The homeless are the most marginalized and dispossessed people in the United States. To be homeless is to experience a wide spectrum of discrimination. In the past decade, legislation seeking to criminalize the homeless has gained popularity in cities that are fed up or exasperated with the “homeless problem”.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that between 30% and 50% of major American cities criminalize some form of homelessness, ranging from “aggressive” panhandling to simply sitting on the sidewalk.
Our own city tried to pass such an ordinance last fall, Measure S, which would have criminalized sitting on the sidewalk. These laws take away the last and only home of the homeless, and in effect question their right to exist.
Criminalizing the effects of homelessness does nothing to solve the crisis of homelessness. So what do we do? How can we end homelessness in Berkeley?
More affordable housing is the answer. The National Coalition for the Homeless, one of the nation’s largest homeless advocacy groups, claims that the recent rise in the number of people living on the streets is caused by a decrease in the levels of affordable housing. Rent has increased in the last decade while wages have fallen for low-income workers. Government support for these workers to afford their rent, rather than increasing to meet the growing demand, has actually dropped by 50%.
Constructing more affordable housing is the best way to solve this crisis.
The Berkeley City Council is considering just such a proposal. It is beginning to discuss the possibilities of building a new affordable housing complex where a parking lot is currently located on Berkeley Way and Henry Street. Councilmembers Arreguín, Capitelli, Worthington, and Maio have proposed creating a “super-green affordable housing project with zero net energy use”.
With only 135 shelter beds for over 800 homeless persons, this affordable housing project is critical to the ending of chronic homelessness in Berkeley.
Many residents are asking how this will affect the city’s budget. In fact, according to a major study conducted by University of Pennsylvania Professor Dennis Culhane on New York City’s homeless, providing affordable housing saved the city over $16,000 per homeless person per year. The savings were due to a reduction in city-financed emergency medical care and criminal justice proceedings, including arrests, court hearings, and jail time. Portland has an affordable housing program that reduced city expenses on the homeless by $25,000 per person per year; Denver saves $15,000.
Affordable housing has a number of other positive effects on the homeless, too. One study conducted in Seattle shows that homeless alcoholics placed into permanent affordable housing showed a 33% decline in alcohol abuse. It is well documented that children who live in permanent homes do much better in school. Health seems to universally improve with permanent affordable housing. The results are clear: permanent homes do more to help the lives of the homeless than anything else.
So why would some members of the Berkeley community contest this proposal? Some downtown business owners argue that the replacement of the parking lot with an affordable housing complex will deter visitors to Berkeley given our notorious parking (un)availability. Yet many of these same business owners who supported Measure S last fall argued that the homeless living on the streets were deterring customers. An affordable housing complex would absorb many of the homeless persons who loiter outside downtown businesses and thus improve the atmosphere for shops and restaurants. Business owners should be in favor of affordable housing!
It is time that we as a community support the proposal to create new affordable housing in Berkeley. Constructing permanent affordable housing is the first, necessary step in eliminating homelessness from Berkeley.
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