[Hpn] SF, CA -- Myths about the homeless delay solutions

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Fri, 05 Jul 2002 10:08:04 -0700


Myths about the homeless delay solutions
Merlin Wedepohl
Friday, July 5, 2002
2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/07/05/EDMYTHS.DTL


Among the myths about homelessness is that a particular location can be a
magnet for those in financial distress. Visions of carpetbagging, homeless
hordes descending on San Francisco streets is an illusion that needs to be
dispelled, because it avoids addressing this social dysfunction.

Those of us who deal with homeless issues every day know that the facts do
not support this myth. The homeless choose to remain within familiar social
structures, in proximity to family or whatever services are open to them.
Service providers say the homeless know their safety is at risk and the
streets are mean, so they stay in familiar environments.

Another myth is that the homeless are single old males (generally substance
abusers) who have chosen to live on the streets. The facts are quite
different. Researchers have found that, compared to previous eras, today's
homeless population is younger; more female; disproportionately composed of
minorities; has higher levels of formal education, and a higher proportion
of families with children. Contra Costa County estimates that almost half of
its homeless are children.

Homelessness can be most accurately understood as one symptom of dramatic
changes that began in the 1960s and intensified in the 1980s: The United
States has undergone a major shift from an industrial base to an information
and service base. Technological innovations have produced significantly
greater capital mobility, allowing corporations to transfer production sites
from one country or region to another.

The resulting changes in employment opportunities have altered the social
classes. Many jobs offering a middle-class standard of living are
disappearing, replaced by high-paid, specialized and technical positions on
the one hand, and low-paid, low-skilled, often part-time positions on the
other. 

These structural economic changes are integrally related to the diminishing
supply of low-cost housing. De-industrialization of cities, in fact, is the
primary cause of the low-cost housing shortage. The need for new housing
adjacent to business districts has spawned gentrification and the
displacement of low-income residents. And with the changing structure of the
economy, economic growth can in some ways actually exacerbate the problem of
homelessness. 

The California Association of Realtors reported in May that only 29 percent
of Californians are now able to afford a home. San Francisco and Contra
Costa counties are the least affordable in the nation, with only 12 percent
of households able to afford a median-priced home. In the most recent survey
of 27 major U.S. cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the overwhelming
response was that the lack of affordable housing leads the list of causes of
homelessness identified by city officials. During the past year requests for
emergency shelter increased in the survey cities by 13 percent, with 81
percent of cities registering an increase.

Homelessness can be eliminated and prevented with the kind of urgent
attention given to any epidemic. The research has been done and solutions
are evident, but now money and effort have to be given toward the cure.
Cities and counties must adopt local housing plans that give priority to
building more affordable multifamily housing close to work and
transportation corridors. Jurisdictions must adopt policies that zone for
multifamily housing and provide incentives for developers to build such
housing. Fill-in development can still happen in most cities, thus even
preserving open space.

In November the California electorate has the opportunity to approve funding
for such housing. The $2.1 billion housing bond will provide $910 million
for the multifamily housing program.

Why do we need a housing bond? Simply put, because the state's housing
crisis continues to get worse. There is an extreme shortage of rental
housing in California, particularly for lower income renters. One-half of
all low-income renters, and three-quarters of all very low-income renters,
spend more than 50 percent of their income for housing.

Nearly 500,000 households languish on affordable housing waiting lists. Most
wait more than three years for their name to come up. More than 360,000
Californians are homeless, according to the Department of Housing and
Community Development. More than 70,000 federally funded affordable
low-income rental units are at risk of conversion to market rate units,
driving low-income families into homelessness.

The bond will also be an economic stimulus. If approved, the bond's
combination of public and private investment will create approximately
276,002 full-time jobs and generate $9.38 billion in wages.

We must plan for housing now and begin to eliminate our housing crisis.
Together, we can help Bay Area cities and towns become more livable for us
-- and our children.

Merlin Wedepohl is executive director of SHELTER, Inc. of Contra Costa
County, a nonprofit that provides services to low-income and homeless people
to help them obtain housing and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

2002 San Francisco Chronicle. 

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