Oakland’s plan to battle homelessness: Stop it before it starts

December 3, 2018
The Christian Science Monitor - By Martin Kuz The tears began falling before Debra Ross finished reading the eviction notice. She had arrived home on a June afternoon to find the piece of paper taped to the door of her apartment in Oakland, Calif., where she lives with one of her 20 grandchildren. Ms. Ross owed $785 in back rent on her subsidized unit on the city’s east side. She and her teenage grandson survive on the $770 she receives from the state as his legal guardian, and the notice placed them in jeopardy of homelessness. She pleaded for time from the property manager, who agreed to let her defer payment until the fall. But with Ross still short on money as the Oct. 31 deadline neared, a final eviction notice appeared on her door. With only three days to spare, while reading a friend’s Facebook page, she learned about a program called Keep Oakland Housed that had launched earlier that month. The $9 million, four-year pilot initiative, funded by the San Francisco Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, offers emergency financial assistance, supportive services, and legal representation to low-income tenants on the brink of eviction. Ross contacted the program, and two days later, a case manager sent a payment of $785 to her landlord. “It felt like a miracle,” she says, her voice cracking. She had ended up homeless three years ago when the city shut down the building where she then lived over code violations. “Older folks like me are really vulnerable. When we lose our homes, it’s hard to find another one. It’s the kind of thing that can kill you – literally kill you.” Gentrification has swept across the San Francisco Bay Area amid the region’s tech boom, displacing low-income tenants as rents rise and the homeless population surges. Oakland’s biennial homeless survey, last conducted in January 2017, showed the number of people who lacked permanent shelter had climbed to 2,761, an increase of almost 600 from two years earlier. The homeless population had risen at the same time the unemployment rate was falling. Keep Oakland Housed represents the city’s preemptive strike against that growing problem and one potential strategy for the state – and the country – to alleviate its affordable housing shortage. Supporters describe the program as vital for protecting the most vulnerable residents as much as the city’s own identity against the forces of gentrification. “What has made Oakland an amazing place to live is its diversity: economic, ethnic, cultural,” says Daniel Cooperman, director of programs for Bay Area Community Services, one of three nonprofits that administer the program. “The coffee shops, the yoga studios – those things are great. But there’s a cost that comes along with that, and now Oakland is almost becoming a suburb of San Francisco.” The program attempts to stop homelessness before it starts and, as a secondary effect, to deter landlords from converting low-income units to market-rate housing. The multi-pronged approach combines a rapid response to the financial and legal crises of renters with long-range guidance to maintain their stability. In its first six weeks, Keep Oakland Housed supplied financial support to 150 households to avert evictions and assisted 110 tenants in settling landlord disputes, according to the San Francisco Foundation. By shielding renters from unjust evictions, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf asserts, the city will counter the impact of redevelopment while retaining its unique character. “Oakland has always fiercely prided itself on its diversity,” she says, “and this program is intended to help preserve that identity, that sense of community where people have their roots. We don’t want to rip them out of the place they call home.”

‘For anyone in need’

In the past year, Oakland has allocated more than $1 million in public and private funding to place dozens of prefabricated storage sheds at three sites across the city to provide temporary shelter for 240 people. The city plans to devote $4.5 million in state funding to open and operate three more shed sites for another 320 people over the next 18 months, one of several recent initiatives to address the homelessness crisis. Almost half of Alameda County’s homeless population of 5,600 lives in Oakland and Mayor Schaaf regards the $9 million stake for Keep Oakland Housed as a chance to slow that rising tide. “It’s smarter and more humane to keep people housed instead of waiting until they’re homeless to help them,” she says. “It’s not just about having a roof over your head. It’s about the support networks – neighbors, schools, doctors – that we all need around us.” The city joined with Bay Area Community Services, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, and East Bay Community Law Center to create the program. Residents who earn 50 percent or less of the area’s median income can qualify for assistance – a threshold of $40,700 for one person or $58,100 for a family of four – and receive as much as $7,000 in aid. Case managers disburse the money straight to landlords or third-party vendors to cover a tenant’s lapsed payments on rent, utility bills, or other expenses. The city’s housing advocates have long realized that intervening before landlords evict tenants offers the strongest remedy to the homelessness epidemic, explains Karen Erickson, director of housing and financial services for Catholic Charities in Oakland. They also understood that, without funding, the concept would remain a well-intentioned aspiration. “The best way to combat homelessness is to prevent it in the first place,” Ms. Erickson says. “But there have been no prevention dollars. It has been a big deficiency.” Unlike programs that target a specific demographic – veterans, single mothers, seniors – Keep Oakland Housed accepts anyone who meets its income criteria. The broad eligibility rules suggest a recognition of the effects of gentrification beyond tenants on a fixed income.