Bay Area Homelessness and The Skyrocketing Cost of Living : Can Efforts For Covid-19 Financial Relief Finally Spur Real Change?

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PERSONAL INTEREST IN THE PROBLEM

Everywhere I go there seems to be someone with their belongings in a shopping cart, someone holding a sign asking for money, or someone living in a tent on the street. This is the place I call home. I was born here, and I’ve witnessed the problem grow before my eyes. Next to the High Street exit off the 880 freeway in Oakland lies one of the Bay Area’s largest homeless encampments. I drive by this exit everyday to go to school, to go to the golf course and soccer practice  or to go out to eat. I have watched it transform from a slip road around the back of the Home Depot parking lot to a fenced off area where about 100 individuals reside. In my research I ran across a video created by the New York Times San Francisco bureau chief who spent 3 months at this very encampment. The video was shocking; I did not realize how bad the problem was and the dire conditions so many were living in behind the fence. Rather than driving by everyday and just feeling bad, I want to educate myself about what is driving this crisis, and more importantly to learn how to contribute to a solution.  

HISTORY OF THE PROBLEM: FAILED POLICIES HEIGHTEN THE CRISIS

The root of the homelessness crisis in the modern era started with a structural shift in America’s economy from a basis in higher-wage, higher-skilled manufacturing jobs to a basis in lower-wage services jobs during the period spanning the end of World War II to the beginning of the 1980s. The wage decrease meant more Americans were struggling economically: “by 1983 about 15% of Americans were living below the poverty line” (Wolson). In addition to lower wages, other major causes of this crisis included “a combination of massive state and federal cuts to mental health services and public housing, a wave of Vietnam veterans needing services, increasing home prices, and a spike in unemployment due to the national recession” (Green). Under President Reagan, federal spending on subsidized housing dropped from $26 billion to $8 billion. At the same time, his administration discarded the Mental Health Systems Act, taking away necessary resources for those struggling with mental health (Torrey). Vietnam veterans were particularly affected. 

In the Bay Area, the problem reached a crisis point initially in San Francisco and streets of the city were hit with an influx of destitute people in the early 1980s. Because of a lack of understanding of the problem and failed plans by San Francisco mayors, the issue of homelessness only got worse through the late 1980s and 1990s. Dianne Feinstein, the mayor of San Francisco from 1982 to 1988, “treated homelessness as a passing phenomenon, and her administration relied on church emergency shelters, soup kitchens and also cheap hotels instead of permanent housing and services” (Green). Subsequently, Art Agnos, who served as mayor from 1988 to 1992,  introduced his “Beyond Shelter” strategy, which mandated that the city build two large homeless shelters. However, the shelters lacked adequate resources and were overcrowded and understaffed (Green). Finally, Frank Jordan, who became mayor in 1992, tried to solve homelessness through law and order. His vision was for police to remove homeless people from the streets and guide them to rehabilitative services. However, this policy backfired by criminalizing the homeless without adequately guiding them toward necessary resources (Green).

CURRENT STATE OF THE PROBLEM: GETTING WORSE EVERYDAY

“I guess we’re kind of invisible because people don’t think of us when they think of Silicon Valley. They think of the small minority engineers that earn a ton of money.”  

— Elizabeth V., homeless security guard  living in her car in San Jose, California

At last count, the nine counties of the Bay Area collectively possess the third largest homeless population in the United States, with an estimate of about 28,200 people. Of this population, 70% are unsheltered, making the Bay Area home to the most visible homeless population in the Nation (Bordas). Many factors contribute to the magnitude of the Bay Area’s homelessness problem. However, the most significant factor is the region’s cost of housing. The technology boom of the past decade has created an influx of jobs and significant economic growth in the Bay Area. As thousands of new residents moved to the area, housing prices and rents skyrocketed. Today, the Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live in America. In fact, median home prices and median rents and in the San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland metropolitan areas are in the top five most expensive in the nation for both categories. Median home prices top $1 million while median rent for 1 bedroom apartments is greater than $2,000 in all three areas (Metropolitan and Neil).

