Opinion: The truth about Berkeley’s homeless policy

A recent opinion piece written by Robert Krumme, published by Berkeleyside, demonstrates little understanding of the personal and social determinates of homelessness.

As our new Mayor’s senior advisor, I have been honored to meet all the selfless individuals who serve as the leaders and service providers of our Homeless Community Based Organizations. And I cannot say enough about our city staff who work much more than “full time” managing a system that is primarily dictated by federal and state mandates.

But in the last six months since taking office and learning the complexities of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, the most eye-opening aspect has been meeting and having long conversations with over 150 wonderful people who are currently living in our shelters or being served in our community. It is from these experiences that I would like to provide a counterpoint to the May 24 opinion piece penned by Robert Krumme, and published by Berkeleyside.

First, and most importantly, Mr. Krumme demonstrates little understanding of the personal and social determinates of homelessness in the United States. For the past 20 years, every bit of academic, scientifically rigorous literature on the subject demonstrates that the single most robust predictor of homelessness is the housing market. Cities and counties with high rents and low vacancy rates have higher rates of homelessness. Personal issues, like the drug addiction and criminal behaviors Mr. Krumme is wont to cite, have little predictive value in who becomes homeless and who doesn’t. Homelessness is a condition entirely predicated by the lack of affordable, available housing.

Second, the statement that 20% of the homeless population do not want to be housed or have criminal proclivity is incorrect. Statistically only 2% of homeless people prefer to remain unhoused, according to the 2017 Alameda County Point-in-Time count data, released on May 25.  In Alameda County 29% of all homeless are deemed “chronically” homeless (the national average is 15%) — meaning that they have been homeless for a year or more and have a disability that compromises their ability to become self-sufficient. Around 40% of this population has mental illness or a dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction.

The Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular, is experiencing a homelessness crisis precisely because we are experiencing a housing affordability crisis. Just this week, news came out that, once again, median Bay Area home prices have hit yet another all-time high of $750,000. In Berkeley, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment tops $3,500 per month. Vacancy rates are at record lows as people pour in from around the region and the country to take advantage of this area’s robust economy, the envy of the nation and much of the world. In these conditions, disabled people and the working poor cannot compete for limited housing with affluent, well-educated, white-collar workers. Because they cannot afford a roof over their heads, many become homeless and get stuck there.

In my conversations with the women who live in the women’s shelter, most of them work – but they don’t make enough to pay rent, nor have they been able to save enough to pay first, last and security deposits. Many lost their jobs and were not able to keep their housing, and now their credit is ruined. One woman moved to Turlock when she lost her job because it is much less expensive there — but wound up coming back to Berkeley because there were no jobs in Turlock. A lovely man in the men’s shelter is working two jobs; he almost has enough saved to get into an apartment and is so pleased that he will be able to continue to pay rent – as long as he can continue to work at both places. A woman with two children in the family shelter has been recently diagnosed with MS and could no longer work with her symptoms; she has no family to fall back on.

These are the stories Mr. Krumme would hear if he talked to the Berkeleyans in our shelters and on our streets. I haven’t even begun to describe the transitional age youth (16% of our homeless population), many of whom are emancipated foster kids, victims of domestic abuse, or LGBTQ who have been kicked out of their homes. Such marginalized populations would have no place in the oppressive Victorian society about which Mr. Krumme romanticizes.

Government is the only entity with the size and scope to address such macro-economic conditions. Unfortunately, however, federal supports for homelessness and affordable housing have been shrinking for nearly 40 years. The HUD budget for affordable housing today is a mere fraction of what it was in 1980. Out of the $8.5 million annually directly budgeted for Berkeley’s homeless residents only a bit over $3 million comes from Berkeley’s general funds.

Mr. Krumme cites Milwaukee as an example of a community where private charity has ostensibly ameliorated homelessness. Conveniently left out of that example, however, is that the going rate for a 1-bedroom apartment in downtown Milwaukee is about $500 per month, allowing disabled and aging people with fixed Social Security incomes to afford a place of their own. This is simply not the case in the exorbitantly expensive Bay Area.

All of this means that there is no valid reason to label a Berkeleyan experiencing homelessness as “deserving” vs. “not-deserving.” The good people that I have met who do avail themselves of our homeless services have valid reasons for being where they are. Based on the recent county-wide point-in-time survey, over 39% are homeless for the first time.

And there is no need to warn about a “moral hazard”. Berkeley would be fortunate to be in such an enviable state. Mayor Arreguín is committed to continuing to prioritize homelessness. He and Councilmember Sophie Hahn have proposed the Pathways Project – a combination of navigation center and temporary housing. City Council is working to establish landlord incentives for people of extremely low income and affordable housing options.

Our biggest job is in educating the public so the stigma and assumptions of homelessness are debunked. We are hopeful that in understanding the story of today’s homeless people, caring and generous Berkeleyans will willingly become part of the solution. By renting a room or an au-pair space at low rent to someone who, by happenstance, find themselves without housing, or by supporting our community-based organizations, we could do so much more. If Berkeley could be so fortunate to be in THAT morally hazardous place, we could do much worse.

Jacquelyn McCormick is Senior Advisor to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín.