.Facing ‘The Homeless’: Stories from the street belie stereotypes

Maddie was eating in a Berkeley cafe when she overheard two young women sharing their thoughts about “the homeless.” Plucking up her courage, she walked to their table, apologized for interrupting, and asked, “What does a homeless person mean to you?”

“Dirty, smelly, panhandling us, drinking and doing drugs, going through garbage,” were some of the women’s answers.

“I teach preschool. And I’m homeless,” the Berkeley native informed them, as their mouths fell open. Later, the cafe’s owner told Maddie he was proud of her—and that he, too, had once been homeless.

The truth? There is no such thing as nameless, faceless “The Homeless.” Each person couch surfing, or living in a car, an RV, a tent or an encampment on the street, has a unique story of how they got there. And all those stories are profoundly human.

Studies and statistics reveal some of the facts: 11% of the chronically homeless are veterans. 2019–2020 saw an increase of 14.6% in homeless families. Unaccompanied youth, many aging out of foster care, account for another group. Perhaps most shockingly, half the U.S. homeless population is estimated to be age 50 and above—and one study by several prominent universities projects that senior homelessness will triple by 2030.

As defined by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute: “An unsheltered homeless individual is anyone who resides in a place not meant for human habitation, such as a tent, car, park, sidewalk, or abandoned building. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of unsheltered homeless Bay Area residents increased 63 percent from 15,768 to 25,530 individuals, including…a 222 percent jump in Alameda County.”

And while it is true that by some estimates, 26% of the homeless/unhoused/unsheltered population suffers from some form of mental illness—including PTSD—and as many as 35% have chronic substance abuse disorders, there is a big “which came first” question among experts. Did these conditions exist before people became unhoused, or did people develop/exacerbate these conditions due to the stress of being unhoused?

Like Maddie, a substantial number of people within the unhoused population are employed, but their wages don’t cover the Bay Area’s extremely high housing costs.

As both her parents aged and became ill, Maddie quit her job to care for them. But their house was still mortgaged, and when they passed away, she couldn’t keep up the payments. The bank foreclosed. For a while, she lived in an RV with her aunt—and then came living on the street. In 2018, she sought help at the Berkeley Food & Housing Project’s Dwight Way Women’s Shelter.

“We meet people where they are, build a rapport and help them identify a plan for where they want to be,” said BFHP’s Executive Director Callene Egan. Since its 1970 founding, the organization has grown to serve Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Sacramento, Amador and San Joaquin counties. It provides supportive services for veterans and their families. It also serves an aging population, Egan said, “many of whom have pre-existing medical conditions. Each person’s story is different. Do they need physical or mental therapy? We work with them so they can be independent.”

In partnership with BRIDGE Housing, the BFHP broke ground in July 2020 for the Hope Center, which will include a 32-bed men’s shelter and 53 units of supportive housing, and the Berkeley Way Apartments, with 89 affordable housing units. “Housing is a human right,” Egan said.

Oakland single-mother Markaya Spikes became homeless in 2014, along with her youngest child, because her landlord lost his building. She worked as a Lyft driver, and for a time, she and her daughter lived in the car. Then, while living in a series of tents, Spikes collected enough wood to build a “tiny house,” where she and her daughter stayed for two years. “I was on housing lists for years,” she said, “but I was never chosen.” She also encountered the same problem many face: an inability to meet expensive and complex requirements for renting.

She finally connected with Candice Elder, director of the East Oakland Collective. The EOC serves between 1,000 and 1,200 people in East Oakland. It actively looks for people living in vehicles, tents and encampments. “Changing the narrative of who is homeless is half the battle,” Elder said. EOC serves the same groups as other organizations: vets, seniors, youth and also the formerly incarcerated. One of the organization’s goals is helping to end the “jail-to-homeless-back-to-jail” pipeline.

