In my role as senior adviser to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and as his point person for homelessness, I am on the front lines of Berkeley’s homeless crisis. Every day, I hear disgust from community members about the conditions created by people in our community that are unhoused. Every day, I hear demands to “just get them out!” Every day, people demand — “why aren’t you doing anything to solve homelessness?”
Every day, I hear about another person’s journey into homelessness or the trauma that put them there — from the loss of a job, illness or a greedy landlord. Every day, I see a poor soul mumbling and walking aimlessly — clearly without the capacity to care for themselves. Every day, I see a young person who is on the street because of the foster or juvenile justice system or because they were driven from their family because of their sexual orientation or abuse.
Every reminder evokes personal pain and frustration because there are such inadequate resources to deal with this crisis. And it is a crisis that is increasing exponentially. Berkeley, and every other community in our country, is not doing enough. If we do not grab the condition of homelessness with both fists and make a greater commitment to deal with all its aspects, this will be the “new normal.” Complaining and waiting for help to come from elsewhere will get us nowhere.
California has 25 percent of our nation’s homeless population, yet Los Angeles County spends about one-third per person in comparison to New York City and Massachusetts. New York and Massachusetts may have harsher winters, but does California’s warmer weather justify people staying on the street? This past May, Gov. Jerry Brown allocated an additional $500 million on a one-time basis for homeless services. This increased the per person allocation by about 50 percent — but it is still only about half of what is spent in Massachusetts and New York City. California needs to do more.
The county of Alameda, which, like all counties in California, holds the purse strings for all federal and state dollars, has just started listening to the cities that are most impacted, and its response has been slow. Berkeley, as well as Oakland, Emeryville and Albany, has been pushing hard for more resources, and, together, we are working on a regional approach. There has been some success in getting additional county funds for anti-displacement and a minimal amount ($4 million) for homeless services. However, these funds are distributed countywide while Berkeley and Oakland have about 70 percent of the county’s homeless population. Alameda County should allocate more from its reserve, or “rainy-day,” fund. If this is not a “rainy day,” I don’t know what is.
Which brings me back to taking action here in Berkeley. Since taking office in December 2016, Berkeley City Council has doubled the amount of shelter beds, better coordinated our service providers, launched the Pathways project and doubled the amount of general fund dollars we spend on homelessness. But we cannot manufacture more money or take money away from public safety, parks, libraries or infrastructure maintenance. We cannot wait for “trickle-down” affordable housing. We need to stop people from losing their homes. We need to get people who are on our streets into appropriate services, stabilized and housed. NOW! We cannot wait for adequate resources to fall at our feet from elsewhere.
With the help of Berkeley’s nonprofit service providers, a plan was developed that would meet the mayors’ goal of providing housing or shelter for 1000 homeless people in Berkeley within five years. This plan served as the backbone for the November 2018 Ballot Measure P. Measure P proceeds will be used for homeless services and housing resources to reach the five-year goal.
Measure O on November’s Ballot is a bond measure that will provide $135 million to create and preserve affordable housing. It will be used for small-site acquisition and partnering with nonprofits and can be leveraged with matching funds up to four times.
Without the success of measures O and P, Berkeley does not stand a chance of dealing with homelessness OR affordability. People will continue to stack up on our streets, and those with low incomes will have to commute for hours to fill Berkeley’s minimum wage jobs. We cannot export poverty. That is not realistic — and it is not fair to anyone.
I am sorry that Berkeley has to step up to bear this burden. Yes, it is not fair, but we do not have a choice if we want to provide relief for this crisis. It is my hope that Berkeley will stand behind these measures to show other communities that, with will, commitment and diligence, progress is possible.
Finally, it is my wish that people would open their hearts to the realities that result in homelessness. The homeless are no more violent than the housed. In fact, they are the victims. From what I’ve seen, the great majority of those who live in our shelters work — some two jobs. They are just poor. Mental illness that plagues about 40 percent of our homeless was not their making — it is a result of a failed health care and social system. And no, they are not necessarily addicted in any greater numbers than those of us who are housed — especially when factoring in the many who have been diagnosed with mental illness. Our homeless are not being imported from some faraway land; they are our neighbors – 80 percent were previously housed right here. They deserve a hello and a smile — they are not vermin. They are human — they just don’t have a home.
Jacquelyn McCormick is a senior adviser to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín.