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