in rent.”

She also supporting her husband — who is unemployed — and their two dogs.

“I fight to stay positive in my thinking.  Doing my job, caring about my students. But it wears on me,” she said.

She keeps her car neat and her belongings are minimal to avoid being detected.

But deep inside her roof rack cargo carrier is a cast-iron frying pan she doesn’t use, at least for now.

“Just like my mom and my grandma used to have,” said James-Penney. “I hold on to this because it’s the hope that someday I’ll have a home again.”

Comments (48)
  1. Does the husband also live in the car? What about the dogs? This story doesn’t make sense.

    1. Jenn Bennett says:

      I’m confused by that, too. Do they not live together? I absolutely believe that this teacher isn’t making enough to live and pay her loans, but at the same time it seemed like pertinent information was missing to give us a full picture.

      1. Semaj McIver says:

        What’s confusing about this? It’s explained in the video.

    2. llappin says:

      She said and the reporter repeated–they all live in the car. Put the seats down, keep their things on top of the car.

    3. Rader Scott says:

      they say several times that they all live in the car

  2. Something is missing from this story. And $143K in debt for schooling??? Too many people think they should attend college. Learn a trade instead.

    1. Dave your criticism makes no sense. Are you saying nobody should become a college English teacher and instead be plumbers?

  3. I have to point out a factual error: she is not a professor. She is a lecturer and yes lecturers make too little. But it is factually wrong for KPIX to her a professor. Part time lecturers get paid only by course and have no benefits. Professors (not just tenured) have an annual salary and benefits.

  4. Tell her to move to Korea … she could make a LOT more money teaching university here. Starting pay is double her salary. …with housing.

    I have been working here with a Masters teaching English for 10 years

    For example…,5269

    1. Lark Rafuse says:

      Sorry but who in their right mind would consider moving to S Korea with N Korea doing its nuke threats ?

  5. Majid Malik says:

    i was homeless in silicon valley for 4 years, 2001-2005, because I was smoking a lot of weed and cigs. I am pro software developer and I have made more than 1/5 million since 2005 after coming out of shelters.

  6. harpoinseoul says:

    Just to balance things a bit, in Korea, a lot of universities are no longer providing free housing. In addition, with a rising cost of living, the salaries are fairly stagnant and is no longer as good as it once was. BTW, it’s still a great job and may be a good choice for many.

  7. Carl Hampton says:

    I agree with the other commenters- this seems like poor journalism. How is she supporting her husband and paying $100,000+ in student loans on $2500/month? Why did she decide to take so much $ in loans when education jobs don’t pay a lot and there is a high cost of living in the bay area? Did she work with a guidance counselor when going to school to figure this out?
    Maybe we should be doing a better job making sure people who are needed in a community can afford to live there, but this seems like a bad example.

  8. LC Boros says:

    The problem is actually how colleges/universities are administered and the fact that treat adj professors and lecturers like day laborers. This isn’t just a single issue. There are hundreds if not thousands of similar cases. Stop blaming the victim and look at the system they are held within. Want to make a difference? Donate your time or money to try to find solutions to the underlying issues while recognized people like this are in difficult situations.

    1. Sharon Reeve says:

      It is just horrible how they make Adjunct Professors work and barely pay them. Their extreme work load is just criminal slave labor.

    2. This has been going on for many years and the elite get wealthier and wealthier. Income inequality keeps getting wider. They want workers, not thinkers, and keep you too busy on overload to get the time to do whatever it takes to get out of the enslavement mode.

  9. Big freakin deal, are they doing stories of other people living on the street who have an education? NO, Why this person? Because it’s a woman. BFD Men have become the scourge of the earth and second class citizens. Bust your ass to buy a house and a comfortable lifestyle for you and your wife, and what happens, she want what her girlfriends has.Does she have a job
    contribute financially to the relationship? She just wants more and “I shouldn’t have to work thats the man’s job” while she’s out swilling wine with her girlfriends, and you’re busting you ass with 3 jobs. Time to come done a few rungs babe and join us on the jungle floor.

  10. M.k. Hajdin says:

    And of course, because this is the internet, some dude had to turn this into an anti-woman rant.

  11. Instead of picking apart this woman’s story, understand this is happening every where in California. I just lost my apartment due to mold and find myself homeless at 64. I’m a retired litigation paralegal, published writer and personal historian. And I can’t afford shelter, not even a room share, on my Social Security. I could three years ago, but not now.

  12. The Contra Costa Community College District appears to pay better for an adjunct English instructor than SJSU. According to the job posting, the Hourly Range is $59.70 – $84.36/ per hour. Maybe she should apply for a job somewhere else.

  13. What about getting a part-time job? I have done this in the past when money is tight. It may not make for a glamorous life but she’d be better off than she is now. Retailers are always looking for people & some companies have weekend only receptionists.

  14. Roland Petit says:

    A country that allows this doesn’t deserve to exist.

  15. I would like to address a few things that don’t make sense. 1) why is the husband not working 2) why are there 2 dogs in this “mix”. Possible solution: Husband gets a job and income doubles. IMO this is not a good place for dogs-they should be taken to a foster org. so they can have a normal life with a family not living on wheels!

  16. Can somebody explain, please? Following the recommendations of “Larry Crown” from Tom Hanks, why does not she declare herself the bankrupt and complete her murderous relationship with the bank and start a new life? Is it because of “credit story” means everything and whole other things mean nothing?