City and state initiatives are needed and well intentioned, Elder said, but often suffer from a top-down focus, without input from the people supposedly being helped. EOC “involves unhoused leaders in whatever programs we are working on,” she emphasized. The recent passage of a state bill authorizing $12 billion dollars for services and housing for the unhoused and at-risk is of course welcome, but EOC is primarily community, not government, funded. Other initiatives, such as the one just passed by the Oakland City Council authorizing funds for housing units “co-owned” by the city and unhoused individuals, show promise.

EOC partnered with The Village, the Dellums Institute for Social Justice and others to create an extensive 2018 report, “Housing Oakland’s Unhoused,” including hours of community-listening sessions. Elder said EOC remains committed to its recommendations, which include access to land and infrastructure, support for grassroots organizations and overcoming NIMBYism.

“I’m good at failure,” said the tall, well-spoken man. Born in San Pablo and raised by an abusive, alcoholic mother, Randy Scott was then kicked out of another house by an alcoholic father at age 15. He started down a path that resulted in addiction, 26 years in prison and eventually, living in a storm drain. “I conditioned myself to live in a cell outside a cell,” he said.

Scott credits a parole officer “who was firm, fair and consistent” with helping him avoid recidivism. A friend worked for Richmond’s Safe Organized Spaces (SOS!) program, and Scott got a job there in 2020, picking up trash. The state’s Project Roomkey program housed him temporarily. Then came a time when SOS!’s director, Daniel Barth, needed more help. Scott stepped up, running the mobile “Shower Power” rigs during Barth’s time away.

The experience allowed him to believe he could “be included in work, love, and [be] valued for my thoughts as a man.”

SOS! created its first pilot program in 2019. Goals included building respectful relationships among housed and unhoused neighbors, improving hygiene and sanitation options for unsheltered people, reducing the need for police and fire department interventions at encampments, and providing jobs and job-training for residents at encampments. The timing turned out perfectly, as activists began pushing for more civic money to be spent solving the root causes of crime and homelessness. The Reimagine Richmond’s Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce endorsed SOS!’s programs, and on July 28 the Richmond City Council voted to approve $984,000 for its “Streets Team.”

SOS!, said Barth, is in contact with every homeless encampment in Richmond, listening to both housed and unhoused. The Streets Team program employs unhoused people to clean streets and encampments, and the “peer-based security program provides real-time responses to neighborhood complaints related to homelessness, patrols neighborhood hotspots and deters illegal behavior at problematic encampments and curbsides.”

“We create small solutions in neighborhoods, ones that [housed residents] can accept,” Barth said. “We understand that people can be frustrated at what they perceive as a loss of quality of life. But they direct that frustration at the people who have the least power to address the issues.”

Maddie’s, Markaya Spikes’ and Randy Scott’s stories continue.

Initially, Maddie was “uncomfortable and depressed” at the shelter. “But I asked myself, ‘How am I going to get my life back?’” she said. She volunteered for the Downtown Street Team, picking up trash. The shelter gave her a part-time custodian job. Recently, she received a promotion to a Street Team job, where she now recruits unsheltered people for the team and hands out personal hygiene kits, water and garbage bags. She asks people what they need—California ID cards, Social Security or medical assistance—and listens to their stories. “[Housed] people can help by volunteering and learning what’s going on in the world,” she said.

With the help of the East Oakland Collective, Markaya Spikes and her daughter moved into an apartment on June 1. “Rent costs should be in line with average wages,” she said. “Many people are one or two paychecks away from being homeless. Why aren’t more protections already in place to help?” During her time unhoused, many people told her, “You don’t look homeless.”

“People think all homeless people are lazy, or on drugs,” she said. “I had the same ideas until I got to see for myself.”

Randy Scott lives in a motel that is still funded by the state’s Project Roomkey. With stimulus money, he bought a car. He is now a manager with SOS!, taking calls on his cell phone and organizing other workers. His goals include owning and improving a piece of property.

He still fears failure. “I have to fight the inner me,” he said. “But now I’m the guy who has to model success.”

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