Causes of homelessness shattering the stereotypes

Causes of homelessness shattering the stereotypes
John Oliphant, 39, of Antioch, who has been homeless on and off for the past 7 years, sits for a spell along Arnold Industrial Way before making his way up the road with his friends to the Concord Adult Shelter. (Photo Daniel Scholz)

Homeless is hardly a new phenomena in the area. Throughout history people have found themselves resorting to life on the streets due to any number of unforeseen factors and personal choices.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and late the Recession of the first decade of the 2000s were notable periods of economic upheaval whose ripple effects were felt among the citizenry of communities of all sizes.

For many, the vulnerability that comes with being homeless is by-product of either a single issue or a combination of situations with one triggering yet another unpredicted hardship. Consider the loss of a job and income source, eviction, foreclosure, and/or bankruptcy, chronic unemployment, the sudden need to care for a loved one after medical emergencies or a prolonged illness, and mental illness or emotional trauma. Such issues have set in motion hard decisions for those who now find the streets or shelters their new homes.

In between and more recently, there have been natural disasters that unleashed still more devastation on residents who were forced to begin the arduous task of trying to start over in a shelter, a car, or even a recreational vehicle if they were fortunate to have one.

So what in the past was possibly characterized locally as sporadic or an isolated incident, homelessness now is seeing its numbers increasing and the face of the problem also diversifying.

Contra Costa County and its individual communities are now trying to address homelessness the best way they know how as it becomes ever more rooted on the landscape.

Beds and services

Jaime Jenett, MPH, Community Engagement Specialist for Contra Costa County’s Health, Housing, and Homeless Services Division, acknowledged there has always been people in the community who are unsheltered. But she cited the Reagan Era in the 1980s as the notable recent period that officials point to as a defining moment for homelessness as a visible concern.

She explained that financial support for mental health facilities was cut and many facilities were closed as a result. This led to many individuals who could not support themselves and desperately needing services these facilities provided fending for themselves on the streets.

Data gathered by the county in the last five years in its annual Point of Time survey of homelessness bears out the growing countywide problem, according to Homeless Continuum of Care 2018 Annual Report.

With the exception of a dip in the 2016-17 period, the trend line has been steadily rising since 2014, and it took a sharp jump by 2019 to punctuate the 43 percent increase in homelessness countywide during the period.

On any given night this past year, upwards to 2,295 individuals experienced homelessness somewhere in the county. Despite the desire to help those seeking shelter, existing shelter capacity met only 28 percent of the need for single adults.

Ensuring the availability of adequate services is a challenge that goes hand-in-hand with merely providing the homeless with a place to rest their heads in an enclosed and safe environment. The rising need for services was reflected in the 47 percent increase in persons accessing services between 2017 and 2018.

Jenett pointed to renter protections, building more affordable housing, and making it assessible to mass transit as the biggest steps that can be taken to stop homelessness.

Where one struggles to keep a roof over head, she cited the widening gap that can’t be fill due to insufficient income. She pointed to the challenge facing renters: they need to earn 4 times the state minimum wage to afford the median monthly asking rent of $2,250.

For struggling senior citizens in particular, which Jenett termed “the silver tsunami’’, homelessness for 60-80 year old is a result of price sensitivity and the inability to find extra income and bring in new income to fill the financial gap.

`Face of homeless is me and you’

The presence of the homelessness around Concord has steadily increased in the last five years from 114 in 2015 to 252 in 2018, and 350 this year. In period of 2016 to 2017, the data identified in the PIT survey (73 to 133) corresponded with the Outreach and East County Service Center closing, which lead to more seeking individuals seeking services in the Concord area.

The changing face of homeless through the years reflects the breath of the discussion taking place about the topic, said Brenda Kain, Housing Manager for the City of Concord, who acknowledged more discussion about homelessness than 10 years ago, and greater public awareness now than 15 years ago.

“It is a tough subject that is close to my heart,’’ she said.

“I have been there a time or two in my life; I was close to being homeless.’’

While the conversation has inherently changed too with more varied responses, those who hold to the stereotypes about why someone is homeless is an attitude that persists.

“It depends where you stand on the issue and how informed you are,’’ said Kain.

“In our neighborhoods we don’t know about what goes on behind closed doors.’’

So the work continues to track the reasons why people are ending up homeless and this dilemma is a heartbeat away.
Homelessness runs the gamet in the county’s 2018 annual Continuum of Care report. The numbers increased in Adults w/disabilities: 22 percent, Single adults: 26 percent, Seniors (62+): 97 percent, while declines occurred for Veterans: 11 percent Families: 16 percent Transition Age Youth: 25 percent.

“The face of homeless is me and you,’’ Kain said.

Growing awareness for collaboration

Concord Police Sgt. Summer Galer, district commander with the department’s Community Impact Unit, said there is `”no cookie cutter answer’’ for the best way for serving the homeless during a routine encounter or if this has resulted from a call for service.

Standard procedure always involves offering services to the homeless, including contact with a CORE Homeless Outreach Team. But some officers may also offer of cups of coffee when engaging these individuals.

She disputed the homeless label, saying those they are seeing have mainly been kicked out their parents’ homes. PIT data for Clayton mirrors this observation as zeroes appeared for some years for those without shelter.

What few homeless are observed take refuge in the Clayton Station tunnel by the Safeway store. And, one encampment that went up was quickly dispersed.

Residents tend to be weary of the homeless, and business owners are irritated. So keeping up the constant contact is her department’s practice to keep the homeless on theirs toes and reduce chances of aggressiveness. Warren said this population is typically compliant with her officers, who also offer them services available through the county.

“As long as we keep having the resources going in that way, we will be okay,’’ Warren said.

Jenett lauded how law enforcement is addressing homelessness.

“You’re not going to arrest your way of this problem,’’ she said. “There is a growing awareness for collaboration and coming up with creative solutions.’’

“Everyone is recognizing that this issue impacts everyone and we can’t just make it go away,’’ she added.

Kathy Gleason, who regards herself as a local resident who cares about her neighbors living on the street, has taken it upon herself to help the homeless she observes in her travels about the area. Blankets are shared in the winter, and she passes out cold bottles of water during the summer months.

Among those she assists is 33-year-old Granville Dunlevy, a former resident of the Pittsburg / Bay Point area, whose life suffered a downward spiral in the past decade that epitomizes the various struggles many in his situation have endured.

Her awareness for the plight of the homeless and the factors that force them on hard times came while working at the Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano.

“I feel both sympathy and frustration regarding homelessness. Many of these people cannot fend for themselves and should not be on the streets. I feel frustrated that local, state and federal government has not done enough to solve the problem,’’ Gleason said.

The reality now is homelessness is a full blown problem that will require creative and bold solutions and greater collaboration than ever before to stem the tide that is now – for better or worse – representing a permanent place in area communities.

Related story: Network of services aid area homeless