There’s an organization called “Invisible People” which seeks to do education about homelessness and bring visibility to those who are often “invisible.” They have several videos on YouTube, like this one:
What I like about this organization is the effort to allow homeless people to tell their stories. This to me seems vitally necessary, for many reasons. Not only can it be healing and very supportive to those who are homeless, but understanding people’s stories and what caused them to be homeless, to me seems central in coming up with solutions for the “Homeless Quandary.”
The man who started this organization says,
I once heard a story about a homeless man on Hollywood Blvd who really thought he was invisible. But one day a kid handed the man a Christian pamphlet. The homeless guy was shocked and amazed, “What! You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”
It isn’t hard to understand this man’s slow spiral into invisibility. Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he did not exist… much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.
I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. You’d never know it now but I was a homeless person. Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.
For years I’ve used the lens of a television camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations which are trying to help. That was part of my job. The reports were produced well and told a story, but the stories you see on this site are much different. These are the real people, telling their own, very real stories… unedited, uncensored and raw.
The purpose of this vlog is to make the invisible visible. I hope these people and their stories will connect with you. I hope that their conversations with me will start a conversation in your circle of friends.”
While the compassion and caring in this approach is beautiful, the man behind this organization is heavily oversimplifying the situation. I believe that the reason most of us “ignore” the homeless on the street, and avoid making eye contact, is actually not that we dont’ care about them. Sometimes, perhaps quite often, we avoid them because we DO care about them, and it hurts us when we open ourselves, in compassion and sincere care, to another human being who seems in need of care, only to find our genuine care be returned with lies, rude impositions and demands, harassment, obscene and foul language, bizarre behavior, or overt and disturbing mental illness.
Of course there are many “normal” people among the homeless, but particularly in large urban centers with huge numbers of homeless, there is a huge percentage who have very serious problems functioning normally. Such people can be disturbing and scary to encounter. They can be very dirty or smelly, covered in filth, surrounded by garbage. Many of us have been “burned” by trying to interact with such disturbed people.
I recall a recent situation where I bought a newspaper from a woman on the street, someone who struck me as a homeless woman. After buying it and walking a few blocks away, I decided to return and talk to her a little more. Unfortunately as soon as I spoke to her again, she looked at me with a glazed-over and blank expression, and cut loose with a “spiel”, a “hard-luck story” that sounded like a broken record which repeats itself ad nauseum. As I looked into her face, I got the sense of someone with serious mental illness….a situation where “there is no ‘there‘ there”, or in essence, “nothing here to notice: nobody’s home here.” I got the sense that this woman could not be “moved” if she tried, and she could not come across as authentic if she tried. Serious mental illness in effect placed very serious obstacles towards her connecting with any other human being, obstacles unlikely to be overcome by the most generous and compassionate of helping hearts.
She stared blankly at me — actually I felt dehumanized in the encounter — and imposed upon me to give her money, using the same fake-sounding, insincere kinds of hard-luck tales of woe that so many street corner and bus stop con-artists use for their daily con job. I was certainly not moved, rather I was heavily put off. This is the kind of problem that faces so many of us who actually are interested in trying to open up or establish connections. It’s not we normal passers-by who create the obstacles to the building of bridges — but serious mental illness, substance abuse and other grave dysfuctionality can certainly create enormous barriers for homeless people. And this readily leads to them being experienced on the psychic level as energy sucking entities and perpetrators of serial nuisance. In fact viewing them as energy leeches can help understand why people want to avoid all eye contact. We dont’ want our energy drained away.
As well, in large urban centers particularly, there are just too many homeless everywhere, to reasonably expect that someone is likely to approach one or more to “hear their story.” THere can be “compassion fatigue” if on your way to work you have to routinely walk by 20 homeless beggars, most or all of whom look disturbed or mentally ill, or high on drugs.
Still, while we must acknowledge the many legitimate reasons so many people avoid engaging with people on the street, the work to listen to people and hear their stories is very valuable, and I do believe that we need to hear many more such stories in order to help find better, more effective and more enduring solutions for homelessness.
The “First they Came for the Homeless” group had been camping at the Berkeley/Oakland border near the “Here/There” sculpture from about December 2016 to October 2017. On October 21 2017, BART, which owned the property where the homeless were camping, posted notices stating that the campers must vacate the premises:
Notice of Trespass. To all persons using these premises: You are
trespassing on private property in violation of California Penal Code
602(m) and are hereby ordered to vacate the premises and
PERMANENTLY remove all of your property. All items not removed wtihin 72 hrs of the date of this notice will be removed by BART.
The campers then sued both the City of Berkeley and BART, requesting an injunction that block the city and/or BART from removing them from the premises. On October 23, three pro se plaintiffs, Clark Sullivan, James Blair, and Toan Nguyen filed this the formal legal complaint, and as the Federal Judge overseeing the case later summarized, they “moved for a temporary restraining order to enjoin their removal — initially scheduled to take place on October 24 — from the west side encampment (Dkt. Nos. 1, 2). A hearing on the TRO was set for October 24. At the hearing, attorneys Dan Siegel, and Emilyrose Johns appeared on behalf of our plaintiffs. The court temporarily enjoined the removal of the west side encampment in order to give counsel for both plaintiffs and defendants an opportunity to brief the issues, and set a new hearing for October 31, candidly acknowledging it was doing so without a showing of probability of success on the merits or even a showing that there were serious questions going to the merits (Dkt. Nos. 11, 13).”
This is a PDF document of the First Amended Complaint:
In denying plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction, Alsup said:
BART’s actions, however, do not amount to the criminalization of plaintiffs’ status as homeless. Rather, BART has reasonably invoked California’s trespass statute, which prohibits people from “entering and occupying real property . . . without the consent of the owner” to prevent people from camping on its land. Cal. Pen. Code § 602(m). Indeed, the right to be free from trespass is one of the oldest, and most universally recognized features of the law.
The judge also pointed out what many of us without any legal education would be able to see just through the lens of common sense. Namely it’s a wholly different thing for a city to say (as Los Angeles had tried to in its former policy, later held unconstitutional) that homeless cannot sleep anywhere in the city, versus saying that people must vacate a specific place.
Here we are confronted with circumstances different from any of the decisions cited by plaintiffs. Plaintiffs want to maintain a city within a city, to reside and to camp, day and night, on BART’s property over its objection. Plaintiffs do not seek the narrow dispensation from a total ban on any sleeping, lying, or sitting as in Jones. The relief plaintiffs now seek — court approval to settle indefinitely on the land of a municipal transportation district — would be unprecedented. Under these circumstances, they have not shown a likelihood of success or raised serious questions going to the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim.
The plaintiff’s 8th amendment claim stated that it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to require them to vacate from this campsite — a claim most of us can easily see the absurdity of.
The First They Came homeless also asserted that BART and/or the city would be violating their Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, by taking their property. Again, most of us can easily see that this claim is ridiculous, which the judge clarifies. The plaintiffs attempted to use a Los Angeles case to support their claim, but the case in Los Angeles was totally diffferent than the situation at Here/There. In Los Angeles, police were routinely confiscating belongings of homeless people which were even momentarily left on any sidewalk. This was very different from the Here/There camp situation. Shame on the attorneys representing the FTC group for such sloppy attempts to stretch case law to cover this situation.
Plaintiffs further contend that there is an imminent threat that BART will seize their property without affording them an adequate opportunity to object to the seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures and the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. (but….) We deal here with a far different situation. First, our plaintiffs are seeking to prevent a municipal utility from removing their property from BART, not city land. Second, unlike the policy under attack in Lavan, our plaintiffs have been given notice that their property will be seized and 72 hours to make arrangements to move their property. Third, BART maintains a policy of storing personal property that is taken after an encampment is removed and providing notice of the property’s location and an opportunity to recover the property.
