Opinion: Everybody deserves shelter. California, not just cities, should step up

While cities like Berkeley are addressing homelessness, it needs the resources and attention of the state.

Interviewer: Why is it that when we see homelessness we see it in San Francisco, we see it in Oakland, we see it in San Jose, we see it in Berkeley, why is it that we don’t see it in Walnut Creek, or Danville or Lafayette or Orinda?

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin: Well I can assume that the fact that our cities have such robust services – shelter and social services for the homeless–as well as just the environment, the climate, when one is a city that is inviting, welcoming to people. Berkeley has had a long history of having a transient population so it is not a surprise that we have a large number of homeless people. But it really is a regional problem.

               KTVU Bay Area Homeless: Concern or Crisis, Part 2, aired Sept. 17. 

If life were fair, cities that are generous to people experiencing homelessness would have fewer of them sleeping on their streets. As Mayor Arreguín indicates, precisely the reverse is true.

What “regional” entities will successfully tackle this dilemma? Planners like MTC/ABAG? The counties? It seems unlikely. This is a national problem and needs to be addressed at the highest level achievable. For California cities, that means the state. It is our best hope for establishing a system to assure that all jurisdictions are motivated to do their share.

Housing First and Affordable Housing Production

The policy preferred by “inviting, welcoming” jurisdictions, called Housing First, combines housing assistance with the production of subsidized units. Ideally, programs assist homeless people into housing and follow up with social services.

We need to recognize that as valuable as such programs are, we cannot “end homelessness here” through these efforts. In the Bay Area, the demand is simply too great. People in need will continue to concentrate in “inviting, welcoming” cities, and no city will ever have access to enough money to house all seekers, even if the necessary density could find support.

Shelters that Work, and Shelters that Fail

When my small “inviting, welcoming” city of Albany decided to reclaim “the Bulb” waterfront park from a large homeless encampment, a Homeless First policy was adopted. At considerable expense, over a considerable period of time, about half the Bulb residents were assisted into housing they could afford. The city also offered a traditional “bunkroom” shelter on site – but it went almost completely unused.

So about half the residents returned to the streets of Berkeley and Oakland from which they had come. What is the answer for chronically homeless people who cannot or will not pursue and retain housing, and who prefer a tent over traditional bunkroom-style homeless shelters?

The “tiny house” concept has intuitive appeal as a way to provide shelter without requiring recipients to give up their privacy or their pets. Crucially, “tiny houses” need not refer just to the charming handcrafted versions we enjoy seeing, nor to fixed-up sheds. Large numbers of Americans live in tiny houses already: trailers, RVs, single-wides. Many are gathered in settled spaces such as trailer parks and campsites, while others roam. Consider this: anywhere you see an old RV parked with its windows obscured, you are probably looking at a tiny home.

The collection of tents and makeshift housing on Second Street. Photo: Rochelle Nason

The line between the housed and the homeless runs through the “mobile dwelling” community: A single-wide, legally and permanently located in a trailer park, is a house. A trailer or RV or van is not a house – but it is a shelter. At its best, such a shelter can be served by utilities and/or shared facilities; even the most minimal one is preferable to a tent or a doorway – for both residents and their neighbors. Berkeleyside readers, If you have not done so lately, a drive along Second Street from Gilman to Cedar, (see photo above) and then one along Marina Boulevard (at the waterfront) from University to Spinnaker, (see photo below) will demonstrate the difference between tents and mobile home camps.

Shelter Now Everywhere: a Proposed State Entitlement to Affordable Shelter

The greatest obstacle to tiny homes is space. Tiny homes in backyards can help alleviate the housing shortage across society – but they are unlikely to be rented to those now living on the street. Parcels may become available in a few places – but it would be counterproductive to put tiny homes on urban land that could support housing units on multiple floors.

Some cities are trying to offer vehicle dwellers a legal place on public streets. Wherever they are allowed, vehicles soon fill the space available (and generate concerns, even in industrial neighborhoods). Isolated “stealth” residential vehicles are common, but they rely on neighborly tolerance and lack of enforcement, not permits or laws.

This brings us back to Mayor Arreguín’s distinction between “inviting, welcoming” cities, and those less tolerant. It is a distinction we must abolish. Arguments rage about whether or not housing is a human right, but it is a long-established legal principle that all Americans enjoy a constitutional right to travel. This right is undermined if, on arrival, there is not even temporary shelter to be had.

An entitlement to shelter should be declared by the State of California. How might it be implemented?   Each local jurisdiction should be allocated a fair share of (1) tiny/mobile home residential capacity, affordable to recipients of SSI (the payments to the disabled who do not qualify for Social Security disability); and (2) “bunkhouse” style shelter, affordable to recipients of general assistance.

Jurisdictions that are not offering their fair share of such shelter could lose the power to enforce laws that prohibit people from living in vehicles parked on city streets and/or their zoning authority.

Jurisdictions that are doing their fair share should be allowed to impose limits on the numbers they serve and should be able to meet their obligation to new seekers of shelter by adding them to a waiting list and assisting them in reaching the nearest place with the capacity to serve them. Crucially, they must also be allowed to protect public places from camping, dumping, and the storage of property.

All jurisdictions must become “inviting, welcoming” – or at least tolerant – towards those exercising their constitutional right to travel. Jurisdictions could be allowed to team up to fulfill their obligations efficiently. But all people must have the option of being sheltered. And it is a compatible policy, not a contradictory one, that the most “inviting, welcoming” of cities must regain their ability to protect public space. Local residents should be entitled to enjoy the public parks, sidewalks, and plazas that support their physical and mental health, as well as the social and economic health of their communities.

Rochelle Nason is the vice-mayor of Albany, although the opinions expressed here are her own.