Page One

Apply Patience to Battle Against Homelessness

Friday April 11, 2003

I work for a Berkeley-based nonprofit organization that offers comprehensive services to help homeless people gain independence. I have worked here for 17 years, and watched as attention to the war on poverty ebbed and flowed as public priorities changed. We are seemingly no closer to a solution than when I first arrived. Or are we? 

Berkeley is sometimes considered a too generous provider of services, drawing homeless from surrounding cities. This is false, as Berkeley has about 1 percent homeless persons, lower than Oakland’s 1 percent to 1.5 percent and San Francisco’s 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent. This jibes with the 2000 Urban Institute estimate of 3.5 million homeless nationwide, or 1.2 percent. (The U.S. Census is so insecure about their lower number — and rightly so as it fails to capture large numbers of “hidden homeless,” who double up with friends or family, as well as those not present at a participating shelter or soup kitchen on counting night — that the 2000 Census refers to their count as the “emergency shelter and transitional shelter population” and not the homeless population.) 

One percent of the U.S. population is a large number of people. But we do not need numbers to tell the story. We know homelessness remains unsolved, as we walk by homeless people every day. Why does it remain so after all this time? Part of it is underfunding, and part is inadequate diagnosis. 

Most of the homeless face multiple difficulties, resulting from inadequately treating several ailments, which may be of a physical, mental, emotional, social or systemic nature. 

This complex hodge-podge of obstacles is why homelessness persists, since not all are accepted as valid barriers and subsequently are not supported by policy or resource allocation. 

Physical and organic mental barriers are the most comprehensible and thus easier to mobilize around. Emotional and social barriers are less comprehensible, and often perceived more as personal shortcomings that a person can “get over” with sufficient willpower. This higher degree of victim-blaming muddies our ability to implement solutions. Systemic barriers are by and large accepted as valid by the public, who understand that structural issues make it harder for some people to survive and thrive than others. 

In effect, the public has a collective emotional dysfunction about systemic shortcomings — a shared sense of hopelessness that prevents ambitious corrections. 

Policy and opinion makers need to deepen their understanding of the obstacles in the way of solving homelessness and speak a more informed language with the public, to increase their understanding as well. We should then apply the same concepts of patience, commitment and long wars, which this administration has adopted for the purposes of fighting terrorism, to the ongoing fight against homelessness and poverty here at home. 

Sonja Fitz is a resident of Berkeley and works for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS).