by Sally Hindman
As a 25-year Berkeley resident and activist in the progressive religious community providing services to homeless people, one of the things I’ve always admired about people here is our ability to direct our intelligence and ability to think critically toward creative, yet common-sense solutions to the challenges we face.
At our best, Berkeleyans are wise and spirited, compassionate and visionary. As Micah 6:8 inspires followers of my own Judeo-Christian tradition, we push forth, “seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our Lord.”
I have appreciated Berkeley’s early and steadfast focus on practical and caring solutions to ending homelessness. Through years of hard work our community has developed three top-notch affordable housing developers building beautiful, award-winning, and even green housing for homeless and low-income people.
The Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s “quarter meal” program has more than 40 years of history in feeding people needing dinner on any given day, and also runs our critically needed women’s shelter. Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency has responded to countless needs — including organizing homeless people and co-managing our Multi-Agency Service Center.
In 1985, Berkeley congregations began a wonderful, peer-led chaplaincy engaged in street outreach to homeless people, that also helped sow the seeds for our terrific youth shelter, YEAH! In the mid-1990s, Berkeley helped craft the first countywide “continuum of care” plan identifying critical gaps in services and prioritizing creation of programs to fill these gaps.
Admirable, well-run programs
In these and other ways, Berkeley has done an admirable job of tackling homelessness with consistently well-run basic programs, ranging from drop-in centers and emergency shelters to affordable housing linked with supportive services.
Despite the steadily decreasing funding to fill gaps in services that would end homelessness, Berkeley has, step by step, gone about the task of adding the component programs we’ve needed, intelligently moving our community toward meeting this challenge. Youth Spirit Artworks, the empowerment-focused youth art jobs training nonprofit that I run, was the newest such effort funded by the City in 2007. We provide 100 homeless and low-income youth each year with stipended training in making “green,” recycled art to sell — and also creating public art revitalizing neighborhoods.
Berkeley has been guided in recent years by a wonderful and comprehensive plan called “EveryOne Home,” a blueprint for ending homelessness in Alameda County by 2020. This highly readable document provides the road map our community (and others in Alameda County) can follow to end homelessness.
Over the last three years, Berkeley has weathered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the financial earth shifting below our feet and funds to create change in short supply, it isn’t surprising that we might be distracted from the direction we need to continue plodding in as we work to end homelessness.
Now some are gravitating instead toward creating expensive and ineffective quick fixes aimed at “removing homeless people from sight.” After all, we still have work to do to end homelessness, and many of us feel we have so little control over the difficult problems caused by a tough economy.
One quick fix we can always apply is to ticket and arrest homeless people for still being outside.
Public Commons for All
Hence, over two years ago, we saw the sprouting of what might, in the movement to end homelessness, be called a perennial weed: the “Public Commons for All” initiative through which the Berkeley City Council, led by depressed merchants, implemented a legally unneeded and discriminatory “no lying” ordinance directed at blaming homeless people for the economy and the huge impact that the Internet and high commercial rents have had on retail sales. At the time, the City of Berkeley postponed an even more unjust “no sitting” ordinance until a time when it might be more socially palatable.
With the economy still slowly rebounding, it comes as no surprise that Berkeley merchants, through the Chamber of Commerce, are tempted again to blame homeless people for their business challenges. In April, the Chamber will consider a push to implement a “no sitting ordinance” directed at homeless people, making it illegal for people we find “unsavory” to sit on the street in commercial areas.
This “anti-sitting” initiative would truly be a misguided and expensive waste of crucial resources when our community instead needs to keep its eyes on the prize and continue the responsible step-by-step work on the path to ending homelessness.
What we need now is to stay the course, not veer off by unjustly singling out one group of people — those without housing — whom we find tiresome to deal with, and targeting them with expensive and ineffective ticketing, arrests, legal processing and jail.
The truth is, we still have important work to do in our community in developing and implementing services and programs needed to get homeless people off the street. For example, one group that merchants and compassion-fatigued Berkeley residents are tired of seeing on the sidewalks is homeless youth.
Dire shortage of services
The business community claims that youth make up at least half the population of folks behaving in unacceptable ways sitting on the sidewalk. Yet in Berkeley (and in Alameda County as a whole) we currently have no drop-in center for homeless young people. Homeless youth aren’t comfortable using centers set up for middle-class teens and would likely add public health challenges to these programs if they did use them.
