Berkeley’s chronically homeless population decreased by nearly 50 percent over the last six years according to a recently released study. Federal officials said it was the largest reduction of chronic homelessness in the state to date.
Standing in the sunny backyard of Bonita House, a nonprofit that partners with the City of Berkeley to provide low-cost housing to homeless adults, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates announced the news to the public. Also present were homeless advocates and agencies and formerly homeless Bonita House residents.
According to a count and survey of homeless people conducted by Alameda County’s EveryOne Home program, the number of chronically homeless residents in Berkeley fell 48 percent since 2003.
Alameda County officials said that Berkeley started working with community agencies to focus services toward chronic homelessness after the 2003 count.
“What’s working needs to be continued and expanded throughout the state of California,” said Bates, admitting that the news wasn’t all good.
Blaming the recession, Bates said that it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to state and federal funding for homeless services. “But even during the downturn we continue to fund homeless programs,” he said. “The most important thing is not to be homeless; the second most important thing is to be homeless for as short a time as possible; and the third most important thing is to find a safe place to live.”
The 2003 count and survey showed that two-thirds of Berkeley’s homeless population was chronically homeless adults, defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as “an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year.”
This comprised 20 percent of Alameda County’s homeless population, and 10 percent of the homeless population nationally.
Berkeley, Bates said, had invested more deeply in programs which aimed to end homelessness through permanent housing.
Some of the strategies included creating new supportive housing opportunities for chronically homeless adults by combining resources from the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative’s Square One Program, new federal funding for permanent housing subsidies and new federal and state funding for permanent housing subsidies combined with intensive mental health services.
The city also realigned supportive services, emergency shelter and transitional housing programs to push for permanent housing through agencies such as Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and the city’s mental health and aging services.
City funding for programs to help homeless residents has also increased, with money for some disabled adult services having tripled over the years.
Rick Crispino, executive director of Bonita House, said that his organization provided 12 units of Section 8 housing at 1912 Hearst Ave. to homeless people with mental disabilities and substance-abuse problems, who eventually moved into permanent housing.
Caroline Barajas, who moved into one of these temporary apartments in May, is now getting ready to move into her own two-bedroom apartment in Oakland.
“I was shut out of my house in North Richmond and my children were scattered all over the place, so I ended up homeless,” she said. “I am finally getting my life back together.”
Crispino pointed at Draundre Rice, a recovering substance abuser who has been living at Bonita House for two months.
“Druandre came in with hardly anything, but our program enabled him to save some money and take classes at City College,” he said. “We reached out to him and helped turn his life around.”
Berkeley, however, continues to face a challenge when it comes to reducing chronic homelessness, city officials acknowledged, because most homeless individuals have at least one disability, long histories of homelessness and typically very low incomes.
Eduardo Cabrera, regional coordinator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that although there has been significant improvement in chronic homelessness, the recession had catapulted “hidden homelessness” countywide.
Data from Alameda County shows that the number of people living temporarily with a friend or relative, in a motel, or facing eviction within seven days countywide had increased by more than two and half times, and had increased to 41 percent of the county’s total homeless population.
“Millions of jobs have been lost—to think that would not have an impact is naive,” Cabrera said.
Berkeley’s number of “hidden homeless” has increased tenfold, going up from 14 to 144. Although, at 17 percent, this represents a small chunk of Berkeley’s homeless residents, the city has requested federal stimulus money for their assistance.
Statistics comparing 2003 to 2009:
• The number of chronically homeless people in Berkeley decreased from 529 to 276 (48 percent).
• Berkeley’s share of the countywide chronically homeless population decreased from 41 percent to 27 percent.
• People residing on the streets, in shelters or in transitional housing programs decreased from 821 to 680 (17 percent).
• Significant decreases in the number of homeless adults with no dependent children were somewhat offset by an increase in the number of literally homeless adults with dependent children, from 94 to 125 adults and children.