Year Without Home Gives Official a New Perspective

Year Without Home Gives Official a New Perspective


FOSTER CITY, Calif. — 

Politicians often talk of the problems of the homeless. John Oliver has lived them.

Once a solid member of the middle class, the Foster City councilman has had business and personal setbacks that cost him his house and his family and for more than a year left him living out of his camper truck with his dog Topper.

But Oliver has not given up hope, nor has he given up his seat on Foster City’s five-member City Council. Indeed, the former industrial instrument salesman recently accepted his colleagues’ offer to make him vice mayor.

That honor signaled what Oliver hopes is the permanent reversal of fortune, a reversal that includes a local property management company’s offer to supply him with a studio apartment in return for his part-time services as handyman.

That successful turn was welcome news for people who know Oliver, either as friends or constituents who deal with him on the City Council. Auto dealer Jim Rich, who has fought with Oliver over zoning issues, said no one deserves a break as much as the homeless councilman.

“After all he’s been through, he never lost his dignity or self-esteem,” Rich said. “As a person, I can’t say enough about him.”

But even a new home, into which Oliver moved this week, cannot erase a year spent sleeping on friends’ sofas and living in the back of his truck, he said. He learned a lot in that year–the importance of friends and the unimportance of material wealth, for example.

His biggest lesson, however, was that there is a critical need for a permanent solution to homelessness: more low-cost housing and fewer environmental and zoning laws that he said often stand in the way.

“All we have to do is give them (developers) the land,” he said. “Demand is there and the talent is there. If we can only get the government to get out of the way, the problem will solve itself.”

Such a laissez-faire attitude may sound surprising coming from a man driven from his own home by a series of business failures. But Oliver said his third-generation conservative Republican political convictions were “more confirmed than challenged” by his homeless experience.

He has a new respect for shelters and job centers and other elements of the so-called “social safety net” that ministers to the homeless, but he argued that “there ain’t a safety net big enough for the problem.”

“People who think that if we just make the net big enough we can solve the problem do not understand the problem,” he said.

The problem, he said, is a housing shortage, which has driven up the prices of what used to be affordable houses and apartments. He thinks the solution is to build more homes, ignoring aesthetic concerns if necessary, to increase the supply and drive down prices.

“People sleeping in the armory are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said, referring to a popular vision of homeless people as friendless derelicts who spend most of their time begging on the streets. “There are a lot more people like me, people paying 40% to 50% of their income for housing. . . . That is fine until the transmission falls out of their car or they need a new (dental) bridge; then they can’t pay the rent, and they find themselves sleeping on someone else’s couch.”

Oliver’s story is almost that dull–and dramatic.

A 1961 business administration graduate of Ohio University, Oliver moved to the Bay Area in 1972 to open the West Coast office of a Chicago company that sold infra-red temperature sensors and other industrial instruments. He bought a waterfront home in Foster City, a new, planned community, and joined the homeowners association.

That sparked an interest in local politics, which led to his appointment, in 1978, to the city planning commission. He divorced his wife in 1980 and moved out of his house and deeper into Republican politics. He also left his job to have more time to devote to the reapportionment of congressional districts in the state, opening his own business as a consultant to homeowner associations created by the growing number of condominium and townhouse developments.

His continued interest in politics–he was elected to a seat on the Foster City City Council in 1984–distracted him from his company; it closed when he fell ill with complications from clogged arteries in 1985. He again tried to sell industrial instruments, but a venture fell through. A computer consulting job withered. He tried unsuccessfully to resume his practice of providing a consulting service for homeowner associations.

He ran for reelection in 1987 and won, but it was a rare victory.

His slide toward homelessness “wasn’t real clear-cut,” he said. “I was doing this, doing that; entrepreneurial stuff.” Living within a few miles of Silicon Valley, the home of entrepreneurship, he thought he would succeed.

“At that time, I don’t think anyone visualized what was going on (with the homeless situation),” he said. “It was, ‘easy come, easy go.’ I figured that I had a place to live at the time, so I would always have a place.”

But when his landlord sought what Oliver said was a “fair and reasonable” hike in the $780 monthly rent on his one-bedroom apartment, Oliver realized he couldn’t pay it. Couldn’t pay any rent, in fact. He needed time to get back on his feet. If he could just store his possessions and house-sit for friends, he figured he could recover in a few weeks. A month, at most.

The friends agreed in September, 1989, and Oliver quit his apartment. But the friends’ landlord objected, and in less than a month Oliver was out on the street. He bounced from friend to friend, staying in their spare bedrooms, but he felt that he was imposing. “It was my problem, not theirs,” he said. So he and his dog moved into his camper. And stayed.

He lived on his $480 monthly stipend as a councilman and whatever he could make doing odd jobs for friends–repairing earthquake damage to their houses, fixing broken doors, dealing with exposed wires. He used a friend’s address to register to vote so he could legally remain on the City Council.

But days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. He grew depressed at the idea that he had changed forever, that he might never pull out of his slide.

“Then I saw how my friends were treating me, that they still saw me as the same guy I always was,” he said. “I thought, ‘I AM the same person. I am not what I DO or what I HAVE.’ It was a hard lesson to learn.”

Between job-hunting forays–which he said were unsuccessful because of his age, 51, and his somewhat eclectic background–Oliver said he began using his time to help his friends.

“John is a very unique individual,” said Rich, the auto salesman who has fought with Oliver over efforts by officials in this tightly regulated planned community to prevent Rich from installing a ham radio antenna in his yard.

Oliver’s homelessness actually gave him enough time to study Rich’s antenna application in such detail–he visited Rich’s home often to pore over designs and specifications–that a fellow council member accused Oliver of living with Rich.

That charge, which has been denied by both Oliver and Rich and which the city attorney recently dismissed as unfounded, prompted Oliver to go public with his homelessness.

In addition to giving him ample time to concentrate on city matters, Oliver said, his situation also gives him the luxury of lots of leisure time, which he spends playing with his dog or savoring recordings by Bob Wills.

“I spent all that time in my 20s and 30s climbing that career ladder, with the waterfront home, the Volvo station wagon, the Air Travel Card, all of that good stuff,” he said. “But I was always living for that next big order, next big promotion, next big raise.

“Now I live for what’s right in front of me. I get up in the morning, look around to see what needs to be done–and do it. There is something magical in that.”

Oliver doesn’t over-romanticize his experience. Homeless living is hard, he said. He is thankful that he did not have to deal with drug or mental problems, which can make homelessness a chronic problem, and he’s pleased that he has received an apartment from a property management company with which he once worked as a consultant.

But he has gained new priorities. He said he has turned aside job offers in other cities so he can stay here to fight for the development issues he thinks will help the homeless.

The money might be better if he took one of those jobs, he conceded, but he said he has important work to do yet in Foster City.

“I was affluent before and may be affluent again,” he said. “But that is not what it’s all about.”

Long Description: This metal bench along Belmont Slough is “in memory and honor of John Oliver Mayor of Foster City and his beloved dog Topper from their Career Education Friends.”

Where is this bench located?: Near a paved bike and walking path facing Belmont Slough

Who is this bench honoring?: John Oliver and his dog Topper

Visit Instructions: To log this waymark you can take a photo of the entire bench. You may have yourself (Sitting of course) or your GPS in the photo. A photo is not required, but encouraged.