When the Housing Crisis Hits Home
As the Bay Area’s housing crisis worsens, families across the East Bay increasingly struggle with the threat of homelessness.
Three Generations: Leslie Patterson, her daughter JaCola Williams, and Williams’ son Demorian McCray, in their Walnut Creek apartment.
At the end of each aisle, JaCola Williams pulls back on the Walmart shopping cart she’s pushing and turns to her mom, Leslie Patterson. “Right or left?” she asks. The 25-year-old has already forgotten the direction they’re headed. Patterson directs her daughter, whose long- and short-term memory was severely impaired after a car accident two years ago, reminding Williams to check the prices for cereal.
Once a jet-setting wardrobe model and stylist, Williams still flaunts some of her impeccable fashion sense with a perfectly matched outfit, from her red-rimmed glasses to her socks. “Oh yeah, I still got it,” she jokes, with a childlike grin. But behind Williams’ style and Patterson’s optimism is a grim reality: As a single mom, Patterson not only has to support her teenage son but also her disabled adult daughter and grandson.
Last fall, before the government certified Patterson as Williams’ professional caregiver—a job that only pays $12.25 an hour—the family’s bank account resembled their three-bedroom Walnut Creek apartment: empty. If it were not for financial assistance from a nonprofit, they would have been homeless. “My mind is all over the place, but my life is at a standstill,” says Patterson. “There’s not a night I don’t cry.”
Take a walk through any of the Bay Area’s urban centers, and it’s impossible to miss the homeless crisis. Tent encampments spill out from Oakland’s freeway underpasses, while in San Francisco, cardboard mattresses and tattered shoes peek out from recessed doorways. In an effort to raise awareness about the dire situation, local news outlets began orchestrating an ongoing media blitz called the San Francisco Homeless Project last year, flooding TV, radio, and the Internet with stories about the rise in homelessness in cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley.
But the suburban housing plight, stretching from Contra Costa County south into Livermore, has gone largely unacknowledged. Even less visible are the families and individuals perched on the precipice of homelessness due to steeply rising housing costs coupled with stagnating wages. This at-risk population has alarmed many in the region.
Elsa Zavala, the director of Intake and Prevention Services at Shelter, Inc., in Concord, points to an increase in requests for help that are quickly overwhelming the system. “We are only able to serve 25 percent of the people who [call in for] assistance,” she says. “I have to say no to a lot of people.”
It wasn’t long ago that Patterson was one of those asking for help. Working as a personal assistant at a nursing facility, Patterson raised Williams and her four siblings in a middle-class St. Louis suburb. Three years ago, with most of the kids out of the house, she decided to take a chance and move to the Bay Area with her teenage son. She quickly found full-time administrative work with San Francisco County and secured housing in Bay Point.
A year later, tragedy struck.
While visiting her mother, Williams was in the type of accident that often doesn’t have survivors. Driving east on State Route 24 after a night in San Francisco, Williams’ sister fell asleep behind the wheel, and the car careened through the guardrail and into a tree. When paramedics arrived on the scene, Williams wasn’t breathing. But doctors were able to revive her, and over the months, she made a slow recovery. (Williams’ sister managed to walk away with only a couple of broken bones.)
Her mother, however, has faced a different crisis. Patterson had to quit her job to take care of Williams and then had to buy a car to transport her. She won a lottery for a low-income apartment in Walnut Creek, where she could be closer to John Muir Medical Center. But until she became a certified caregiver, government assistance on its own wasn’t enough to cover the $1,098 rent plus living costs. Still, every month is a marathon of pinching pennies. For this family and many others, checking cereal prices is not just prudent—it’s an act of survival.
RISING COST OF LIVING
On a cold January night earlier this year, when temperatures were near freezing, authorities counted 1,607 homeless in Contra Costa County. (A similar count five days later in Alameda County found 5,629 homeless, almost half of whom were based in Oakland.) Most were living in cars, encampments, and abandoned buildings, while the rest were huddled in shelters or other transitional housing.
Every year, Contra Costa Health Services conducts a point-in-time count, a one-day census that tallies the number of homeless in the county. While the count provides a rough estimate, officials believe the actual homeless population is much larger. Moreover, this year’s count revealed a troubling trend: Of those surveyed, 30 percent were without a home for the first time.
Renters in Contra Costa County need to earn $7,667 per month to afford the median rent of $2,300, according to a report by the California Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that supports government and other housing agencies.
Meanwhile, transitional and affordable housing is scarce, with waitlists for residences stretching up to five years. And new units are slow to be built. Walnut Creek has issued 900 permits for market-rate rentals since 2014 compared with just 72 for moderate- or low-income housing; only two Danville complexes, for a total of 35 units, accept government housing vouchers known as Section 8; and San Ramon offers no affordable housing for people earning less than $34,000 a year. (A minimum-wage salary earns about $22,000 a year.)
“Until we address the housing crisis, people will remain homeless,” says Jenny Robbins, Contra Costa County’s housing and services administrator. “The solution is more affordable housing.”
FACES OF HOMELESSNESS
In a lonely corner of a fast-food parking lot in Pleasant Hill is a heartbreaking example of what happens when people, especially the elderly, lose their homes. If one weren’t looking, it would be easy to miss the car packed to the brim with belongings—or the woman inside.
Jan (she asked Diablo not to use her last name due to the stigma associated with her situation), a 78-year-old who was once an interior architect in Los Angeles and a member of a yacht club, is parked in the shade of an oak tree, reading yesterday’s newspaper. Her shirt and sweater match the turquoise ring on her middle finger, which she’s had since she was a teenager.
