Homeless Suffer in Cold Weather

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:23:00 AM

Baby, it’s cold outside! Ask the regulars who spare-change in your neighborhood shopping area (you do know them by name, don’t you?) and you’ll find they are anxious about where they’re going to be able to sleep as the temperature drops. Many of Berkeley’s beggars are comfortable enough “sleeping rough,” as they say in Britain, except in weather like we’ve been having this week, when it’s just too cold to sleep on the ground.  

The statistics aren’t in yet, but it seems obvious that recent cuts in Alameda County’s General Assistance (welfare) program, as documented by reader correspondents in this issue, will push even more people out of cheap rooms and into the streets. Shelter beds are expensive to operate and not nearly numerous enough.  

A sizeable percentage of those who are labeled “homeless” are people with mental health problems. Even when housing is available, many just aren’t able to connect with the logistics of renting a place to stay on a permanent basis. So when those who have managed to get a room, often with a roommate or two, are turned out because their income from GA has dropped, they haven’t got a good handle on how to get back into housing. 

Then there are the regular people who have lost their homes to foreclosure, often because they’ve lost their jobs in the current recession. The EDD lists the unemployment rate for Alameda County in October at 11.5 percent, and that’s probably subject to the usual exclusion of people who are so down and out they don’t even bother looking for a job. Unemployed people who have been foreclosed on often need to pay rent that’s even more than the house payments which they also couldn’t pay, just to get a place to live, and they end up on the street or in a shelter. 

The estimable organizations that struggle to offer shelter to needy clients are stepping up their requests for donations. We get at least two or three press releases every day from groups which are trying to expand their funding to cope with an increased case load. We can’t do a story on each and every one of these, but if you’ve ever contributed to such an organization, you should be aware that they need you now more than ever. 

Against this background of ever more need for places for people to live, a couple of recent court cases cast doubt on the continued ability of cities to require inclusion of affordable housing as a condition on building permits issued to market-rate speculators. One appeals court decision said that Los Angeles couldn’t mandate developer Geoffrey Palmer to build inclusionary units, and the other struck down in-lieu fees paid by housing developers in the city of Patterson which were supposed to go toward building low-income units. These decisions knock into a cocked hat Berkeley’s justification for allowing more and more expensive housing to be built downtown on the theory that affordable housing will trickle down from such projects.  

Other cities in the urban East Bay, Oakland for example, have never even bothered enacting such requirements. Mayor Dellums proposed one about a year ago, but it’s gone nowhere and now probably never will. 

If we’re ever going to make sure that all Americans are decently housed we’re going to have to start from scratch to figure out how to do it right. The ability of for-profit developers to game the system and avoid providing any low-cost units seems endless, so dedicated low-income housing looks like a better bet. However, programs which purport to stimulate investment in such projects by giving tax breaks are also notoriously gamed by investors. Public housing projects are plagued by shoddy construction, which results in buildings which self-destruct just about the time the tax incentives time out. And even technically non-profit developers game the system on occasion. 

In many ways this looks a lot like the current debate over health care. Ever more complicated and confusing oblique incentives to get what we need are proposed, when anyone with any sense knows that single payer—where the government calls the shots—is what will work.  

The provision of decent housing for all segments of society in many civilized modern countries is just assumed to be the government’s job. Of course, governments everywhere don’t do the job equally well. Britain’s first set of council houses and France’s skyscraper suburbs turned out to be just as nasty as St. Louis’s now-demolished Pruitt-Igoe project, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Attractive sustainable housing for low-income citizens has been taken for granted in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, though even they are not without problems. 

It’s often believed that work-force housing and low-income or affordable housing are the same thing. In Berkeley one of the reasons we need affordable work-force housing is simply that our dominant employer, the University of California, doesn’t pay its workers enough to live on, or at least to live anywhere close to the job site. Service workers in particular aren’t paid well enough to live in Berkeley. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the city of Berkeley’s obligation to provide inexpensive housing for UC’s underpaid staff.  

On Wednesday night the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Berkeley Chapter 3299 staged a march to the home of Vice Chancellor George Breslauer in Rockridge. An organizer told me that the Berkeley campus had taken the most drastic cuts in the lowest paid staff—custodians, kitchen workers, gardeners and similar positions—and that he suspected it was because modest wage increases had been successfully negotiated in the most recent contract.  

The university should be required to accept its responsibility for providing its workers with a living wage. It’s time for the citizens of Berkeley to stop trying to subsidize housing for UC employees—we have enough other people on the streets here with no jobs at all to take care of at the moment. 



While we’re on the subject of Berkeley citizens, we’d like to note with gratitude that several Berkeleyans who are aware of the nature of the harassment of BDP advertisers became alarmed by the increasingly belligerent tactics and consequences of that campaign and thought a statement was necessary to clarify the issues from their perspective, express what they feel is a community consensus, and reassure besieged advertisers. They have no website or formal affiliation, so they asked the Planet to post their statement with signatures they are in the process of collecting. We have done so at www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/openletter. We deeply appreciate their support.