OpinionOpinion

Op-ed: Berkeley latest homelessness recommendations are a lackluster response to a true emergency

On Tuesday the Berkeley City Council was presented with a report from the Homeless Task Force, with recommendations for action to address homelessness in the city. Leaving aside the likelihood or unlikelihood of any of the recommendations passing, for a Task Force whose self-stated goal is “ending homelessness in our city”, the report is notable for a lack of urgency on the core issue: HOUSING.

Tier 1 recommendations included expanding outreach and crisis intervention initiatives, and expanding access to winter shelter beds and amenities (restrooms, storage). Tier 2 recommendations which according to the report “require further study/longer term implementation” included “developing” an inventory of housing, “engaging” with property owners about nonprofit developers acquiring those properties, and “exploring” the possibility of the city leasing existing properties to provide housing for the homeless, as well “exploration” of alternative housing options (tiny houses, micro units, boats, or sleeping in cars). None recommended pushing the City for a faster timeline on housing creation, because that’s the political reality—the Task Force knows there’s a lack of political will on this issue and they pose measures they feel may be doable in the current climate.

Berkeleyans deserve bolder action. We have all heard the statistics but they bear repeating. In Berkeley, there are 600-800 currently homeless people. 18.7% of Berkeley’s residents live below the poverty line and if they lose their housing for any reason they are screwed. Rent for a Berkeley studio can start at $2,500, and the average median rent for all apartments and homes is over $3,500 according to Zillow. In Alameda County for a single parent with two children the wage required to pay for basic living costs (according to calculations by MIT) is $30.46 per hour—for a two-parent family with 3 children it is $32.74. The minimum wage in Berkeley is $11 per hour (to increase to $12.53 later this year). Money is flowing into this city to bring nearly 1,000 market rate units online in Berkeley. Yet the money well is dry and bureaucratic hoops are at every turn in the struggle to build affordable housing, which is what we need above all other Tiers of action.

After it passed measures that criminalize homeless people for having nowhere to stow their belongings or go during the day, the City of Berkeley quietly passed a declaration of a Shelter Emergency. Ostensibly, this will lower some barriers to help create additional shelter beds. And then, where will those in shelter move to? Where was the declaration of a “Call to Action” for the HOUSING Emergency that clearly exists? Because an emergency is what it is, when families and individuals cannot find places they can afford to live in their own home, when housing is built only for those with means and poorer people must transplant themselves 50, 60, or 100 miles outside the communities they consider home.

That’s just the way it goes, some people say. Communities change, and populations shift. To those people we would say, those changes are not a force of nature like an earthquake or tornado. Those changes are MAN-MADE by policy, and if we WANT to we can reverse the tide by declaring that we want ALL PEOPLE, all incomes, races, and life experiences, to live in our community, so we WILL build housing for all with the urgency it deserves. But we are not saying that. With this report, we are saying hey, we know it’s hard out there, and we will try to bring a few more shelter beds and bathrooms online, but building affordable housing, that’s a big project, so we’ll “explore” and “engage” and see what we can do, but you know, it’s really hard to do that.

That is NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Berkeley should immediately declare a “Call to Action” on this Housing Emergency, as it did a Shelter Emergency, and fast-track a process for building more affordable units, thereby declaring that it wants to keep this community diverse, that inclusion is a core value of the community, and that it will take action to back up those values.

Or instead, we could just go see a great exhibit at the new BAMPFA then drop what amounts to a quarter of someone’s paycheck on dinner while debating the notion of putting tiny houses down by the train tracks. The choice is ours.

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Sonja Fitz is the Director of Development and Marketing for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS). She has worked in Berkeley, where she was born and raised, for 33 years.