Judge Alsup then stated:
While sympathetic to the plight of plaintiffs, and the problem of homelessness, which is ever more severe, the Court must be faithful to the law. The sad fact is that plaintiffs cannot meet the standard required for the drastic relief sought. The relief requested is far broader than any which has been previously approved.
I hope that this case tends to deter any future actions of this type, which are essentially frivolous, wasting City and BART and thus taxpayer’s resources to combat specious and empty claims. The First they Came group was in essence arguing that neither the city nor BART has a right to remove them from the spot they were camping. In essence they were arguing for a right to homestead on this spot, essentially in perpetuity. Even if they did not use such language, this was the essence of their claim. For a judge to grant a right to people to homestead on public property where this is not and has never been allowed, is extremely unlikely. Neither is it in any way reasonable that a group could force a municipality to give free land to them by committing serial nuisance and serial squatting. The right of the homeless to sleep for a night in a perhaps limited area of public property, which the courts have upheld, is a far different right than that sought — to permanently appropriate public property to construct a semi-permanent “city within a city”.
In essence, to my knowledge, the courts have not yet ruled that the homeless have a right to anything more than to lie down in some public places at night and sleep. There has been no ruling that ever allows them to set up a permanent camp, for instance, and stay in the same spot for more than one night, let alone for days, weeks or months at a time. Advocates for the homeless are disingenuously attempting to stretch the right to merely sleep in public places (where no alternate shelter is available) to the right of homeless to seize those public places on a permanent basis, which in essence removes them from public use. Such a stretch defies logic and common sense and I doubt such would be upheld by any court.
More recently, as this case by the First They Came plaintiffs continued in the court, Judge Alsup again threw back some common sense at those who seem to have taken leave of such.
This week, Alsup “appeared flabbergasted by the suggestion that an enclave of liberal political thought like Berkeley, California, has unconstitutionally persecuted its homeless.” He then went on to express the common sense views that many of us have when we consider the homeless quandary in this and any other city:
“You’re saying even the most progressive city in America is violating the Constitution day in and day out,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said. “You want me to adopt a constitutional theory that would go that far?”
Alsup was referring to a class action filed against Berkeley by a group of homeless people evicted from a South Berkeley encampment last fall. Both sides appeared in court Thursday to hear a motion to dismiss.
The plaintiffs want a court order requiring the city to halt camp evictions and set aside open space for homeless people to sleep in cars and tents.
Alsup said if he orders Berkeley to start converting soccer fields to homeless camps, it could turn the city into a magnet that would attract more homeless people to the Bay Area.
“How many people could come to Berkeley sidewalks and say, ‘Until you give us a decent place to live, we’re going to camp out on the sidewalks,’” Alsup asked.
The judge said while he has sympathy for the homeless, he doesn’t think it’s fair to make Berkeley taxpayers, some of whom work hard just to make ends meet, shoulder the cost of sheltering every homeless person that decides to settle in the city.
“Now you’re saying in addition to paying your own rent, you have to pay for all the people from Indiana and Ohio who don’t want to live in the cold weather and come to live in Berkeley,” Alsup said.
The plaintiffs claim the city has deprived them of liberty, property, and due process while subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment in the form of persecution for being homeless. They also claim the city targeted one specific group for its political activism and outspokenness about issues of affordable housing and homelessness.
This supplemental order was also issued by Judge Alsup on this case:
The most recent court action in this case, is the Judge’s Order Re Motion to Dismiss, which fully dismisses the FTC’s complaint against BART, according to BART’s Motion to Dismiss request, and partially dismisses but partially upholds the City of Berkeley’s Motion to Dismiss:
The part of Berkeley’s motion that was granted, was the FTC’s allegation that Berkeley violated the ADA by not providing special care when evicting a camp, for one of the camp dwellers who was in a wheelchair.
The Judge’s statement goes on to deny the City of Berkeley’s effort to dismiss 4th and 14th Amendment claims about unlawful seizure of property, but only in the case of 2 individuals, Sullivan and Bredenberg. As well, the Judge denied Berkeley’s effort to dismiss claims it retaliated against protected First AMendment speech, but only against Sullivan and Bredenberg, not in the case of others.
Significantly, however, the Judge also granted Berkeley’s request to dismiss the 8th Amendment complaint against their actions in evicting homeless camps. This is quite important, because FTC and other homeless activists have in essence been arguing for their right to camp anywhere, claiming that removal of any camp whatsoever, is a violation of 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, eg, punishes them for the very status of being homeless. Common sense tells us that being removed from one or even many places, is not the same as being prohibited to sleep anywhere.
The attorneys for FTC must prepare an amended complaint and file it within 21 days from January 19 2018, to address the remaining issues that the Judge has not granted dismissal of, namely those effecting First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendment claims.
If the judge ultimately upholds any of these of Plaintiff’s complaints, the result could be that:
(1) Homeless people could find a “loophole” in laws preventing them from camping in various places, by claiming that they are engaged in a “protest” which has First Amendment protections. Berkeley and all other cities have to be careful not to seem to be retaliating against “protesters.” One way of avoiding the allegation of retaliation, would be to simply create a practical set of laws pertaining to camping in public places, and apply those laws equally to everyone. This points up the basic problem regarding the “homeless quandary” in most every municipality: the thought and policy around this issue has been so poorly developed, that there are really no useful, practical laws in most cities, which both protect the right of homeless people to sleep in (some, not necessarily all) public places, and also protect the right of communities to abate nuisance and prevent mass appropriation of streets, sidewalks and parks for use as residences.
(2) Berkeley and all other cities have to take adequate care when removing camps and moving property of the homeless, so as not to seize property without notice, nor set up a procedure whereby the seized property can be reclaimed.
Note that the fact that Judge Alsup has not dismissed FTC’s entire complaint, and not upheld the City of Berkeley’s Motion to Dismiss, does NOT mean that FTC has won the case on these points. It simply means that at this point at least, there is not enough information available to dismiss FTC’s allegations, so the case will go on and more will be examined to assess if these complaints have any merit.
Here is a document pertaining to Fourteenth Amendment search and seizure issues, which was published by the San Diego County District Attorney’s office:
On page 614 of this document there is instruction about situations where there is “no expectation of privacy.” Page 807 of the document explores areas where there is a “temporary or impermanent residence” which applies to homeless camps/sites, or in a “Squatter’s community” on public property. Selections from this document indicate that the trend in case law is that there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy and thus no Fourteenth Amendment protections for campsites illegally placed on public land, which is what we have in the case of most homeless encampments.
However, this case law, like much of existing law, fails to account for the existence of homeless people and their needs. At the same time, there are serious problems that could result from giving people the same Fourteenth AMendment protections/rights in illegal camps, as they would have in their own private home on private land. One obvious problem is that there is a slippery slope between using public land for illegal camping, versus using public land for illegally storing one’s belongings, to simply using public land to conveniently dispose of unwanted garbage. How would municipalities draw the line between dumped garbage and property “belonging” to someone?
A defendant has the burden of proving that he had standing to contest a warrantless search. In other words, he must first prove that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the areas searched. A person seeking to invoke the protection of the Fourth Amendment must demonstrate both that he harbored a subjective (i.e., in his own mind) expectation of privacy and that the expectation was objectively reasonable. An objectively reasonable expectation of privacy is one that society is willing to recognize as reasonable. Among the factors considered in making this determination are whether a defendant has a possessory interest in the thing seized or place searched; whether he has the right to exclude others from that place; whether he has exhibited a subjective expectation that it would remain free from governmental invasion; whether he took normal precautions to maintain his privacy; and whether he was legitimately on the premises. (People v. Nishi (2012) 207 Cal.App.4th 954, 959-963; defendant held to not have an expectation of privacy in his tent on public land without a permit, nor the area around his tent.) p. 378
A cardboard box, located on a public sidewalk, in which defendant lived, did not have the same reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore could be searched without a search warrant. (People v. Thomas (1995) 38 Cal.App.4th 1331, 1333-1335.) p.808
Cardboard boxes belonging to a homeless person, being a place where the homeless person stores his or her most private belongings, may not be searched without a warrant or consent. (United States v. Fultz (9th Cir. 1998) 146 F.3rd 1102.) p. 888
A defendant’s tent, located on Bureau of Land Management
property, exhibited a reasonable expectation of privacy under the
circumstances (purposely hidden), and that it was therefore illegal
to search it without a search warrant. (United States v. Sandoval
(9th Cir. 2000) 200 F.3rd 659.)
The Court found that the tent was more like a house than a car for the purpose of Fourth Amendment. The court held that defendant’s tent was a “nonpublic”
place for the purpose of the Fourth Amendment analysis,
even though the tent was pitched on public property. The Court
further found that defendant had no less of a reasonable
expectation of privacy at a public campground than he would have
at a private campground. (United States v. Gooch (9th Cir. 1993) 6
The Ninth Circuit held, however, that the area immediately around
a tent, at a campsite, which is open to the public and exposed to
public view, did not have an expectation of privacy. (United
States v. Basher (9th Cir. 2011) 629 F.3rd 1161, 1169.)
However, in a Washington States case, a tent set up on public
property was found not to be protected by the Fourth
Amendment. (State v. Cleator (1993) 857 P.2nd 306, 308-309.)
The area around defendant’s tent which he had set up illegally
(having been cited there before for illegal camping) in a public
preserve where camping required a permit, which defendant did
not have, was also not protected by the Fourth Amendment.
(People v. Nishi (2012) 207 Cal.App.4th 954, 957-963; no
legitimate expectation of privacy in the area under a tarp next to
A “squatter’s community” on public property is not protected by the
Fourth Amendment. (Amezquita v. Hernandez-Colon (1st Cir. 1975) 518
F.2nd 8, 11-12.)
On March 30 2018, the plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint:
As reported on the First they Came for the Homeless Facebook page, these are upcoming dates for this case:
XII. Settlement and ADR
The parties have scheduled a further settlement conference with Magistrate Judge Ryu
for May 7, 2018.
XIII. Narrowing of Issues
The parties will endeavor to narrow issues as demonstrated to be appropriate through
Trial is set for May 20, 2019.
When you’re homeless, in many ways you are better off if you have a vehicle to live in. You have more privacy, you have more security, and you have access to electricity through the car’s battery, you have more mobility and options, than you would if you lived a tent on the sidewalk or in a homeless shelter. .
THere are more places you can “park” or camp.
In fact, in the US, Walmart in particular is well known for having a policy of allowing people to “camp” in its parking lots, as described in this news story:
There’s even a Reddit thread about camping in Walmart Parking lots, which includes general advice for camping in vans across the US, written by someone who had travelled around the US for a year and stayed in Walmart lots much of the time.
Particularly given the “explosion” of homelessness in the US, and on the West Coast of the US in particular, one might guess that there may be limits to Walmart’s generosity, as well as limits to what can be accomplished when people who are truly homeless exploit a system more oriented to travelers, vacationers and retirees. As the number of truly homeless increase compared to the number of “grey nomads” using Walmart lots as stops on a retirement journey, Walmart may need to rethink its parking lot policies, particularly in some areas. In some cases they are in fact less welcoming, as was demonstrated here:
There is a difference between allowing people to temporarily stay in store parking lot on their way from one place to another, verus allowing people to live in that parking lot for months and years on end.
People who essentially take up permanent residence in shopping center parking lots are pushing the envelope on what is acceptable or what is reasonable, and are likely to end up being asked to leave when they overstay their welcome, particularly if the number of people permanently living on Walmart property increases. Michael Stankovic found this out after being forced to move on after spending 2 years living in his truck in a Coles Store parking lot in Australia.
Given that the population of homeless, as a whole, has a much higher rate of substance abuse and serious mental illness, than the population at large, there are different phenomena associated with homeless camps as opposed to standard campgrounds. As well, there are great mental and emotional stresses related to homelessness and joblessness, which can lead to social stresses. All of these point to a need for services and oversight and regulation of homeless camps. Hence, I believe that the idea of a “self-governing homeless camp” is not arealistic one, and can’t work on large scale. It may work in a few isolated situations, particularly for a short period of time, but at some point in most cases a community of squatters or homeless campers that exists out side the law, will become problematically lawless. For this reason I think that whereas the idea of using parking lots to allow homeless to live in vehicles there is a valid one, without adedquate oversight, rules/policies and security, these situations are likely to degenerate.
Here’s an example of police having to intervene in an out of control situation with a homeless family in a Walmart Parking lot:
“…I was told I could no longer stay at Walmart,” she said. They had a security guard come over and tell Jim and I that we were no longer able to stay overnight and pretty much told us not to come back.”
One homeless woman had been staying for a while in a Walmart lot, only to return one day and find her car and trailer had been towed:
And there are some who describe living in a vehicle as a viable alternative to “The Rat Race” — as in this next video. Here, living in a vehicle is viewed as a viable and legitimate option to existence in the “Rat Race” living under “Corporate Masters”. The thrust of this argument is that standard life living legally in a home one owns, or rents, or even on one’s own land is for suckers and living in a vehicle is the only authentic and “free” lifestyle.
In today’s video, we meet Matt, a young man who decided there had to be more to life and so dropped out of the Rat Race and now lives in a Chinook Class B+. He is a true inspiration for those of us who are sick of being stuck in the rut of a boring, soul-sucking life of drudgery and misery making our Corporate Masters rich. Matt is living proof that there can be more to life!
No matter how cheap your budget, you can learn something from this video about vandwelling and how to turn your car, van, caravan or RV into a surprisingly cheap and mobile, tiny house on wheels! Then you can live the life of your dreams by adopting a minimalist, simple and frugal life of travel and adventure as a gypsy, nomad, traveler or even a prepper by dropping out of the Rat Race and becoming a full-time Vandweller or RVer!
In this video, the two narrators explain how living in a mobile dwelling has helped them save money and live the life of passion that expresses their dream. They title the video “How we stopped paying rent and started living.”
Clearly there is something very attractive and liberating about living in a vehicle.
LIving in a vehicle definitely offers an “off the grid lifestyle” and there are many ways in which this is an attractive option for those who want to live on the cheap. However, given the enormous increase in “homeless” people (not always a useful umbrella term, as it includes those who consider their vehicle their home, and so they are not “homeless”) who live in vehicles on public streets in urban areas, the social impact of large scale adoption of this lifestyle needs to be examined. And we have to question whether it is fair to those of us who are housed to lose our public streets, parks and other spaces to those who just dont’ want to pay for housing.
Though many tout vehicle-dwelling as an “off the grid” phenomenon, and take pride in the “stealth” nature of living in vehicles in urban areas, as this map of homeless camps and vehicle dwellers in the Berkeley area shows, there is a growing problem in urban areas. This image shows clearly that this phenomenon has a significant impact on cities and neighborhoods. There are many cities where (in the flatlands at least, as in Berkeley) you can hardly walk 5 blocks in any direction without encountering one or more people living in their vehicles, and you may encounter 10 or 20 of them within 5 blocks.
Dangers associated with homeless camps are ubiquitous and are a primary reason that unsanctioned, entrenched homeless camps, generally consisting of one or more tents or structures, should never be permitted in any locale. Homeless camps get set up, become full of garbage or biohazards, and have to be cleared out and removed. Homeless camps cause many forms of nuisance for neighborhoods and area residents, and are generally the subject of numerous complaints. When they are removed, the removal invariably results in tensions between the homeless and cities and police. In this post you’ll see two videos in which a homeless activist confronts police who are in the process of cleaning up a camp. The activist continually refuses to cooperate with the police request that he stand back on the sidewalk, and issues a near constant stream of profanities and accusations.
Partly as a result of the lack of adequate homeless services, shelters and an organized federal, state and local structure to shelter or house the homeless, and partly as a result of homeless people refusing to accept the shelter that cities provide, many homeless sleep on public sidewalks, in parks, and in random camps set up around the city. Particularly when these camps become entrenched, become collection points for stolen bicycles, end up full of garbage, or full of urine and feces, they become public health hazards and have to be cleaned up. Hepatitis A outbreaks have occurred at camps in San Diego and Los Angeles, as reported in this article and this one, about the problem in San Diego and this one about the problem in Los Angeles. Apparently the problem has also occurred in Santa Cruz as reported here and may be happening throughout the state. The Center for Disease Control reports that these outbreaks have occurred in the homeless in California, Kentucky, Utah and Michigan. These outbreaks threaten the nation as a whole.
Given that so many people who are homeless suffer from serious mental illness, it’s not surprising to find people literally living in piles of filth and garbage.
De facto homeless camps pose other dangers — fires have started in many of them, including some in Oakland and one in Berkeley, and these fires pose serious dangers to adjacent structures. A list of fires associated with homeless camps in the East Bay, in chronological order:
(1)There was a fire at a homeless camp in Oakland on March 27th 2017, as reported in this article.
This article gives information on the fire that occurred on April 13 2017
The fire started at 7:30 a.m. on East 12th Street; five tents were destroyed and a dog died. Everyone else got out okay.”It was very scary. I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I was worried about our lives,” said Lalonnie Rivera, fire victim.
(12)Yet another fire occurred at a homeless camp in West Oakland on February 12 2018, killing one person there.Apparently this fire began in a plywood structure that someone had built as a makeshift house — which goes to demonstrate the danger of these wood structures, which many prefer to tents.
(13)Yet another fire occurred at the West Berkeley Encampment at 2nd street on February 16 2018.
(14) Still another fire occurred at the West Berkeley ENcampment at 2nd street on April 22 2018.
Other incidents at homeless camps:
A woman was found dead at the homeless camp at the Here/There sculpture in Berkeley, in October 2017.
A man’s body was found (deceased male) on Ashby Avenue near Bay Street (very close to the current homeless camp at Aquatic Park) on March 12 2018.
And at an Oakland homeless camp in the vincinity of 2500 Embarcadero on March 9 2018, there was a hatchet attack that left one man injured.
A homeless man was found deceased in the vincinity of homeless camp in the East Bay Regional Park district on March 16 2018.
Homeless persons killed on train tracks:
A homeless man was killed on the train tracks in Berkeley/Albany in 2014 as described here.
A deaf homeless man was killed on the train tracks in 2016 as described here.
Another man was killed by a train in 2016 as described in this article.
A homeless woman was killed when crossing the train tracks in Berkeley in March 2018, as described in this article.
So within the space of only one month in Berkeley, there were 3 fires at homeless camps and one stabbing at a homeless camp. Within two months, there were 3 fires, a stabbing, and a fatality associated with homeless camps in Berkeley.
REgarding the Oakland camp fire where there was a fatality:
OAKLAND — One person died early Monday after a fire broke out at a homeless encampment West Oakland.
Crews responded just before 5:25 a.m. to the blaze, which appears to be in the 2600 block of Northgate Avenue, just north of Sycamore Street. Fire officials were not available immediately to comment. A yellow tarp at the scene covered the body.
The person is believed to be an adult male.
The fire gutted a makeshift shack, and burned other debris in the area. The homeless encampment is underneath a freeway overpass and near BART tracks.
It is one of the largest encampments in the city and there have been other fires there in the past.
An article about the danger of fire at homeless camps appeared in the SF Chronicle here.
As well, the garbage associated with homeless camps can become a target for arsonists, as reported by the city of Berkeley and also in the East Bay Times, as the city is dealing with a string of small debris fires. We found charred debris at two different sites of homeless camps in the East Bay. A pile of charred debris was found on the street median at Adeline and Oregon, just a couple days after the homeless camp there was given an eviction notice.
Another are where charred debris was found was on the Bay Trail near a homeless camp, just across the street from Costco in El Cerrito.
A fire which began at a homeless camp in December 2017 caused the massive fire that burned up several homes in Bel Air.
In addition to these physical problems in the camps, another problem with the camps is that they often have criminals residing in them. These are dangerous people who should not be permitted to just randomly squat on public land in our cities, but this is in fact what is happening. The fire at the Berkeley city hall camp on Feb 6th, was caused by someone selling methamphetamine, who had a prior criminal record. The Feb 15th stabbing, which resulted in the victim being permanently paralyzed, was committed by a man on parole for a felony conviction for a robbery, who had several burglaries on his record.
Then too, living in a homeless camp, or even in one’s vehicle, may put one at risk for shortened life expectancy. THis article indicates that cities (Oakland is mentioned here, there may be others) may not include information about a deceased person’s housing status in death reports, so we may not have data on how many homeless persons are dying on the streets.
At a homeless encampment beneath a highway overpass in West Oakland, Danielle Golden ticked off the names of friends from the camp who had died. She sat in a discarded recliner chair, not far from a tattered “homeless lives matter too” sign.
“Tamoo, Kilo, Chocolate, Spicey Mike, Ebo,” she said, just counting those she said died in the past year. Two were hit by cars, one was stabbed, another shot in the head. The latest perished in a fire. Their names were memorialized with sidewalk chalk until the rain came. It’s unclear whether they were marked as homeless in county death records.
All of these problems — garbage, feces/urine, the danger of fire, disease, vermin, the collections of stolen bicycles — are part of why I believe “unsanctioned” homeless camps should never be permitted anywhere in a city. People who are homeless generally cannot do other than sleep in public places, and this must be permitted, but “camps” should not be permitted. A very simple way to both allow the homeless to sleep in public places but prohibit entrenched camps, would be to pass a law prohibiting anyone from occupying a public place for more than 12 hours. This would prevent camps from getting started.
When police move in to clean up filthy camps, homeless activists call this a “raid”, and will often respond by refusing to cooperate or becoming aggressive. Their intent often seems to provoke police, as well as to create situations they can attempt to legally exploit through abuse of the legal system. One technique often used is to refuse to vacate a camp when asked to do so, and then to accuse the city of “confiscating” or disposing of belongings that they have failed to remove by the posted deadline. What are “belongings” that the city should store and make available to them to pick up at a later time, and what is simply garbage, even biohazardous material, that should be disposed of? The distinction is not clear. As well, it is not clear what responsibilities, if any, the city has towards people who abandon their belongings on public property. If I were to take a tent and set it up in a public place, like a street median or a sidewalk, and then fill that tent with garbage and feces, is the city required to “make an inventory” of my garbage, and save it all for me to retreive at some later time? Or can the city simply throw the garbage away? What distinguishes “belongings” from garbage? These questions need to be explored and investigated, but as you can tell from my questions, I think it’s nonsense to suggest that someone who may or may not be homeless, could just put garbage in public places and then require the city or the police department have a responsibility to inventory and save that garbage.
