Opinion: My plan to address homelessness

I’m committed to the long-term goal of working with our state and federal elected officials to obtain the resources to create more permanent supportive housing in the Bay Area.

A job loss. A health crisis. A divorce. As rents escalate, it doesn’t take much to be pushed to the brink of homelessness. When I visited the Emergency Storm Shelter on Ninth St. a few months ago, I had an opportunity to talk with people who are experiencing homelessness. Some are working, some are battling addiction, some are struggling with a disability; all are counting on us to do better to address the homelessness crisis unfolding on our streets.

We know that the forces that push people into homelessness vary, ranging from a financial hardship to domestic violence, health crises, mental health issues, and/or drug and alcohol abuse. We need an immediate plan to address the crisis as well as a long-term vision for ending homelessness.

Here’s what I propose to do within my first year on City Council to address the crisis:

1)     Understand the Situation on the Ground. I pledge to personally meet with as many individuals experiencing homelessness as I can in District 1, so I can be better informed about each person’s individual circumstances. I’ve begun this process by visiting the Emergency Storm Shelter. We need to talk with people who are homeless and maintain better data on the homeless population if we expect to be able to improve the situation. As someone who works for a social services agency dedicated to connecting needy families to essential services, I want to ensure that people who are homeless are able to access available resources. Most importantly, I want to ask people what type of shelter option would be acceptable to them.

2)     Engage the Community. As I’ve knocked on thousands of doors across District 1, I’ve heard from parents and kids who want to be part of the solution to homelessness. If elected, I will establish a regular Community Day of Service—similar to Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco–so that neighbors, non-profits, and government agencies can connect people who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness with support and services, such as dental and vision care, housing information, SSI benefits, and more.

3)     Engage Stakeholders. I’ve also heard from neighbors who are concerned about the number of homeless people in our parks, on the bike path, and along the freeway. I will convene stakeholders, including our first responders, Parks and Public Works departments, social services and mental healthcare providers, and neighbors to come up with an immediate plan to keep our public spaces clean and accessible for everyone–without criminalizing homelessness. In some cases, people who are homeless are staying on parcels that belong to other jurisdictions, such as Caltrans or BART. I want to be a Councilmember who organizes neighbors and fosters relationships with other entities in order to implement a plan to address unsafe, unhealthy conditions.

4)     Talk to Other Cities. I will meet with City Councilmembers and Mayors from all neighboring cities to share lessons learned on addressing homelessness. For example, I will reach out to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to better understand the results of the Tuff Sheds microunit model. Mayor Schaaf has raised private funding to pay for three Tuff Sheds communities that are serving as a safer, healthier alternative to homeless encampments. One of these communities, the Castro Tough Shed camp of 75 people, has seen 15 people exit into permanent housing and another 17 exit into transitional housing. We should look at outcomes at all three communities in order to evaluate whether this model makes sense for Berkeley. I’m proud to be endorsed by Mayor Schaaf and intend to foster deeper collaboration with Oakland on addressing homelessness.

Here’s what I propose to do within my first term on City Council:

1)     State Legislation Mandating a Regionally-Funded Approach. I will work with our next Assemblymember and State Senator Nancy Skinner to pass state legislation that would require counties to create a homelessness plan funded by all cities within a county. It makes sense for larger cities to pay more and smaller cities to pay less; but all cities must pay something, so taxpayers in any one city are not disproportionately burdened. I’m honored to be endorsed by State Senator Nancy Skinner and can’t wait to roll up my sleeves to work with her on this legislation. Once all counties are executing their homelessness plans, I would like to see the state take a leadership role in bringing the nine-county Bay Area region together for broader collaboration. Because I’ve worked in Sacramento, I have the relationships and experience to be able to make this happen.

2)     Regional Homelessness Task Force. While we’re working with stakeholders to craft state legislation, I will push to establish a Regional Homelessness Task Force comprised of neighboring cities as well as the county to share best practices, align approaches, and better coordinate the allocation of scarce resources for shelter beds, safe parking sites, and mental health services. I will also work with the county to ensure that we do a better job of implementing Laura’s Law, a state law that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for certain individuals with a serious mental illness.

3)     Homelessness Prevention Program. If we want to get ahead of this problem, we also have to stop homelessness before it starts. According to one study, providing low-income people with one-time financial assistance of $1,000 could keep folks housed for two years or more. I will lead efforts to create a Homelessness Prevention Program funded through private donations. The program would provide one-time financial assistance to low-income Berkeley residents who are facing an unexpected bill that impacts their ability to pay rent. Mayor Schaaf recently announced the creation of a similar program in Oakland.

I’m committed to the long-term goal of working with our state and federal elected officials to obtain the resources to create more permanent supportive housing in the Bay Area. Research has proven that permanent supportive housing is a cost-effective solution for those who are chronically homeless. We must never lose sight of our long-term vision of eradicating homelessness.

Rashi Kesarwani is a candidate for Berkeley City Council in District 1.