Opinion: Despite small numbers, Berkeley should generously fund homeless families

Since only 5% of the homeless in Berkeley are families, the city manager is recommending the bulk of Measure P’s $3 million go to individuals. That is a mistake.

The city of Berkeley needs to decide how to spend some money. Almost $3 million of new tax revenue to fund homeless services is entering city coffers this December thanks to Measure P, passed during the 2018 election. Experts appointed to oversee the funds say Berkeley should allocate $500,000 to help house homeless families. The city manager disagrees.

Here’s her argument against serving homeless families and how it illustrates why we need to support homeless families now more than ever before.

The argument is as simple as it is harsh — there aren’t enough homeless families to care for. There are more homeless individuals in Berkeley than there are homeless families and children.   The greatest number there is the greatest need goes the classically utilitarian argument. Ergo, the greatest need is with homeless individuals, the city manager argues in her report to City Council.

The argument may seem callous, maybe even cruel, but there’s no arguing with the numbers. Berkeley is unlike most American cities in that the homeless family population is relatively small. While in the average American city, homeless families comprise 30% of the population, in Berkeley homeless families compose between 5% and 10% of the homeless population. Nationally, families are the fast-growing homeless subpopulation. In Berkeley, this is not the case.

But the story doesn’t end there. Family homelessness in Berkeley is also dissimilar to national trends in another important respect. According to national studies, three-quarters of homeless families are families of color. In Berkeley, this is not the case. According to Berkeley Unified School District data from 2017, 95% of homeless families in the city of Berkeley are families of color.

This reality is especially concerning given the alarming findings of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness in their investigation of Seattle public schools. In the Seattle Unified School District, homeless children of color are the most frequently suspended and expelled compared to every other demographic.

Seeing this reality helps elucidate some shortcomings of the city manager’s central argument. One problem with the “greatest number equals the greatest need argument” is that vulnerability is never appropriately considered. Homeless children are profoundly vulnerable. During the most tender moments of their lives, these children are cut off from the resources they need the most. Malnutrition, neglect, abuse and a myriad of health risks hardly promise these children a chance at a healthy childhood. The early-age trauma will linger with these children as long as they live, thereby hindering their ability to form relationships, maintain employment, and in the future, keep their housing.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, less than one out of four homeless children are expected to graduate high school. It should then come as no surprise that the most reliable predictor of whether one will experience homelessness as an adult is whether one has experienced homelessness as a child. It’s painfully obvious that the “greatest need” argument neglects the greatest need to come.

The voters of Berkeley didn’t just vote for increased taxes — they voted for accountability. Measure P established a board of social service experts representing a wide range of experience and expertise to advise the responsible investment of these new monies. Independent of city staff, the Homeless Services Panel of Experts was created to ensure that the voters will get what they voted for — a better Berkeley.

In the language of Measure P, homeless families and children are explicitly mentioned as a deserving population of newly funded city support. It may come as no surprise then that the Homeless Services Panel of Experts advised that Measure P funds be spent on housing homeless families. In fact, devoting at least half a million dollars worth of Measure P was voted the number one priority of the panel.

Despite unanimous support from the experts, hand-selected by each city council member for their valuable insights into homelessness, the City Council privileges the technocratic rationale of the city manager. Her advice is clear. While the experts recommended investing half a million dollars into housing the homeless families of Berkeley, the city manager recommends practically nothing to be spent on our city’s homeless children. If the will of the city manager becomes policy, out of almost $3 million raised by Measure P, less than 2% will be spent on housing homeless families.

On Dec. 3rd, the City Council will vote to allocate Measure P dollars. The panel of experts issued their recommendations. The city manager has issued hers. Perhaps now is the time to watch the chips fall as they may. Or perhaps now is the time to speak up. During this season of compassion, support families and children with no home. Call and write your councilmember. Show up Dec. 3 to speak your peace. Tell the City Council to listen to the experts. Tell the City Council to do the right thing.

Anthony R. Carrasco grew up through 10 years of homelessness as a child, designs policy for one of the oldest homeless service providers in San Francisco, and serves on the Berkeley’s Homeless Services Panel of Experts.