I talk about the homelessness situation with family members out west all the time. Last night, one called my attention to a litany of programs from the Bay Area that I found somewhat shocking, especially in the context of the coronavirus eviction moratorium fight.
As the Bay Area continues to struggle under the weight of its homelessness crisis, officials and nonprofits are asking local residents to do more than hand out meals or donate spare change. They’re asking them to open up their homes.
Nearly 30,000 people are unhoused in the five-county Bay Area and there isn’t nearly enough room in the region’s existing affordable housing developments. To fill the gaps, service providers increasingly are recruiting private landlords to take in homeless tenants. Some property owners are renting out entire units in exchange for agreements that the government or a nonprofit will cover the rent. Others are offering up spare bedrooms in their homes – sometimes in exchange for a small stipend, and sometimes as a purely charitable act.
But it’s hard to find owners willing to take a chance on someone down on their luck. At least one program recently ended because of a lack of landlord interest.
“This is something that someone can do when they just feel that despair of ‘oh my gosh, I just can’t stand seeing these poor people on the streets near my home,’” said Christi Carpenter, executive director of East Bay nonprofit Safe Time, which places unhoused college students and families in spare bedrooms for between one and six months. Since 2017, the group has made more than 60 placements.
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt recently partnered with the Rotary Club to match unhoused people with local landlords. The small program will be funded entirely by private donations and landlords will get one year’s rent in advance. The number of people Butt can house depends on donations and volunteer interest, but he already has two more landlords lined up.
“There are a lot of people out there who want to do something meaningful to try to alleviate the homelessness problem,” Butt said.
Butt made his first placement last month – a family of six, including four children, who were living in an RV encampment off Castro Street.
For a while, the COVID-19 pandemic made it easier to recruit landlords, said Kara Carnahan, vice president of programs at housing nonprofit Abode Services, which runs matching programs throughout the Bay Area.
“When we started this program, it was much easier because landlords needed us. There were such high vacancies,” she said of an Alameda County program that started during COVID. “The things that we can offer to landlords is we’ll pay our rent. You will get guaranteed rent from us.”
As virus restrictions have loosened, landlords have more options and are more hesitant to take on homeless tenants who may have poor credit and/or a criminal record, Carnahan said.
But the need remains huge. Abode has been matching homeless clients with landlords for years, but the nonprofit dramatically ramped up its efforts in Alameda County to house the hundreds of homeless people who were given temporary pandemic shelter in hotels through Project Roomkey and needed housing as those hotels closed.
Abode more than doubled its number of Alameda County landlords during the pandemic, and has housed about 600 former Roomkey participants in private homes or apartments, Carnahan said. Landlords charge market-rate prices, tenants pay 30% of their incomes toward rent and utilities, and Abode uses state and federal funding to make up the difference.
In the other Bay Area counties Abode serves – Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Napa – the nonprofit has brought on nearly 500 landlords during the pandemic. Most are in Santa Clara County.
Jessica Valdez, 35, was living in her car with two of her children after serving time in Santa Rita Jail for stealing a car. About a year ago, Abode found her a two-bedroom apartment in Hayward. Now, instead of sleeping in a cramped car and relying on libraries for internet service, her sons have their own room and online access.
“It’s the best thing for them,” Valdez said. “They have their own little space.”
Abode helped her pay her rent for the first year. Last month, Valdez – who now is working two jobs – made her first payment on her own.
In Santa Clara County, the Bill Wilson Center ran a program matching young, homeless, LGBTQ adults with people who had a spare room. But the program struggled to recruit hosts and closed in June, after housing 21 people, said Pilar Furlong, chief community resources officer.
Recruiting landlords also is a challenge for the Homecoming Project, which houses formerly incarcerated people – a group that’s often stigmatized. Using donations, the nonprofit pays hosts in Alameda and Contra Costa counties $30 a day to house someone in a spare bedroom for six months. Each former inmate is matched with a case manager to help them find a job and save money for a permanent home. Sex offenders aren’t eligible.
“When we first started talking about this project people thought we were crazy. You’re going to put somebody from prison into somebody’s house?” said Aishatu Yusuf, vice president of innovation programs at Impact Justice, which runs the project.
But the nonprofit has housed nearly 70 people so far, none of whom have gone back to jail or prison.
Zach Stein and his wife volunteered with Safe Time in 2020, opening their spare bedroom in Albany to a struggling young woman for three months. “In some ways, it was really weird,” having a stranger there, Stein said. But the experience seemed to make a big difference in the woman’s life.
Stein and his wife recently had a baby, and hope to continue hosting once they get settled as parents. They were able to buy their house because they inherited money, and they want to share that good luck with those less fortunate.
“Being in a position to do that, especially in a place like the Bay Area,” Stein said, “it felt really important to us to find ways to open that up.”
The person who wrote this article clearly went out of their way to cherry-pick cases where they could get a positive quote and (falsely) portray these programs as low-risk to participants. (Having worked with nonprofits, my guess is the nonprofits directed them to cases where everyone was coached for marketing purposes. You aren’t exactly dealing with an investigative journalist here.) The reality of taking people out of San Francisco’s tent cities – which, let’s be honest, are mostly open-air drug markets, not some glamping alternative to affordable housing – and folks who are homeless because they have established criminal records is not going to be some rosy, wholesome white savior fantasy.
You are talking about people with durable addiction and mental health issues, some of whom will be prone to violence. That’s the reality of homelessness in America right now, not Depression-era hobos “down on their luck.” There are good reasons why these cities have failed to eliminate the tent cities after spending billions of taxpayer dollars every year on government assistance.
But the core issue here is these are not programs that merely get homeless people temporarily housed. These programs will give their homeless clients a bona fide claim of legal residency. You take in a homeless person and weeks down the line realize that having fentanyl around your toddler isn’t the woke dream you thought it would be, your next step will not be to tell the people managing the program that you want this individual back on the streets. It won’t be some interesting social experiment for you to talk about at dinner parties where all your woke friends congratulate you for at least having the proper values and emotions. You get to start the long legal process of evicting them, in a jurisdiction where the court system is more sympathetic to criminals than it is to people with normal working existences (or fortunate inheritances).
You may be stuck with them for a long time, while they bring their druggie friends over to hang in your living room or start selling off your stuff for their next hit (in a city that could not possibly care less about your property crime woes). If they trash your house, that’s your problem. If they start turning tricks on your dining room table for drug money, that’s your problem. If they beat the shit out of you and get released without bail, they get to come back to their legal residence. You get to endure it until you are successful in court – which, by the way, you will be paying the legal costs for.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that giving the homeless legal residency is a feature, not a bug, of these programs, however. Whatever scheme gets them out of the system and makes them less visible to the NIMBY crowd the longest is going to be something the government supports. These organizations understand what they are trying to get folks to do here, which is what makes this so fascinating.