Attorneys representing Berkeley Homeless activists are suing the city of Berkeley alleging that the property of the homeless was improperly seized. Mike Lee has sued the city in small claims court over seizure of his property. In each of the cases referred to by these activists and their attorneys, camp residents were given notice to vacate the camp. It seems to me that if they chose to disregard that notice, all remaining property should not be stored at all but simply disposed of, since the camp was never given permission to be set up there in the first place. It’s different when a tenant is evicted from an apartment that was formerly their legal home — they have legal rights there. Homeless people who illegally set up permanent camps in public places do not have legal rights to homestead on public property, attempting to permanently appropriate public property, nor to demand that their property be stored if they refused to remove it by the date of the eviction notice requiring them to leave the area. The fact that one’s belongings could be thrown out if one attempts to homestead on public property, is a good deterrent to such illegal homesteading, and cities should make full use of such deterrents to prevent this nuisance behavior, while at the same time, working to guide homeless people towards places which are appropriate for them to stay.
This problem of filthy homeless camps and the associated garbage, could be greatly reduced if the federal, state and local governments provided adequate government-run shelters or camps for the homeless. People would be given a minimal amount of space to store their belongings, and would not be able to haul in additional belongings that didn’t fit in their allotted space. The homeless would have to face the music that, being homeless, they would not have the right to accumulate unlimited amounts of belongings that they had no space to store. Anything put on public property would be subject to disposal. This limitation on how much one can own and store while homeless, would be one of many excellent motivations to people to get out of the state of homelessness and stand on their own two feet, so that they can have more. Cities should strategize on the benefits of creating such disincentives for homelessness — to poke people out of their inertia and ensure that people dont’ get too comfortable in a lifestyle that in many ways can be a nuisance and burden on others. Help people and by all means give food clothing and shelter to all in need, but dont’ allow people to remain in a state of unhealthy dependency if they have the ability to live independently.
In these videos you can see a homeless activist named “Stacy” continually harassing the police who are clearing out a dirty homeless camp which has received multiple complaints. Note that he constantly refuses to follow police orders that he stand back on the sidewalk and issues a stream of profanities towards the police.
This is an excerpt of his confrontation with police as written up on the First They Came for the Homeless FB page:
The only problem I see here is that the City of Berkeley and Berkeley Police Dept waited so long to clear out this camp. This woman has been in this spot for MONTHS, and this camp should have been cleared out as soon as it was put up, when it became obvious that rather than simply sleeping in a public place, this camper was intending to permanently appropriate public property for private use as a residence.
Another problem associated with homeless camps and the clearing out of camps, has to do with the development of “homeless activism” around this situation. Among the reasons why people end up homeless or even choose to be homeless, we may now have to include the fact that continually setting up illegal homeless camps around the city, may be a new and fun way to cause serial nuisance and give the middle finger to cities, to police, to area businesses and residents who are not happy about these “sudden neighbors”. In other words, for people who dont’ have enough protests to go to, here’s another fun form of protest — just plop yourself down anywhere and everywhere and dare the city to remove you. Then scream obscenities at police and city workers when they come to remove the garbage pile you’ve created, and threaten them all with lawsuits. Yes, this could be a lot of fun for people who just love to cause problems for others.
We all want to solve homelessness and get everyone housed. However, the devil’s in the details. How do we do that? As expected, it can be a lot more complicated than it would appear at a superficial glance.
It turns out that even when there’s money to create housing or shelters, and put people in that housing or these shelters, there can be signfiicant problems and waste.
Let’s begin with the city of Albany’s attempt to move the homeless campers out of the Albany Bulb in and into other housing/shelters. It wasn’t working to have homeless people move into a city park, the Albany Bulb, and camp anywhere and everywhere — often hauling in building materials and constructing elaborate shacks, and bringing in chain link fencing to create dog runs for aggressive pit bulls. The “homeless” population grew, and people going to the park for recreation or exercise were increasingly uncomfortable. So the City moved to evict the campers. The first squandering of resources occurred when several agencies helping the homeless banded together to sue the City of Albany. So now the city had to spend a lot of money which it might have otherwise been able to spend on other things, simply fighting in court for its right to evict campers from the city’s own land.
Once the city won the right to evict the campers, they spent $570,000 on assistance and setting up temporary shelters in trailers next to the Bulb. They spent a lot to set up these shelters, but the shelters were hardly used. The legal aid groups representing the Bulb residents made a serious of disingenuous arguments about why the trailer shelters weren’t any good:
“They also said many Bulb residents would not have been able to access the trailers due to physical disabilities, there would not have been enough beds for all evicted residents, and that the trailers would not have offered people the right to privacy they enjoyed in their homes on the landfill.”
So the city spent money offering she shelters which weren’t even used. One wonders how Bulb residents with physical disabilities had no trouble living in a place accessible only by often rough dirt roads and narrow trails, with no running water, no toilets, no showers, and no trash facilities, up to a mile distant from the nearest paved road, but apparently were unable to enter a heated building with toilet and shower facilities, just off the paved road. One wonders, too, how people attain a “right to privacy” when they are given free shelter.
Though each Bulb resident who moved out got $3000 to assist them in obtaining permanent housing, apparently few of them used that to land such housing. Who knows what they spent it on — perhaps they bought a tent and furniture and put it on the sidewalk, or perhaps they spent it all on drugs in one big happy party weekend. Once again, wasted resources in helping the homeless.
There are many government agencies that offer support and housing subsidies to the homeless. You may have read my story about the support given by Shelter Plus to the wrong kinds of people — John Kaipaka received a housing subsidy from them in 2013, in spite of the fact that John had been a serial squatter since 2002 at least, and had 7 unlawful detainer lawsuits on his record. The owner of the apartment he moved into in October 2013 would file the 8th unlawful detainer suit on him, and would be forced to stand by helplessly for 7 months as John Kaipaka proceeded to destroy her entire apartment, tearing out cabinet faces, ceiling tiles, plumbing fixtures, electrical fixtures, doors and other parts, ripping out each fixture and selling it, apparently to feed his addiction to methamphetamine. Why was Shelter Plus giving a housing subsidy to such a destructive and depraved person, who did not deserve it, and who would exploit their help in order to continue on a path of serial squatting and destruction of other’s property? This was not only an enormous waste of resources, but it was also unethical, as the housing subsidy provided to John simply enabled him to engage in squatting and criminal activity and destroy someone’s property with impunity.
The two prominent leaders of the “First they Came for the Homeless” group, Mike Lee and Mike Zint, both received housing assistance. They both obtained housing through the “Rapid Re-Housing” program, which has the aim of providing a series of graduated subsidies, in order to immediately get people off the streets and into housing. The subsidies are graduated, starting initially with higher subsidies and gradually reducing the subsidy, with the aim that the individual eventually is able to stand on their own two feet and pay for their own housing. This letter explains how Rapid Rehousing works:
In spite of the fact that as leaders of this political group, both Lee and Zint were very well versed in laws about camping in public places, assistance offered by homeless service agencies, and opportunities for assistance with housing, apparently neither of them understood that thru Rapid ReHousing, they were not receiving a lifetime housing subsidy. MIke Lee claimed that he was never told that his housing assistance was coming through this program.
After receiving notice of his rent increase, Mike Lee said this — and indicated he would be “fighting” the attempt to require him to start paying more rent:
Well here we go again. Yesterday I caused an e mail to be sent to you concerning my continuing battle with the HUB.
This is the response I got from Council Member Linda Maio“Hi Mike, We are in an imperfect world, that is for sure. Anyone who has been housed through the Hub using rapid rehousing dollars has been told that the rental subsidy is time-limited and that there are step increases in rent leading towards the person sustaining the rent themselves. Rapid rehousing is very different from permanent rental subsidies such as Section 8 that limit the rent to 30% of income. Some people have gotten room mates to offset the costs. I wish it were different. “
I appreciate Council Member Maio’s rapid response but I must respectfully disagree with her statement. At no point was I told I was being extended “rapid rehousing” In fact while I’m familiar with the term I am an opponent of such a strategy in that it has never been successfully implemented excepted in limited cases. To clarify rapid rehousing I took the opportunity last night to ask Paul B about my situation, He then confirmed what I already knew about the strategy but couldn’t share with me how it was implemented.
