No one can reliably argue that homelessness is socially beneficial. Regardless of your role in society, homelessness negatively affects everyone. Whether you are someone sleeping in a tent or someone walking by such a tent on your way back from class, especially here in Berkeley, the enormous unsheltered population impacts all of our lives.
When I was first appointed to the City of Berkeley’s Homeless Services Panel of Experts (a citizen oversight body created by voters to oversee and recommend funding for homeless services), I conducted research and found that, contrary to popular belief, mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice involvement do not reliably predict homelessness. These phenomena are symptoms of homelessness, not their primary cause.
While changes in these factors do not reliably track rates of homelessness across time and geography, housing affordability does. As housing prices jump, our homelessness crisis is sure to do the same.
Whether you own a small boutique clothing store on Telegraph Avenue or you are a proud single mother coming to see your child off to college, seeing people covered in trash two blocks from Sather Gate makes everyone in our community worse off. On any given night, about 1,100 people experience homelessness in Berkeley according to the most recent Federal Point In Time Count (2019). Believed by many to be a dramatic undercount, today this number is likely double.
Without immediate decisive action, this tragic number may become an unchangeable element of our city. Luckily, the people of Berkeley chose to approve a tax increase on million-dollar property sales in Berkeley, which yielded a third of an increase in funding for homeless services in 2019. This funding could not have come at a better time after the pandemic shattered our existing public infrastructure.
At the onset of the pandemic, I was working as a legislative advocate for Compass Family Services, a large homeless service provider serving the homeless children and families of San Francisco. Overnight, homeless services everywhere shuttered like folding chairs when demand for shelters surged while shelter capacities collapsed. Due to social distancing mandates, all shelters “decompressed,” causing the number of year-round shelter beds in Berkeley shelters to fall from 256 shelter beds pre-pandemic to 129 beds in the midst of the pandemic.
In communities across the United States, local governments have also designed ordinances to criminalize sleeping in public. These laws were deemed unconstitutional by the 9th Federal Circuit Court in 2018. According to a combination of provisions in the Constitution, most notably the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment, if the United States government wants to forcibly remove the homeless from public spaces, then they owe the unhoused a safe alternative place to sleep. This means that the homeless have a constitutional right to shelter.
In my view, the country owes the homeless more than a public shelter option. According to the Contract Clause of the Constitution, the state should not be able to coerce the homeless into signing a housing contract with what could very well be a poorly managed public shelter. As American residents, the unhoused are also entitled to a private shelter option
During the pandemic, one of the few successful initiatives addressing homelessness was Gov. Newsom’s hotels for the homeless program Project Roomkey. Practically overnight, the state of California was able to create hundreds of temporary housing units for the homeless. Given that the economically struggling motel industry is generally managed better than most local shelters, nationally mandated motel room vouchers for homeless single adults and larger units for veterans and families with children makes sense as a fast and affordable remedy.
The founding principles of the United States were drafted in opposition to tyranny. Yet our poorest Americans live in near constant fear of an abusive government who regularly strips them of their property. The founding principles of the United States were drafted in the name of liberty. Yet our poorest Americans live without the ability to appropriately unleash their creative potential. The founding principles of the United States were drafted in order to establish a democratic government ruled by law. Yet our poorest Americans hardly have a political voice and are subject to rules for which they have no ability to comply.
In 2018, the people of Berkeley passed Measure P, a property tax linked to homeless services. Funding from the measure has allowed the city to edge closer to a deal permanently acquiring leases to hundreds of motel beds for the homeless. This, however, should only be a start. Our local, state and federal governments need to raise more funds to end homelessness, and we need to support them. Working to end homelessness will improve the quality of life for everyone in our community. Let’s get on the same page, move forward and embrace the future we deserve.