Like most who find themselves with no place to go, Jan’s story is one of loss, family conflict, and failing health. After the death of two of her children, Jan moved north to Martinez to be closer to her now-estranged son, who resides in Berkeley. But after she was hospitalized for two months following colon surgery, she fell behind on rent and lost her apartment.
With an eviction on her record, oppressive prescription and medical costs, and a monthly social security check of just $1,362, Jan’s best option was her car, which has been her home now for three years. She can’t stay in shelters because she’s incontinent, and while she tries to save, there always seems to be another expense: Her car was broken into, so she has to replace the window currently wrapped in black duct tape; she had to buy new eyeglasses; she recently paid a late fee for the storage rental unit that holds her belongings; and she had to replace her phone, which she lost along with the numbers of everyone she knows.
“I keep not expecting to be here on my next birthday,” says Jan. “But here I am.”
THE SHELTER DEBATE
Jan is caught between two opposing forces.
Some local governments have faced pushback from residents who worry that helping the existing homeless population in their cities will cause more to flock to the area. For instance, when Walnut Creek’s Trinity Center, a care center for the region’s homeless, sought public input on a proposed winter shelter program last year, many—including Walnut Creek Chief of Police Tom Chaplin—feared that homeless people would flood the neighborhood for a chance at a bed.
“The police department’s concerns are … whether or not more people would be attracted to [Walnut Creek] as a result of this initiative,” explained Chaplin at a city council meeting in July 2016. “My concern is that we are adding to a problem.”
Donna Colombo, executive director of Trinity Center, says such fears are completely unfounded. The city agreed, giving the shelter the green light. From November through March, Trinity Center housed about a couple dozen preselected individuals each night at the National Guard Armory—a welcome refuge during an especially rainy winter.
As for concerns about an increased homeless presence, Colombo believes the shelter had no impact on those numbers.
While many who face the prospect of homelessness end up moving to cities with a more affordable cost of living, it is not possible for others. Relocating to a new area with no family, friends, or connections is impractical and can be an added trauma in an already desperate situation, says Ann King, executive director of Tri-Valley Haven, a shelter in Livermore.
“People want to stay here because it’s safe and what they know, but they have to leave to find services,” says King.
SMALL STEPS FORWARD
Indeed, there are few resources for the homeless in Central Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley; the point-in-time count found shelter capacity had enough beds for only 41 percent of homeless single adults. And until very recently, there was no coordination between service providers, making it difficult to know where to go for help.
Earlier this year, Contra Costa County set out to change that. It established a centralized system of care called “coordinated entry” that streamlines the process of assisting homeless and at-risk individuals. Those in need can simply call 211 or visit a designated care center, where they will be referred to comprehensive resources that address everything from housing assistance to treating addiction. Tri-Valley officials are also hiring outreach teams to go into the field and are in the middle of an informal assessment of the issue.
“There is a different context for providing services to homeless people over the hill,” says Pleasanton’s Community Services Manager, Becky Hopkins, who works with other Tri-Valley cities to develop a regional plan. “We don’t have an urban context; we’re more suburban and rural. What works in Oakland isn’t going to work in the Tri-Valley.”
For their part, cities are starting to take small steps to address the lack of affordable housing. Walnut Creek has approved two such housing projects. A new Pleasanton affordable senior-living complex began taking applications, while Dublin recently built 66 units for veterans and low-income families.
Still, it’s not enough, says King, especially as the federal government diverts aid from temporary shelter providers to “rapid rehousing”—getting homeless people into permanent housing as quickly as possible. Some fear that this approach will funnel funding away from resources that address the common root causes of homelessness: health and mental health issues, domestic violence, substance abuse, underemployment, and of course, the stratospheric cost of housing.
Although there’s plenty more to do before this crisis is solved, there are signs of hope—and when the system works, it can keep a family like Patterson’s from ending up on the streets.
Tucked away behind a Porsche dealership, Patterson and Williams live in a comfortable affordable-housing complex with a small playground at the center. And thanks to the assistance they’ve received, the family has been able to stay in Walnut Creek, near Williams’ doctors and the community the family has built.
“You just got to keep moving,” says Patterson, sitting on a couch that was donated anonymously, “until one day, I’ll be able to help someone else who needs it.”
Support a Good Cause
From affordable housing to hot meals, these East Bay homeless services make an impact on the region’s homeless crisis. (Note: All donations are tax deductible.)
Shelter, Inc.: One of the largest East Bay homeless services providers, this organization aims to help those facing homelessness, one family at a time. And it has done just that, providing assistance to more than 200,000 people since its founding in 1986. Needs: financial gifts, household items, furniture. shelterinc.org.
Open Heart Kitchen: Serving the Tri-Valley region, Open Heart Kitchen works with local food pantries to provide more than 300,000 fresh and nutritious meals a year to the hungry. Needs: financial gifts, bulk food items, kitchen supplies. openheartkitchen.org.
Contra Costa Interfaith Housing: Supported by 33 different religious communities, the interfaith organization provides permanent, affordable housing to families and individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Needs: financial gifts. ccinterfaithhousing.org.
Tri-Valley Haven: This shelter operates as a sanctuary for families and individuals who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual violence, and homelessness. Needs: financial gifts. You can also donate to the Tri-Valley Haven Thrift Store. trivalleyhaven.org.
Trinity Center: The Walnut Creek–based organization provides homeless individuals with basic human services, including hot meals, showers, laundry, and clothing, and is currently developing a jobs program to connect the homeless with local employers. Needs: financial gifts, vehicles. trinitycenterwc.org.
Oakland Elizabeth House: Offering shelter to mothers and their children, the program creates a safe space for families who have been victims of homelessness or domestic abuse while providing them job counseling, mental health services, and more. Needs: financial gifts, household items, food, baby wipes and diapers, vehicles. oakehouse.org.