This morning I did some initial research and discovered the funding source for rapid rehousing is HUD. I can confidently state that rules were not followed in that I was never informed or consented to rapid rehousing, You will not find my signature on any document, contract, etc that proves an existence of informed consent. If such knowledge was held by me in accepting this housing then Council Member Maio’s statement would be correct. What I do have is a lease and a program blurb stating what my rent contribution is for the next year.
At no time was I told there would be increases. Again you will not find my signature on any document which details those increases such as date and amount.
Council Member Maio goes on to say that some people have gotten room mates to offset the cost. Is this allowed? I doubt it. You know me. If you tell me “Hey Mike you can have room mates why shucks I’d personally solve the homeless problem by myself by building bunk beds and installing them in the living room. I’d be going around saying to people “Hey buddy got a tent?” “I’ve got a back yard you can set up in.” “Hey buddy living out of your car?” “I’ve got a parking space you can use, lots of hot water and food in the fridge,” Yes indeed I double dog dare you to tell me I can have room mates. I’ll make it a personal mission to fill this place. Obviously my point here is I believe if the Council Member thinks about it a realization will occur that encouraging me to have room mates is the last thing you want to do.
At this time I would like to set this aside for a moment and await judicial review of this matter.
For quite some time now I have been an informal liason between the Council and the homeless community, As such each one of you is aware that I personally speak with people everyday and explain to them that if they want housing they have to go through the HUB. Yes I’ve also explained to people the challenges of doing so but remain insistent they apply. Once the DailyCal article came out, there was a buzz on the streets. I spent a lot of time revisiting people saying see it works there’s no reason not to at least try. For Thanksgiving I hosted a dinner for members of five different encampments to show them the reality of my changed situation. Everyday before that dinner and even after people drop by to shower, charge cell phones, find something to eat. More importantly they find a reason to hope and a strengthened resolve. Now I’m planning a Christmas dinner which will be even bigger because the community when asked has pitched in what it can.
The reason I share this with you is not to blow my own horn. After all my housing circumstance only changed because I followed your advice. Consider this for a moment. I a single individual sharing a very real positive experience with people still in the doorway and hopefully there is a positive reception to this message and they take those steps they need to get off the sidewalk. Now if this positive is transformed into a negative experience what do you think the outcome will be? I can state without a doubt homeless people will dig in their heels and cite the fact that if they can do this to Mike they’ll do it to me, What do you think the community reaction will be? 95% of this household is furnished by your constituents do you really think they will remain silent?
At the end of the day whether you are concerned about this situation or not I will not voluntarily move. I will contribute my share of the bargain as I understand it but will not allow the initial agreement to change.
I spent two years to get here I’ll spend the next two years fighting to keep it, The reasonable and rational thing to do which is beneficial to all parties is to allow the agreement to run its course over the next two years as agreed upon. Accepting the fact that the HUB may have made a bad deal but their error has nothing to do with me. By allowing them to strip me of my housing in essence assigns any penalty related to their error to me. This is inherently unfair.
As for Mike Zint, he was also taken by surprise when he received a rent increase. He posted on the First They Came for the Homeless group about this:
When they received notice of a rent increase as of Jan 1 2018, in line with a gradual reduction in the size of the subsidy they were receiving, they both expressed surprise and indignation, and announced that they would soon be homeless again. Why were these individuals ever given help through the Rapid ReHousing program, which aims at getting people on their own two feet and paying their own way, when they were both unable or unwilling to pay their own way? Were they not told what program they were obtaining assistance from? Again, a squandering of resources — giving people assistance through the wrong type of program. You can’t sign someone up on a program that aims to get them “standing on their own two feet” when they have no interest in or ability to stand on their own two feet and simply want a lifelong housing subsidy.
Speaking of housing subsidies…as is fairly well known at this point, it is difficult for low income persons to obtain housing subsidies in the state of California. Many waitlists for public housing are completely closed, such as the one in San Francisco. Though the waitlist for Public Housing and subsidized housing in Los Angeles is stated to be open, the details show that the waitlist was most recently open for 2 weeks in October 2017, and had not been open prior to that since 2004…more than 12 years prior. So one could have to wait 12 years to get the chance to be on a waitlist…and then, once on the waitlist, the average wait time is 53 months, or over 4 years. “Persons who were issued a voucher in the preceding 12 months waited an average of 53 months on the waiting list1.”
Given that landing a spot in public housing or with a Section 8 voucher is so difficult, given the fact that demand far outstrips supply, actually winning a spot would be much like winning the lottery — something to celebrate. However, there is evidence to show that a great many people who obtain public housing, end up squandering this opportunity. Taking a look at the San Francisco Superior Court Website, and doing a case search under “San Francisco Housing Authority” reveals the problem. San Francisco Housing Authority owned the public housing in the City of San Francisco until the point a few years ago where the city sold off all its public housing.
A search of Unlawful Detainer cases filed by the San Francisco Housing Authority reveals that over a period of 17 years from year 2000 to year 2017, the SF Housing Authority filed about 3050 Unlawful Detainer cases. As of 2014, San Francisco owned 5000 units of public housing — it had fewer in 2000. If we assume that the average number of units of public housing from 2000 to 2017 was in the range of 3000 to 3500 units, then the number of unlawful detainer cases filed from 2000 to 2017 would indicate that over a span of 20 years, San Francisco Housing Authority would file an unlawful detainer suit to remove a squatter or nonpaying tenant from 100% of public housing units.
These statistics demonstrate two things. First they indicate the enormous expense for city government in providing public housing — not only the subsidies, and the repairs and maintenance, but also the legal expense to remove those who have stopped paying rent.
But second and more important — a very large number of people who are receiving very generous housing subsidies, are unable to follow through on their responsibility to pay a very reasonable and low amount of rent for housing in a part of the nation where housing is very expensive. Many people are being given housing assistance, who fail on their responsibilities that are required to keep that housing, and then have to be evicted, perhaps becoming homeless again, and then again demanding help from the public.
What kind of accountability and responsibility is appropriate to require of people who receive housing assistance? How much help do we give to people, and watch it go to waste, before we stop helping them? What do we do with people who are unable or unwilling to help themselves, and simply demand more and more assistance? These are questions that need to be explored, as we attempt to address the difficult and challenging homeless quandary.
Most people are quite aware of the problem of garbage associated with homeless camps — — which so often includes the quintessential symbol of homelessness — the shopping cart. Shopping carts, shopping carts, and more carts — far from any shopping center, piled high with — well let’s just say, those aren’t groceries in there.
I’m sure many feel they are too aware, and would really like to not have to be so aware of this ubiquitous and unsightly problem. So there may actually be some intentional blindness about shopping carts out there, some cart-numbness that we all have to cultivate, in order not to be concerned about all the sad carts everywhere. To work against this cart-numbness, here I am with my camera, aiming to bring the carts back from their sad state of marginalization by looking to document their misadventures.
Homelessness and garbage can be depressing subjects. So let’s not let ourselves only be depressed. I’m by nature a lighthearted and creative person, and I like to lighten things up by taking a whimsical view of things. So in order to bring a bit of wry humor to the often neglected tales of the downtrodden carts, I want to start a photographic adventure using this quirky and quintessential symbol of the homeless person — the shopping cart — and share images of shoppingcartsin allthewrongplaces.
I’ll also show images of other sorts of “carts” in odd or unexpected places, when I find some of those which are interesting. This photographic essay is not so much intended to show the problem of garbage and homeless camps, as to be a somewhat trashy tragicomedy of the “collateral damage” of homelessness — the misadventures of poor old shopping cart!
I will keep adding to this photo essay as I find more misadventurous carts in all the wrong places.
As is discussed in this San Francisco Chronicle article, the problem of homelessness is growing in the United States, mostly on the West Coast, while it’s decreasing in other areas.
Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose are seeing rapidly exploding numbers of homeless. In Oakland, for instance, as is reported in this article and this article , the number of homeless increased 37% to 39% in just two years.
The National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty reports that the number of homeless encampments has increased 1342% in the last ten years. See page 21 of this report:
The number in California went from 6 statewide, to 120 by 2017.
In studying the approach that many cities take to solving the homeless problem, one finds a “Housing First” approach highly recommended, for the last many years. The basic idea of this approach, as described in the Wikipedia article and the following several articles, is the view that “the solution to homelessness is housing”, which is the City of Berkeley’s primary articulated approach. Utah was a poster child for this approach, when the city realized that it was less expensive to provide housing to all the homeless in the city, including the chronically homeless, than to pay for the police and emergency services continually required by those living on the streets.
The basic idea of the “Housing First” approach, is that if people are homeless, what they need is housing, so you just give them housing. This sounds so elegantly simple. It worked in Utah, why not in California? Where there’s a will, there’s a way, isn’t there?
Let’s take a look. We dont’ have to look very far to start to see some problems in importing a solution from Utah to California and the rest of the USA.
When Utah first began taking this approach to solving homelessness in 2005, there were only 2000 homeless in the entire state, whereas in California at the present time, in December 2017, there are at least 138,000 homeless people, or about 70 times as many as Utah was working with.
In the city of Oakland as of June 2017 there were 5629 homeless in Oakland, and the city of Berkeley estimates about 1000 homeless in Berkeley as of October 2017. As of January 2015, it was estimated that there were 115,738 homeless in California, and as of January 2016 that figure climbed to 118,142 people homeless in California. The numbers of homeless climbed sharply from 2016 to 2017, as in Los Angeles the number went from 44,000 to 58,000, in San Francisco the number went up by about 1000 from that in the Jan 2016 report, and in Oakland the number went up 37% so this would mean another approximately 2000 people. This means that with the increases in those three cities alone, the number of homeless in the state of California would now be at least approximately 138,000 people, out of the nation’s total 550,000 homeless. This means that the state of California has 25% of all the homeless people in the entire nation of 50 states. Which reflects what the New York Times reported in this article. By contrast, Utah has less than 1% of the number of homeless in the USA at the present time.
Hence, use of the “Housing First” model for solving homelessness, is daunted by the sheer numbers, and the exploding numbers.
In addition, the overall cost of housing and cost of living in Utah, is lower than that in the coastal cities of California, where most of California’s homeless are located. Rents are 90% higher in Los Angeles than in Salt Lake city. Rents in San Francisco are 226% higher than in Salt Lake City. Rents in Oakland are 118% higher than in Salt Lake City. These housing costs reflect costs of land, costs of construction, government fees, property taxes and other regional costs. Hence even when “affordable housing” is built in California, it costs more to build in California, particularly in Coastal California, than in Salt Lake City or elsewhere in Utah. Standard housing subsidies for those in need are very difficult to come by — in Berkeley, the last enrollment for Section 8 housing was for 5 days in March 2010, and during those 5 days, the city received 37,000 applications, of which only 1500 were selected to be placed on a wait list, and a wait list does not guarantee housing. People can remain on a wait list for Section 8 housing for many years.
Homeless individuals are given preferential treatment over everyone else in need and assisted by funds specifically designated for the homeless. However, these funds are not unlimited. The city of Berkeley has limited funds, as well as limited space (city-owned land) to build permanent housing for the homeless, and it also has limited space and funds to build homeless shelters.
The city will spend $51 million to house 89 individuals in a Berkeley Way 6 story building, where units would cost $578,000 each to build. For the cost of housing 1 to 2 people in a $578,000 unit, the city of Berkeley could have spent $525,000 to buy this 30 unit apartment building in Memphis TN and house 30 to 60 people in it, for a total of 10% less.
This shows some of the folly of building housing for the homeless in the cities with the most expensive housing in the United States. You get so much less for your money than if you had housed them elsewhere. So for the same dollar amount spent, you can house far fewer people in Berkeley or Oakland or San Francisco, than in Memphis, St. Louis, Tucson, Salt Lake City, or so many other places in the US. People will argue that the homeless in Berkeley will not accept being moved to Memphis, but this view is problematic in several ways, not least of which, it assumes that people have a right to housing in whatever city they happen to show up in.
Yet even if Berkeley and other California cities divert funds and resources from other areas toward more housing for the homeless, there aren’t enough funds or space to meet the growing demand. Which means that there will still be homeless tent camps on city streets, and people living in vehicles on city streets.
Cities need a plan about how to deal with those homeless whom they are unable to house in permanent housing. or whom they either cannot place in homeless shelters, or who wont’ accept space in shelters.
One of the biggest problems with our current approach to solving homelessness, is that we are doing it on a city by city basis. It’s assumed that each city is responsible for housing or sheltering those who are homeless in that city. Yet as the homeless population explodes, and as costs of housing rise, this approach will increasingly be seen as untenable. As the City of Berkeley pointed out in its recent letter to a judge who demanded that the city present a plan for housing its homeless, Berkeley has twice as many homeless as Hayward or Fremont (both of which are larger cities, Fremont has about twice the population of Berkeley) while some cities in Alameda County have no homeless people. As pointed out above, and as is seen in the map, some states have a very small percentage of all the homeless in the USA, while California now has about 25% of the total number of homeless.
These imbalances point to the need to resolve the homeless crisis at a state and national level. Homelessness is truly a national and state emergency. People who are homeless are in much the same position as those who lost homes in a fire or flood, or any other natural disaster. They need help, they need shelter, and particularly as this problem grows enormously in size, federal/state emergency funds should be available to go towards this purpose. Just like we provide shelter for flood victims with FEMA and UN assistance, or set up shelter in refugee camps for refugees, we should be setting up large state and federal camps for the homeless, where people can be gradually processed and some type of housing found for them.
Creating a central hub where homeless people can be directed to shelter and services is vital, as many cities are discovering, when they see the shortcomings of the homeless being met with a confusing array of service providers. I believe that this central hub for helping the homeless should be a federal one. The homeless would sign up with a federal office overseeing all homeless services, and then be directed to the shelter and service hub nearest their present location, to obtain shelter, food and clothing, as well as needed medical care. If a certain city has no more shelter space, the homeless would be sent to a city that did have shelter space. This approach would help prevent specific regions or cities from being overburdened, and from homeless people languishing on sidewalks and outdoors, because cities dont’ have enough shelter for them. As well, it would help prevent nuisance encampments, and protest encampments, whereby homeless protesters are enabled to extort or bully the city of their choice into giving them whatever they ask for — much like the “First they Came for the Homeless” camp is doing in Berkeley, by engaging in a sequence of encampments in prominent central places in the city for about 1.5 years now. They dont’ want shelter — they are demanding permanent housing. In Berkeley. Under a federal or state run program, it would no longer be possible for homeless protesters to bully a particular city, simply showing up wherever they want to live and demanding to be given permanent housing, because cities would no longer be responsible for housing all the homeless who show up there. Cities would not be expected to magically provide housing where there is no space for it, or funds for it when there are insufficient funds.
Do people have the right to “live” wherever they please, even if they have no resources to be able to live there? I say no, and I’m going to call this the “I want to live in Beverly Hills” logical fallacy. There are some homeless activists currently in Berkeley who are emphatic that it’s a fundamental civil right that anyone has the right to live anywhere, regardless of whether they can afford housing. These activists insist that one has the right to set up a tent on public property to house oneself, as such shelter is a fundamental right. However, if we analyze the trajectory of this concept of a civil right to live just anywhere at all, we find multiple problems. First, I think that the assertion that there’s a “civil right” to live anywhere one pleases, is a misunderstanding, and perhaps willful distortion, of the court rulings which have indicated that people have a right to sleep in public places if there is no other shelter available.
