County’s homeless single adult population rises

Mike Harris, who has been homeless for six years, plays music on a boombox while panhandling outside of Durant Food Court.
Anna Vinget/Senior Staff
Mike Harris, who has been homeless for six years, plays music on a boombox while panhandling outside of Durant Food Court.

While Alameda County has made great strides in preventing and reducing homelessness among families, veterans and the mentally ill, the number of homeless single adults has swelled since 2009, according to the results of a biennial census released last month.

Conducted in January — by EveryOne Home, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the efforts of the county’s homeless agencies — the census shows little significant change in the absolute number of homeless individuals in the county. According to census findings, single adults now comprise 73 percent of the county’s total homeless population.

(View a photo gallery of Berkeley’s homeless.

Since 2009, the number of people living in homeless families fell by 28 percent, the mentally ill homeless population dropped by 19 percent and the number of homeless veterans declined by 13 percent.

However, because the population of homeless single adult individuals rose by 10 percent, the county’s entire homeless population was reduced by an insignificant 3.8 percent.

These exigencies may be due to shifts in focus — and funding — at the federal, state and local levels.

“The federal plan … expanded to really focus on family, children and youth and veterans’ homelessness,” said Elaine deColigny, executive director of EveryOne Home. “That has meant that some of the new resources have been focused on those subpopulations of the homeless.”

Unlike the Bush administration, which had no federal plan to accomplish its ambitious goal of eliminating the nation’s chronically homeless population — individuals who are disabled or have been homeless for at least a year — the Obama administration unveiled a strategy called Opening Doors, which specifically targets homelessness among children, families and veterans in addition to individuals, said Eduardo Cabrera, a regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“Certainly having a federal focus on (these groups) affects how communities prioritize their response — and it should,” he said, adding that the council is in the process of more formally requesting that local jurisdictions align their own anti-homelessness strategies with the federal plan.

Alameda County’s progress in family homelessness prevention and reduction is an anomaly in national and state statistics showing upticks in family homelessness and downturns among individuals, according to Cabrera.

County resources have increasingly focused on homelessness prevention and the provision of permanent housing rather than emergency or temporary shelters, which has played a key role in the results of the 2011 census, deColigny said.

Cabrera agreed that the role of permanent housing programs cannot be underestimated, particularly for the chronically homeless who require services that are difficult to deliver in a shelter or street environment.

“Housing should be the first response to a person’s homelessness,” he said.

Veterans’ homelessness has also been specifically targeted at the federal level, with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki making it his personal goal to end it by 2015, deColigny said.

State and county resources have also increasingly focused on providing services to the mentally ill homeless.

Since 2009, the county’s Behavioral Health Care Services has provided more than $4 million annually for short- and long-term housing financial assistance using state Mental Health Services Act funds for homeless and at-risk people living with severe mental illness, according to EveryOne Home.

Indeed, Berkeley-based Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, a major provider of county homeless services, receives nearly half its funding from the county’s Behavioral Health Care Services, said Robert Barrer, assistant director of the organization.

This funding focus has been accompanied by cuts in General Assistance spending, which is meant to support the county’s adults and emancipated minors without income. The cuts favor youth, the permanently disabled, the elderly and those already receiving housing and financial assistance. DeColigny said that in the meantime, help for those assessed to be fit for employment has fallen by the wayside.

While men comprised 75.5 percent of the homeless population in 2009, they grew to 79.5 percent in 2011.

“There are fewer resources targeted to this growing population of  unsheltered males who don’t have minor children with them, and disproportionately the recession has affected the lower-income and less educated,” deColigny said. “This group has been hanging on by their fingernails.”

Noor Al-Samarrai is the lead communities reporter.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the census conducted is biannual when it is in fact biennial. The Daily Californian regrets the error.