Welcome to the Jungle: Homelessness in the Golden State

By Connie Kwong Source: CBS News

Home to numerous prominent names in the tech industry like Google and Apple, the Silicon Valley is known for being an extremely affluent pocket of the San Francisco Bay Area. Paradoxically, it was also home to one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments until recently. Located in south San Jose, the encampment known as “the Jungle” was a 68-acre zone with over 250 occupants. On Thurs., Dec 4, police and social workers acted on orders to disband the encampment, taking apart makeshift tents and shelters, and forcing residents out of the space.

The fact that the Jungle was located in the heart of one of the wealthiest regions in the nation helps paint the perfect picture of income inequality. Understanding the problem of homelessness requires us to start constructive conversations on poverty and what we can do to alleviate it.

Homelessness: a visible problem

California has the highest poverty rate in the United States, ranging between 16 and 23.4 percent of residents, depending on the method of calculation. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as of January 2013, 136,826 Californians were homeless, accounting for over 22 percent of the nation’s homeless population. 66.7 percent of homeless Californians were unsheltered. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that 5.7 percent of Californian children are homeless, the second-highest child homelessness rate in the nation after New York. Moreover, the state is also ranked 49th in effectiveness of child homeless policy.

When we acknowledge the fact that homelessness is literally a visible problem that we can witness simply by walking around our communities, we shouldn’t be surprised that California’s existing solutions are why it’s ranked so poorly in dealing with this issue. For instance, in November, the city of Manteca passed a ban on homeless people sleeping outside. In 2013, Palo Alto banned homeless people from sleeping in their cars – however, this ban was recently repealed. These measures are ineffective because they criminalize poverty and consequently dehumanize the homeless. Telling the homeless to “get off the street” hardly eradicates the problem of homelessness, making it a shoddy Band-Aid solution at best.

As one op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News points out, “homelessness is location agnostic.” Disbanding the Jungle encampment was not an effective method of addressing homelessness, because new encampments will only continue to form in other locations.

The Jungle’s residents were warned months in advance that the encampment would be disbanded, and the city of San Jose was able to find housing for 144 people and promised to subsidize their rent for two years. But on Dec. 4, around 60 people were still unable to find housing despite being given subsidy vouchers.

For instance, one resident, Robert Aguirre, an unemployed tech worker, received a $900-a-month housing voucher and has submitted rental applications for over 20 apartment complexes. However, many apartment waiting lists are up to two years long. This problem is further augmented by the fact that the median housing cost for low-income households in California is $1,250 per month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A visible solution is needed

Existing housing policy in Silicon Valley is inadequate in providing affordable housing, and needs to be reformed. This is arguably a legal mandate, because of housing element law. The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) explains,

Housing element law requires local governments to adequately plan to meet their existing and projected housing needs... Housing element law is the State’s primary market-based strategy to increase housing supply, choice, and affordability. The law recognizes that in order for the private sector to adequately address housing needs and demand, local governments must adopt land-use plans and regulatory schemes that provide opportunities for, and do not unduly constrain, housing development.

Thus, ending homelessness is also greatly related to effective regional land use and environmental planning, both of which are necessary to building and maintaining sustainable communities. A policy brief by the HCD points out, “where average rents in multifamily housing increased by 7.5% from 2001 to 2009, energy costs for these renters increased by nearly 23%…Affordable housing is a synergistic catalyst for economically viable, sustainable development patterns, and energy efficiency.”

The objectives of housing element law also corroborate the motivations of the Housing First model, which proposes a direct yet oft-overlooked solution to ending homelessness: provide stable housing. In other words, it prescribes a visible solution to an explicitly visible problem. One prominent example is the tiny house movement, in which homeless people are very literally supplied with tiny houses (about 90 total square feet) to keep them out of unsanitary and often dangerous encampments. The Housing First approach is a more concrete solution than the traditional “housing readiness” model, which argues that individual or household must address other issues that may have caused their homelessness before obtaining stable housing. The problem with the “housing readiness” model is that it fails to acknowledge that these “other issues” are often circumstances an individual and their household members have little to no control over, or requires more assistance; it essentially places sole blame on the individual. For instance, many Jungle residents suffered from mental illness, drug addiction, and physical disabilities requiring treatment. Under the California Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63), housing element law allocates financial resources to build supportive housing and addresses homelessness for people with mental illness. Moreover, some Jungle residents were still employed, but worked minimum wage jobs in retail and at restaurants. Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, a public-private partnership to end homelessness in Santa Clara County points out, "You need to work five minimum-wage jobs to afford to live here. No one can do that.”

Changing narratives on poverty

In order to address homelessness, we need to reconsider our traditionalist thinking on the nature of poverty. In her book Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, Paula S. Rothenberg writes,

Various ways of classifying and portraying poor people in this country have been used to imply that their poverty reflects a personal failure rather than a social problem for which society as a whole might be held responsible.

This flawed narrative is synonymous with the American Dream, which posits that hard work and determination are all one needs to achieve success.

I say “flawed narrative” because the American Dream is heavily embedded with the concept of homeownership. And while very few people would contest that personal responsibility is necessary for anyone to achieve their goals, the American Dream’s emphasis on hyperindividualism has ultimately been more destructive than constructive. When we assert that success is solely contingent on personal responsibility, we fail to address the inconvenient reality that success is also greatly contingent on luck, the privileges that one enjoys in society, and flawed, existing social structures. And that’s where we run into the trap of making fallacious statements like “poor people are poor because it’s their fault and they’re lazy” and “we need to stop babying these welfare queens.”

Although the city of San Jose made some efforts to match Jungle residents with housing assistance, many were unlucky and forced out of the encampment with no promise of housing relief. Disbanding the encampment was merely part of a half-hearted effort to addressing issue of homelessness. Homelessness is an extremely visible expression of the cycle of poverty, and we often choose to assume that problem is resolved when we don’t see homeless people sleeping on the ground on our way to work and school. Visible solutions like the Housing First model will provide a substantial degree of relief for many homeless people, but we also need to consider bigger problems at work like income inequality and its relation to our overzealous reliance on the American Dream.

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