People who can’t afford any housing and are dependent on aid freely given, cannot be picky about from where they obtain this aid. Initially, the homeless would need to take shelter where it is offered. By ensuring that sufficient space is available for those in need, the government would have leverage to prohibit people camping in public places — and thus drastically reducing the nuisance, blight, crime, health risks and other social problems attending the homeless phenomenon. As people in shelter camps worked with service providers, they would be directed to places where housing and/or jobs were available. Once people got established, had a job and income and were able to stand on their own two feet again, then they could explore options and free choice about where they wanted to live. They would be able to move to any other place where they preferred to be. But what would not be permitted would be to stay in a place without a job, without housing, and without money to pay for anything, and to continue to cause a nuisance by appropriating public spaces for private use in that area.
Instead of building expensive shelters, shelters that were more similar to those provided in refugee camps and to victims of natural disasters would be used. By cutting costs, more could be sheltered. Some of this simplification of sheltering the homeless is already occurring in some Western cities, such as cities which have permitted sanctioned homeless camps, or which are doing as Oakland recently began to do, and setting up a sanctioned camp using “Tuff Shed” structures.
This simplification of shelters, combined with the use of sanctioned camps, could help enormously in reducing the blight, crime, nuisance, garbage piles, drug use and health hazards associated with unsanctioned, ad hoc, homeless camps.
Currently, people who become homeless in a given area, are being directed to permanent housing, which often means subsidized housing, and the subsidy is larger if they are living in an area with high housing costs. How many people who are recovering from homelessness, end up being able to afford to live independently in the same city where they became homeless, and how many instead require lifelong subsidies from that point on? Studies need to be done to explore this. The goal should be to put people where they can eventually afford to live, rather than subsidize them in regions where they can never hope to afford to live.
Of course, even with all these sorts of new approaches to the homeless problem, there will still be people living on city streets. However, I think that with a smarter, more centralized approach to housing and sheltering people, and a more simplified approach to shelter construction, we could see great improvements over the current situation, and cities will not be left (as they too often are now) unable or unwilling to enforce no-camping laws.
Priority in Assigning Shelter space and housing
One of the most important things needed in helping the homeless, is studying the different kinds of homeless and finding out what are the needs of the people you’re trying to house. It’s aggravating and annoying to read simplistic articles that simply lump all the homeless into one basket, as though the person with the graduate degree who lost his job and then his house, and became homeless, is very similar at all to the convicted felon with antisocial personality disorder and an addiction to cocaine, who became homeless after being thrown out of multiple apartments for vandalism and domestic violence, and who never was able to hold a steady job.
In working with people to find housing for them, people who have the most likelihood of success in finding work to be able to stand on their own two feet, should be given priority in choosing where they want to be housed. Those who have the least likelihood of being able to find work to support themselves, or who are disabled and can’t work, should be given lowest priority to choose the particular city or region where they want to live. “Beggars can’t be choosers”. People of different need levels should be distributed evenly around the country so that no one area takes the brunt of the less functional and less employable population, but at the same time, people whose income level doesn’t match the cost of living in expensive cities, should not be housed there if they can be less expensively housed elsewhere.
This recent article studies the “bussing” of homeless from one city to another. San Francisco has done a lot of bussing of the homeless out of the city. One of the assumptions of the article is that homeless people are the responsibility of the city in which they happen to be found homeless. This is a problematic and unworkable view, particularly for West Coast cities where the homeless populations are exploding. Rather than viewing the homeless in any given city as the responsiblity of that city to shelter or house, it makes much more sense to organize housing, shelter space, and homeless services from a central federal hub.
This is how I envision this working:
(1) A person who finds themselves homeless goes to the nearest homeless service agency. This agency does an intake interview and gets them signed up through a federal registry to find housing/shelter and/or services for them.
(2) The homeless individuals’ needs are assessed, so that they can be matched with the appropriate program. At minimum, these needs are evaluated:
(a) Does the individual have skills enabling to readily find work, and if so, where can such work be found. If not, does the individual have the capacity and/or willingness to learn skills which will enable them to find work.
(b) Does the individual have a mental or physical disability which makes it difficult or impossible for them to work.
(c) Does the individual have a problem with drugs/substances which impairs their ability to function or be employed.
(d) Does the individual have a serious mental illness, and if so, what are their needs relative to this problem.
(e) Does the homeless individual have family and friends in any part of the nation or world who could help them.
(f) Does the individual have a criminal record which make it difficult to obtain work.
(3) Those individuals who are highest functioning, have work skills, and only lack income or work, but have no substance abuse issues or serious mental illness, or criminal record, would be given highest priority in staying in the area where they are presently located. They would be assisted to find shelter space, housing or services and then to find work, so they could support themselves.
(4) All other individuals will be given priority to choose the location where they receive services based on their level of functionality and level of need. Individuals would be sent to locations where there are services available for them, rather than putting them on wait lists for shelter or services where they happen to be at present. The system would be oriented around matching individuals with available shelter and services wherever those are available in the nation, rather than keeping the individual in the city where they are at present or where they want to be, living in an uncomfortable liminality where it is not clear when they will ever get what they need.
In other words, homeless individuals would find their choices about where they receive services, reduced in proportion to their level of need or lack of ability to function or work. The greater their need the fewer their choices, but, at the same time, the greater their need the higher their priority to receive federal housing subsidies, under some federal programs which prioritize the most vulnerable.
This plan of course is dependent upon there being sufficient services and shelter, somewhere in the nation, for all those who are homeless.
If it turns out that there is insufficient shelter in standard homeless shelters, we cannot continue with the status quo and leave people to live on sidewalks and in bushes. This is inhumane, and it also causes many problems for cities and neighborhoods. Rather, adequate shelters must be constructed so that ALL the homeless have a safe and secure place to find shelter. This may mean that people are sheltered in what are the equivalent of a series of refugee camps around the nation — looking much like the refugee camps we see in other parts of the world, or camps set up to provide housing for those who have lost their homes in natural disasters. Obviously having the camps close to cities where work and services are available is desirable. No emergency camp is ideal, but camps with running water, toilets, showers and clean and dry shelter, is greatly superior to the squalid shantytowns full of garbage, and lacking any hygenic facilities, which the homeless have been living in across the nation for many years.
For the longer term, all levels of government must explore how to create more permanent housing for those in need. As well, there should be exploration about how to create more free city-run or state-run campgrounds and parking lots with free space available to those wanting to live in vehicles, all around the nation. These places are very valuable for those in times of difficulty or transition, and also fill the need that exists for those who prefer to live in vehicles or indeed who spend their lives traveling around the nation in vehicles. Having designated places where these people could go and experience community of like -minded people, would take the burden and the sense of insecurity and illegality off of those who live in vehicles, and would reduce the problem of vehicle-dwelling on residential streets or other random areas of the city,, which leads to resident complaints, garbage, and nuisance in many cities.
Articles about the “Housing First” approach to solving homelessness:
The central, unavoidable problem, and very serious flaw in the “Housing First” model, is that in regions of the nation where the numbers of homeless are growing rapidly, indeed exploding in some areas, there is not enough affordable housing and there are not enough funds available to provide permanent housing for all those in need. This article sums up this problem.
As well, it can be useful to consider other perspectives on these housing issues. Here for instance is an interesting perspective, in which the writer suggests that there may be motives at work, in the “homeless crisis” issues, which do not exactly seek to benefit the homeless: