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Homeless San Jose State Professor Struggles Living Out Of Her Car

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."

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