Berkeley has a total of only 33 shelter beds for homeless youth, and 25 of these beds serving transitional-age young people are only available six months a year, during the winter. There are a total of 65 shelter beds available for youth, ages 13-25, in all of Alameda County!
Similarly, there are a total of only 18 beds of transitional housing for youth in Berkeley (that’s short-term housing for up to two years after leaving an emergency shelter), out of a total of 170 transitional housing beds available county-wide.
Berkeley currently has no permanent supportive housing specifically for homeless youth. Fifteen beds are expected to become available beginning in June or July. These 15 beds will serve as a portion of the 170 total permanent housing units available for youth county-wide.
All of these available units/beds are part of the pool of housing resources available to serve the large number of youth aging out of foster care each year.
To put this in perspective, Alameda County has 170 units of permanent housing for youth, while each year, 24,000 youth age out of foster care in California. Statistically, 50 percent of foster care youth aging out of the system will become homeless within six months!
It cannot be overstated that there is not nearly enough shelter or housing to serve homeless youth in Berkeley, or Alameda County, at present. With such a shortage of available resources, is it fair to ticket and arrest the exhausted and, unsurprisingly, sometimes dirty homeless youth who are sitting on our sidewalks?
Let’s look at examples of how this lack of needed housing and drop-in programs for homeless youth play out in Berkeley.
First, in the evening, desperation often sets in when a young person needs housing that night. One day last year, a young woman involved in Youth Spirit’s spring job training program came to me as we opened at 3:30 p.m. and told me she was homeless, without housing, for the night.
Endless search for home
As someone with familiarity and experience in working with local homeless programs (not a newbie), it still took me five hours on the telephone and driving around to shelters to find one available shelter bed for this 20-year-old female! There were literally no beds free for youth county-wide!
Finally, at 8:30 p.m., with no other options, Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s women’s shelter generously agreed to make an extra space available — after we arrived at the shelter, with nowhere else for her to go, in the dark.
During the winter months, when Berkeley’s excellent youth shelter is open, it is only able to afford to provide beds for 25-30 young people. Thus, even during the winter, there is usually a waiting list for a shelter bed in Berkeley.
Second, the daytime can be just as impossible. With no place youth can go indoors during the day and Berkeley’s excellent YEAH shelter only able to operate from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., where can we expect homeless youth to sit?
Many young people staying at the YEAH Shelter during the winter spend the daytime hours, from 9 a.m. until the night shelter opens, at the Berkeley Public Library. Others trudge two miles across town, often in bad weather during the winter, to participate in Youth Spirit Artwork’s job training program where, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., they find food and can earn stipend money making art to sell.
For those YEAH Shelter youth who come to Youth Spirit for the afternoon (we’d like to be open longer but with a tiny budget can’t afford it), when YSA closes at 6:30 p.m. they still have over an hour until YEAH opens at 8 p.m. Unless we drive them, homeless youth currently need to walk the two miles back to YEAH — in the winter months — often in the dark, in the rain.
The situation homeless adults in Berkeley face is different but equally challenging!
Countless studies have documented the giant cost differential between ticketing, arresting and prosecuting homeless people, including sheltering them in jail — and providing needed programs to house those in need. It is safe to say that it is at least five times cheaper to go through efforts to secure permanent affordable housing for people than it is to penalize them for being on the street.
Further, jail serves as a continuing revolving door — not a means of making substantive lifestyle changes. So jail is truly an ineffective (not to mention, unjust) mechanism for dealing with the problems of poverty and homelessness.
The prophet Micah proclaims in the Bible, as do the sacred scriptures of other great religious traditions in their own language: “What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord?”
In Berkeley, let’s continue that humble and steadfast walk this year — doing the good work we know is needed to solve the challenges of homelessness and poverty in our midst.
That journey doesn’t include passing an ordinance making it illegal to sit on the sidewalk!
Sally Hindman is the director of Youth Spirit Artworks. To support Youth Spirit Artworks visit: www.youthspiritartworks.org
To learn about EveryOne Home visit: www.EveryOneHome.org
To support YEAH Shelter visit: www.YEAH-Berkeley.org