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Panel discusses resolving homelessness in the East Bay

on March 4, 2019

Over the years, Nella Gonçalves has become very used to hearing a certain question: “Ew, you work with the homeless? Don’t they stink?”

Gonçalves is the deputy director of Beyond Emancipation, an organization that helps foster youth transition into lives as independent adults. Gonçalves meets a lot of very young people in very difficult positions; she said there’s not a single youth she works with who wouldn’t know what it’s like to fear homelessness. Yet, she observed, even though barely anyone knows how to live independently at the age of 18—or can afford to do it—society demonizes all homeless people alike and tends to think that their struggles are always of their own making.

As Jaime Jenett, a continuum of care planning and policy manager for the Homeless Program of Contra Costa Health Services added, a large part of the homelessness issue is not being lucky enough to be born into a network of affluent people who can help you when something bad happens.

Last Thursday, Gonçalves, Jenett and representatives of other Bay Area homeless service organizations came together in Oakland to discuss just that—how to be substitutes for the lack of a network of helpful people. The matter is especially urgent because of the sudden and rapid growth of homelessness in the Bay Area. Between 2015 and 2017, the homeless population in Oakland grew 26 percent, with a 40 percent increase countywide according to the EveryOne Counts point in time homeless count. This kind of survey attempts to find and count the number of people who are homeless on a single day.

In Contra Costa County, the number of homeless people grew 38 percent between 2017 and 2018, with an especially high increase among senior citizens. Their presence among the homeless grew 88 percent.

The Contra Costa County Health Services department completed its most recent point in time survey in January. Newer data is still being analyzed. But Janett added that there’s no way this method of counting every homeless person on the street in one night every two years really captures the extent of what’s going on. There are at least three times as many people, about 6,000, who use Contra Costa County’s homeless services, and another 1,000 that are considered to be at-risk of homelessness, Janett said.

The organizations tasked with helping the homeless are unable to meet the demand for support and housing. The absolute majority—69 percent of the homeless people in Alameda County—are left unsheltered, according to EveryOne Counts data. That’s another steep jump from 59 percent in 2015. “Housing prices are skyrocketing. There’s a big gap. A lot of people are making a lot of money. But there are people who are hardly making any money at all,” Jenett said.

Providing only shelter would not be a long-term solution, though, she said. Affordable housing is needed urgently. However, currently, it takes about seven years on average until people actually can start moving in once a project gets started, Jenett said.

Over the last 10 years, the Alameda Point Collaborative has been trying to build a 267-unit housing complex for homeless families. The organization is still working on the final design. “Every step on the way to build housing has a lot of barriers to it,” says Doug Biggs, the executive director of the organization. It takes a lot of time to get the necessary bureaucratic approval, then there’s the even more difficult question of funding the project. There’s no one source of money for organizations looking to help the homeless, so it has to be gathered from a variety of sources. And every bit is like a domino, as Biggs described it. You get one bit of funding, then you can hope for another. If something does not work out, you start the cycle all over next year.

Meanwhile, for every unit Alameda Point Collaborative has offered homeless people previously, there have been at least 20 people hoping to get it, Biggs said.

Most speakers also emphasized the lack of empathy people show to the homeless. Biggs is currently campaigning to start another housing project specifically for elderly homeless people. Every day, he said, he meets someone saying: “It’s a great project serving seniors, I just don’t want it in my neighborhood.” They are scared that their property would lose value because of their new neighbors, Biggs said people tell him, and they don’t want their children to have to look at homeless people.

Gonçalves says the majority of the homeless people she has worked with can feel they are not treated like human beings. They spend weeks or even months without anyone addressing them by their name. She thinks that a good start for change would be for people to at least acknowledge them—treat them with dignity and respect, talk a little, ask for their name. “We can throw money at it, but we need to change our social attitudes,” Gonçalves said, underlining her point.

People think that others are living on the streets because they have done something to lead them there, Gonçalves said. They don’t take into consideration that a lot of homeless people are mentally ill, she said. Some have even been born into homelessness, which has automatically deprived them of knowing how to conduct themselves within certain social norms. For example, Gonçalves said, she has sometimes had to teach the young people she works with how to set an alarm, how to pack a lunch, or how to call in sick to work.

Nikki Beasley, executive cirector of Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, also mentioned that the homeless population has changed. It is difficult to tell whether someone is homeless or not, because many are working hard to keep other fields of their lives intact. Many are employed, for example.“What we knew homelessness to be 20 years ago is not the same today. We have heard the stories of people sleeping in cars, going to 24-Hour Fitness, taking their showers and still going to work every day,” Beasley said.

Gonçalves urged the audience to start viewing homelesness differently by thinking of people with more compassion and less judgment. In the end, “most of us are a paycheck from being there,” Gonçalves said.


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