Unrealestated: The tragedy of homelessness
Originally appeared in Bay Area News Group publications on March 18, 2016
“We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can’t solve.”
– Linda Lingle
Homelessness is one of the devastating byproducts of the dramatic increase in Bay Area home and rental prices. It can happen to those who would never have thought it possible and may result after unexpected events such a job loss, illness, divorce, or death of a loved one.
Middle-class and even upper middle-class people are part of the homeless population. The person at the desk next to yours at work, a member of the working poor, might be going “home” to a shelter or a car.
Shelters for the homeless are bursting at the seams. The need far exceeds the availability of space and beds. For most without means, the streets are their only option.
Last week, I spent some time with Wendy Jackson, Executive Director of the East Oakland Community Project (EOCP), Alameda County’s largest homeless shelter. Wendy shared stories that reflect both the heartache and the intense desire of so many of her clients to overcome what often appears to be insurmountable. Exacerbating the problem is the ever-increasing difficulty of shelters to find affordable rentals for their clients.
She told me about “Alice,” who had fled with her young children from an abusive husband. After traveling cross-country on a bus, she ended up at the shelter. This highly motivated client searched diligently for a job. Once she found one, she continued to live at the shelter until, six months later, she was able to move her family into a rental.
“Barbara,” a single, middle-aged woman, had worked many years for a huge, national bank. She was laid off and experienced homelessness for the first time. After being referred to the shelter, Barbara, without ever being asked to do so, awoke every day at 4 AM to clean all the bathrooms. She lived at the shelter for almost a year before finding a part-time job, which later became full-time. This enabled her to get a place of her own and return to a normal life.
One of my readers is an Adopt-a-Spot volunteer for the homeless and he emailed, “I have never seen the number of homeless as I do now.” He described the “20 tents and 40 people under the bridge on San Pablo at West Grand.” They are among the 35,000 Bay Area homeless. More than 4000 folks will be homeless tonight in Alameda County and many of them are children. There is no effective housing safety net in our country.
A large number of homeless people aged 18-25, designated “transitional-age youth,” are the products of dysfunctional families. They may have been part of the foster care system. These young adults have lost trust and lack security. A young man who had been living on the streets was given food stamps by his father for his 21st birthday. This is heartbreaking.
Before winding up at the shelter, a 16-year-old had been a prostitute. Through the shelter, she found a job she liked and gained confidence enough to move to new employment in Hawaii.
When health issues are draining the physical and financial well-being of people, it is unlikely for them to surmount their homelessness alone. This is where a shelter or program with qualified experts and counselors is invaluable. They can help the afflicted qualify for financial aid that will stabilize their situation.
“Linda,” a home-support person, was caring for an elderly individual. When her client died, so did the job and source of income. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, was hospitalized, lost her apartment and ended up at the shelter. After four months, the staff was able to find government funding for her as a disabled person and that allowed this client to relocate to another rental.
Long-term tenants who are suddenly evicted typically find their lives turned upside down. This is becoming increasingly common in our area.
A mom with severe asthma rented a house for her family. She was hospitalized over and over for respiratory problems. After she had lived there 40 years, the owner died and mom and the family had to leave. She could not find an affordable rental, wound up at the shelter and eventually found another, much smaller, rental. It was only after she had moved out of her long-time home that she realized it had been a “sick” house, full of mold. She had not known enough or received advice to have the property tested.
There are a sizable number of excellent Bay Area organizations that help the homeless. You can donate money and/or your time to support them.
If you own a property with a rental, making it available to people with a job who are transitioning out of a shelter would be a wonderful gesture. Some shelters will guarantee the rent for a period of time, will post a security deposit and will clean up if the shelter’s client/tenant has not done so after vacating.
The East Oakland Community Project is always in need of and grateful for donations of gently used linens, pillowcases, pillows, blankets, quilts, towels and washcloths. Please call (510) 532-3211 before dropping off anything.
Homelessness is not the homeless person’s fault. It is frequently the cascading inevitability of unforeseen circumstances that result in limited choices, but unlimited despair.
People who lack a place to live deserve a lift from those of us who have so much. As the reader who wrote to me said, “…unlike those living under the freeway, we have a voice.”