Homelessness is an ongoing issue in our country and, closer to home, in our city and county. You might be wondering, ‘what does homelessness have to do with keeping Oakland beautiful?’ For me, our job of beautifying Oakland isn’t successful, if we’ve left a portion of our community behind.
Let’s look at a couple of statistics:
- While it’s difficult to determine the number of homeless people in a given area, it’s estimated that there are 6,000 to 7,000 homeless people living in Alameda County. That means that more than 1% of Alameda County’s population is homeless. Approximately half of the homeless in the County, 3,000 to 3,500 people, live in Oakland.
- An estimated 2,000 or almost one-third of the homeless in Alameda County are children. They live in temporary housing, foster homes, homeless shelters or on the street.
- Due to the high cost of housing, 6% of Alameda County households spend more than half of their income on housing costs. If we have another major hiccup in our economy like we did in 2008, these neighbors will be at greatest risk of joining the 6,000 to 7,000 that are already homeless.
Clearly, homelessness in our city and county is a significant problem that cannot be ignored. The issue transcends those unfortunate people who are homeless today, to include those who could end up being homeless in the future. There are already a number of excellent local organizations that help the homeless, but they can’t do it alone.
Some people suggest that the solution is to homelessness is to move the homeless out of the city and into other communities. This doesn’t solve the problem of homelessness, it just passes the problem to others. To truly address the problem of homelessness, we must understand why people become homeless in the first place.
People become homeless for a number of reasons. Some of the more common reasons include:
- Loss of job and income.
- Insufficient income to support a home.
- Lack of affordable housing.
- Catastrophic debt.
- Separation, divorce, loss of a spouse or partner.
- Physical or emotional impairment.
- Substance abuse.
- Choice (transient living is a chosen lifestyle for some people).
While donating food and clothing to the homeless is a good and charitable act that we must continue to do, it only treats a symptom of the problem. To get to the heart of the matter and create lasting solutions, we have to address the root causes of homelessness. Potential solutions include:
Creating more entry-level jobs. For starters, we need to create more entry-level, unskilled, and other jobs, provide proper job training, and help the homeless join the ranks of the employed, so they can contribute to society and generate an income for themselves.
Providing affordable housing. Alameda County is one of the ten most expensive housing markets in the United States. People making low wages cannot afford such high housing costs.
The City of Oakland and Alameda County need to work together to offer decent, subsidized housing for low-income individuals and families to help get homeless people off the streets and to keep people of lesser means safe and healthy in permanent, stable homes.
Providing access to knowledge. Education is another lever we can pull to help people who are homeless as well as others who would benefit from affordable access to greater knowledge. Offering free or subsidized classes in subjects like health, wellness, and prevention; nutritious diet; how to manage and save money; as well as other basic skills like reading and math can be immensely helpful.
Providing access to affordable health care and wellness. Yet another aspect of the solution lies in providing homeless individuals with access to affordable and timely medical and behavioral health care and ensuring that all people have access to affordable, nutritious foods. Increasing the number of community gardens and offering affordable produce at farmer’s markets in low-income neighborhoods can put more fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat on more tables.
Being compassionate. Lending a helping hand, demonstrating compassion, or even just saying ‘hello’ can mean a lot to someone who may be feeling ostracized by their desperate situation. The Dalai Lama states that compassion needs to be part of our daily lives, regardless of our individual beliefs, and that compassion is the key to our own and others’ happiness and tranquility. Men, women, and children who are homeless in Oakland are members of our community and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.
When I see a homeless person on the street, I’m reminded of a saying originally attributed to 16th century Englishman, John Bradford: “There, but for the grace of god, go I.” I know that I’m fortunate to have a good job and that my family and I enjoy sound health. I also know that if I lost one or both of those assets, my entire family’s economic situation would change quickly and precipitously.
There’s another saying that goes, ‘Catch a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.’ Since homelessness is such a complex and critical issue to address, I believe we need to do both.
As individuals, I believe we can and must help people who are homeless in immediate, yet meaningful ways, providing donations of food, clothing or other needed items. As a community, we have the ability to craft greater solutions that, together, can get at the root causes of homelessness, restore people’s dignity, help the people who are currently homeless to become responsible for their future well-being, and prevent others from sliding down the slippery slope to this catastrophic outcome. We must complement this ability with a willingness to devote the effort and resources necessary to build lasting solutions that ‘teach a man to fish.’
Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.
We encourage you to share your thoughts in the reply section. We welcome the dialogue and learning of others’ perspectives.