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At the same time, the Bay Area has an extreme shortage of housing supply. According to Bay Area public policy non-profit organization SPUR, “the Bay Area fell behind by roughly 699,000 homes needed to shelter its growing population of the past twenty years” (The Bay). This translates to only one-third of the total units needed being built. Of  the newly constructed housing, only 12% of units were for households below the area median income (The Bay). Therefore, even the limited housing that is built is expensive and not catered to low income groups. A lack of affordable housing often leaves people with nowhere to go when they fall on hard times. This has a snowball effect, as more and more people cannot afford housing and are subsequently forced into homelessness. 

MACRO SOLUTIONS; A TWO-PRONGED APPROACH  

“We may never be able to “solve” homelessness entirely. But we can —  and must — do a much better job at preventing homelessness, making it as brief as possible when it does occur and reducing its negative impacts on our neighborhoods” 

— SPUR, Bay Area Public Policy Non-Profit Organization 

Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes that cannot be solved overnight, but with positive action, real progress can still be made. Largely because of the high cost of living, economic displacement is the number one cause cited for homelessness in the Bay Area. With this in mind, I propose a two pronged approach : 

  1. Keep the crisis from growing– Preventing individuals from becoming homeless or falling back into homelessness is key to keeping the crisis from getting larger. A guaranteed basic income policy targeted to those most at risk could contribute to achieving this. 
  2. Provide long-term solutions to bring the problem under control– Addressing the extreme housing shortage in the Bay Area is the only real way to provide housing access for all residents. Increasing the supply of units which are affordable to lower income groups is necessary to directly address the homelessness crisis. 

 

Many state and local plans have been introduced to address the growing homelessness problem in recent years. While the thousands of people on the streets shows that there has not been much progress to date, the huge Covid-19 relief bill and growing number of  Americans suffering economically from the health crisis could provide the momentum needed for change.  Both the guaranteed income plan and building affordable housing require a large amount of funding. The American Rescue plan which was passed by Congress on March 17th, 2021, pledges $1.9 trillion for Covid-19 relief around the country. About $58 billion of this budget will be allocated to critical relief to reduce evictions and other housing-related hardship. This includes funds for housing vouchers, tenant-based rental assistance and the development and support of affordable housing among other initiatives (State and Local). More details on provisions in the plans for housing can be found here. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan will give $350 billion to the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund to combat the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, hopefully some of which will be used for local programs to address the housing and homelessness crisis. The nine major Bay Area counties are expected to receive more than $1 billion collectively (Douglas).  

Guaranteed Basic Income: What is it and how can it be part of the solution? 

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” 

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The safety of guaranteed money targeted to those most at risk could help people out of temporary difficulties that often push them out of their homes.  In addition to helping people in precarious situations becoming homeless in the first place, a guaranteed income plan could also help newly housed individuals avoid falling back into homelessness and better allow them to reintegrate. The basic concept is that individuals and families that meet certain income criteria receive a guaranteed amount of money each month with no rules on how to spend it.  The concept is not new and has been advocated throughout history by people such as founding father Thomas Paine, economist Milton Freidman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. However, the idea has attracted more interest in the current environment when so many people are struggling economically. By many estimates tens of thousands of Bay Area are at risk for eviction, and “these households are overwhelmingly low-wage workers of color who’ve suffered job and income losses during the pandemic” (Source: https://bayareaequityatlas.org/research/BayAreaEviction)

 

 

Many countries around the world are running pilot programs to test the idea. Stockton is home to the first guaranteed basic income pilot program in the United States, and results have been encouraging.  “A study of the period from February 2019 to February 2020, conducted by a team of independent researchers, determined that full-time employment rose among those who received the guaranteed income and that their financial, physical and emotional health improved.” Furthermore, “individuals spent most of the money on basic needs, including food, merchandise, utilities and auto costs, with less than 1% going toward alcohol and/or tobacco”(Treisman).  Since then, several cities across the country have started pilot programs, including Oakland and San Francisco. Both of these programs started in March 2021. Oakland’s plan targets families of color with an “income at or below 50% of the area median income — about $59,000 per year for a family of three” and gives each household in the program $500 per month (Beam). Oakland’s plan also happens to be one of the biggest plans proposed so far, aiming to target over 600 families in 2021. San Francisco’s pilot program targets artists. Success of the Stockton pilot program and the potential for a guaranteed basic income plan to combat poverty and homelessness is highlighted in the video above.  

 

Affordable Housing: Is there new hope to meet demand? 

“For as long as we have people living on the streets, we will be deeply involved in managing rather than solving the problem.” 

— SPUR, Bay Area Public Policy Non-Profit Organization 

Ultimately, more affordable housing is necessary to address the issue head-on. Support services (healthcare, counseling, legal aid, rental assistance, etc.) and economic aid can only go so far if we don’t have enough permanent shelter for people who need it.  The Bay Area’s severe housing shortage when compared to other parts of the country make this issue especially pressing here.  Local government initiatives such as the use of cabin communities and tiny homes in Oakland and San Jose and provision of housing subsidies and job placement services for the homeless in San Francisco have had some success, but much more needs to be done. The California Department of Housing and Community Development estimates that the state would need 180,000 new housing units every year through 2025 to meet future population growth, which is over 100,000 more units than are currently being built annually (Molly). The private sector has also become increasingly engaged as the problem grows.  Several companies including Facebook and Genetec have joined the “Partnership for the Bay’s Future to pledge $500 million to help tackle the problems of housing and transport in the Bay Area.”(Charpentrat). As the economic devastation of the Coronavirus for so many Americans brings much greater attention to the homelessness and housing crisis, the historic levels of federal aid for crisis relief creates a very unique opportunity to make further progress. Hopefully Covid-19 relief funds  will encourage policy makers to make the root of the homelessness crisis a priority. With better funding, the public, private and non-profit sectors can work together for successful solutions to build and provide housing for the poorest in the region. 

MICRO SOLUTIONS: WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP? 

“Homeless people are treated worse than stray animals. When someone finds a stray animal they take it home and feed it. When someone sees a homeless person they call the police. Where is the compassion?”

— High Street Encampment Resident 

It will take time to figure out more permanent solutions, but everyone can do their part and to help with the homeless crisis today. Here are some ways we can all participate:

  1. Support local nonprofits helping the homeless by volunteering or donating. There are many organizations doing great work. Here are links to three Bay Area groups helping the homeless in our community : Alameda Point CollaborativeEast Oakland CollectiveGlide Memorial Church
  2. Collect items for care package kits and distribute to local homeless residents. 
  3. Support policies geared to solving the homelessness problem by writing to your national, state and local elected officials, participating in public hearings, and if you are old enough, voting. 
  4. Sleeping on the street strips people of their dignity. Educate yourself to dispel myths about the causes of homelessness so that you can advocate for the best solutions with compassion.   

FINAL THOUGHTS

In the High Street encampment video that I described at the top of this web page, the reporter called the High Street encampment “a community of last resort.” Nobody should have to live like this. The pandemic has put more Bay Area residents than ever at risk of losing their housing, especially people of color and women. It is extremely important to act and help so places like those shown in the video do not become the only option for thousands of more people. 

 

FEEDBACK QUESTIONS

  1. I would love feedback on my Macro solutions. The solutions I propose are ambitious. I know that there are a lot of hurdles that must be cleared for success. With this in mind, besides the cost and political/community opposition, what other hurdles should I be thinking about?

    2. Do you have any additional suggestions to add for micro solutions? What else can we do as individuals?

 

Thank you for visiting my project!

3 Comments
Amaan_105

Amaan_105

Student at Head-Royce School, Oakland, CA USA

3 comments

  1. Really appreciate the historical view on a current problem, Amaan. You helped me understand homelessness at a deeper level.

  2. This is a great project, good job looking at the multiple causes and layers to the homelessness problem. Your solution to advocate for more policy change is one of the few ways that homelessness can be fundamentally addressed and not just pushed into the near future.

  3. Amaan, your project is a powerhouse: so much useful information, so compellingly written. I wish more people could see it, because I agree: only structural changes will really solve the problem. And, I do think cities like Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco are finally moving in this direction.

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