The lack of affordable housing, systemic racism and weak safety nets continue to be the leading causes for Silicon Valley’s homeless crisis, a panel of experts last week.
Hosted by thecupertinodigest.com and nonprofit Destination: Home as part of an event series on the issue, the Thursday panel examined the root causes of homelessness—and possible solutions. It featured Dontae Lartigue, founder and CEO of Raising The Bar and board chair of the Santa Clara County lived experience advisory board; Margot Kushel, professor of medicine at UCSF; Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness; and Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of All Home. Destination: Home CEO and thecupertinodigest.com board member Jennifer Loving moderated the conversation.
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San Jose has seen its homeless crisis explode in the last few years, with the COVID-19 pandemic further upending the lives of thousands of families and residents. Despite unprecedented funding to bring more housing solutions online, efforts continue to fall short. While the county has housed more than 6,000 individuals the last two years, residents continue to fall into homelessness at a faster rate than people are being housed.
San Jose saw its unhoused population grow 11% during the pandemic, from 6,097 homeless people in 2019 to 6,739 this year. A few hundred people are living in squalid conditions at a sprawling camp in Columbus Park.
Panelists said people tend to blame an individual’s shortfalls on mental illness, addiction to alcohol or substances, or even domestic violence as the reason for homelessness. But it’s a systemic problem.
“Homelessness is a societal failure, not an individual one,” Olivet said, adding while issues like mental illness and addictions intersect with homelessness, that’s not what drive large amounts of people to the streets.
The homeless crisis in the country today started in the 70s and 80s, he said, when federal investment and local policies for affordable housing started to waver. In 1970, the U.S. had a surplus of half a million affordable homes—now it has a deficit of 7 million.
Systemic racism—which continues to discriminate and widen the wealth gap for Black families and individuals—and deep economic inequalities that keep people at extreme poverty levels also contribute to the crisis, Moss said. In San Jose, Black residents make up roughly 2.9% of the total population, but they account for 20% of the unhoused population, according to the latest data.
While housing costs in the Bay Area have skyrocketed in the last few years, wages haven’t kept up. Roughly a million people in nine Bay Area counties earn less than $35,000 a year, making it almost impossible for them to stay in stable living situations, when the average rent in the area is $3,000 per month, Moss said.
Lartigue, who grew up in the foster care system, said many youths transitioning out of the system end up being homeless because they lack real-world preparation.
“When I emancipated, I didn’t have a credit score, I didn’t have rental history and I didn’t have an adequate amount of income,” he said. “I literally don’t have a fighting chance.”
Panelists said it’s difficult to change public misconceptions about homelessness.
“There’s something about the way that we systematize homelessness, in fact, that disconnects us from the humanity that we all share,” Moss said, urging the public to look into the data and beyond the human suffering in front of them.
Kushel said the region’s approach to prioritizing housing continues to be an effective way to address the homeless crisis. In 2015, her team worked with 400 unhoused people with significant substance use and mental health problems, and helped 91% of them move into permanent supportive housing. After seven years, 93% of those who got into housing continued to stay housed, she said.
“To end homelessness, you need housing, and you need to start it without preconditions,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean housing only, it means that, for it to work, you have to provide the services that are appropriate to this person’s needs.”
Panelists also emphasized the need for more investment in affordable housing at all levels of government, pointing to how the U.S. addressed the homeless crisis during the Great Depression by pumping money into public and affordable housing.
“Congress needs to move on this,” Olivet said. “We need a massive infusion of federal resources into affordable housing and wraparound supports in this nation.”
For Lartigue, the needle won’t move until people with lived experience become the center of the conversation.
“Collectively you can be allies,” he said. “But folks with lived experience have the solutions.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.
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