Even with falling rates of homelessness, many remain without shelter

Kelly Johnson, 51, is one of the hundreds of homeless veterans that the Obama administration seeks to house by 2015.
Michael Gethers/Staff
Kelly Johnson, 51, is one of the hundreds of homeless veterans that the Obama administration seeks to house by 2015.

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Surrounded by a pile of tattered backpacks, Kelly Johnson squints against the sun’s glare as he recollects the years he spent searching for a home.

Johnson, 51, is one of the hundreds of homeless veterans that the Obama administration seeks to house by 2015. Not one to be left behind, Alameda County is participating in the administration’s goals to end veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015 and all homelessness by 2020.

After 18 foster homes and two years in the Navy, Johnson decided to settle in Berkeley in 2009. He has been sleeping under the awning of Cody’s Books on Telegraph for the last eight months. By 6 in the morning, he’s out shuttling his belongings to People’s Park and spends the next five hours making beaded jewelry to sell.

Although Johnson still spends his nights without shelter, homelessness among his fellow veterans declined nearly 7 percent nationwide from 2011 to 2012, according to Ophelia Basgal, regional administrator of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Over the last four years, homeless individuals have experienced a turn of fortune. Alameda County’s overall homeless population has decreased by 13.6 percent.

Recent numbers show Berkeley following this trend, with a 17 percent decrease since 2003. But those left behind, like Johnson, still present a formidable challenge to all levels of government.

The lack of affordable housing remains a major cause of homelessness, said Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home, a local homeless services nonprofit. Housing is considered “affordable” when a household spends  30 percent or less of its annual income on housing.

“I’ll have to make enough money to buy a house,” Johnson said. “It’s easier to sleep outside.”

Providing affordable housing remains a problem in Berkeley. In 2002, a two-bedroom unit in Berkeley cost $1,650 a month, according to a rent board report. By the end of 2012, the same unit averaged $1,995.

“The fundamental issue is housing so they can transition out of homelessness,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “People who are working-class people are being priced out of Berkeley.”

To help the situation, Berkeley provides approximately 132 shelter beds and services such as drop-in centers, meal programs and health services.

“We in Berkeley, of all places, do not turn our back on those who need help,” Arreguin said.

Still, shelters are frequently packed, and the number of shelter beds are inadequate for transitional-age youth, according to Boona Cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, a local homeless services nonprofit.

The last time Johnson stayed in veterans’ housing was 2004 in Sacramento. Although he is aware of the shelters and veterans’ services available in Berkeley, Johnson said they’re too crowded and believes that others need the help more than he does.

Moreover, expanding local homeless programs may be difficult in coming years. For fiscal year 2014, Berkeley faces a $3 million projected deficit and an 8.2 percent cut in federal funding to the city’s Housing and Community Services Department, which addresses homeless services and housing.

“California is not a big spender on homelessness, (although) here in the county, the local governments really remain committed,” de Coligny said. “Funding is not looking too encouraging, so we try to ensure that every dollar we’re spending is being used to the maximum.”

Following the recession, the federal government implemented the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which provides assistance for the homeless and those in danger of becoming homeless. Basgal says the program has prevented about 900,000 people nationwide from falling into homelessness.

In the last fiscal year, the federal government provided $1.5 billion in stimulus money to fund more than 70,000 homeless programs nationwide, Basgal said.

“We recognized and are excited by the work the state is doing,” Basgal said. “You have to have state and local government align their policies and resources.”

But between 2000 and 2012, local funding for community agencies, which covers the majority of homeless programs, has increased from $3.5 million to almost $5.5 million while federal funding has decreased from about $5 million to $3 million.

“Homeless services are a priority … but there’s only so much the city can do,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “We need state and federal funding.”

One pressing issue involves how to establish permanent solutions to allow people to transition out of homelessness.

“When I was growing up, homelessness was not one of those problems,” de Coligny said. “I believe it can be that way again.”

In Berkeley, the fight against homelessness is just beginning. Arreguin recently proposed the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan, which establishes a committee to analyze local homelessness and ways to move forward.

Mandy Inches, Johnson’s friend, believes that making city vending license applications more accessible and registration fees more affordable may help many homeless who are currently unable to sell their artwork.

“People are really talented out here,” said Inches, who sews patches and skirts. “People would rather (have) a fair trade than a handout.”

While Berkeley examines how to address its homelessness problem, Basgal believes the federal government may also reassess its strategies as more veterans return home.

“The bottom line is, we are making progress,” she said.

Whether that progress will be made soon enough will be seen in time. Johnson, for one, is content.

“I’ve lived on hopes for so long,” Johnson said. “I don’t mind being poor. I just accept what I have. If I stay dry tonight, I’m happy.”

Daphne Chen is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

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