When people talk about improving quality of life for vulnerable populations, the conversation typically goes into temporary fixes for existing damage, which often have adversarial effects on the communities that they’re intended to assist. But an even simpler solution exists: Invest in public health from the get-go to foster trust.
On Wednesday, the Berkeley Homeless Commission’s meeting discussion touched on the inaccessible water and sanitation situation many unhoused individuals face. As evidenced in the meeting, there is a plethora of ways that the city can increase access to sanitation: adding public restrooms and appropriate signage, as well as laundry and shower facilities, would tremendously improve sanitary conditions for folks living on the streets.
It’s also heartening to hear that the commission has action-oriented goals, such as applying for vouchers to specifically support people who are homeless and dealing with numerous health issues, including recovering from substance misuse. The commission’s timely, tangible agenda is encouraging — and, more importantly, will have a lasting positive impact on the community at large, considering that an assessment cited the need in certain locations for such facilities.
Just adding public showers or restrooms isn’t enough, however, as these facilities need to cater to a large swath of the population. Homeless parents with small children should feel comfortable taking their kids to a public shower, if necessary, and future facilities should be designed with disabled or gender-nonconforming individuals in mind.
Caring for the community also means investing in local hospitals and clinics, many of which often struggle to make any sort of profit. After Sutter Health announced plans to close the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley — for no apparent reason other than earthquake retrofitting requirements, which the hospital couldn’t afford — East Bay residents voiced concerns over losing a vital source of health care, and rightfully so.
Recently, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilmember Lori Droste proposed a $50,000 budget to support outreach efforts dedicated to educating the public about the closing of Alta Bates and its subsequent health and economic impacts. Alta Bates’ closure would disproportionately impact women, children and people of color, not to mention that the next nearest hospital offering the same breadth of treatment is all the way in Oakland. In light of these changes, this is an opportunity for the city to advocate for the residents that benefit most from local health care facilities.
Whether it be clearing encampments or condemning public defecation, legislative bodies have historically poured resources into punitive measures. Diverting that energy into more supportive endeavors, such as preventative programs, not only contributes to a healthier society but also builds trust between the government and the people it hopes to help.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2019 opinion editor, Revati Thatte.