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Despite funding influx, California homelessness crisis grows in Alameda County

Homeless advocates doubt the accuracy of annual counts of unhoused people in Alameda County.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — After more than four decades in Oakland, Delores Hall never expected to have to rely on other people for help to become housed.

Since losing her home in 2016, Hall spent years homeless, between shelters and friends’ homes. She never felt secure until she entered St. Mary’s Center in West Oakland, and in 2020 was finally approved to live in a shared transitional house.

“I never had to sleep on the streets, thank God,” Hall said — but she struggled to ask for help at first.

“I’m used to having a job and paying my own rent,” she said. “I’m just used to being independent, I’m not used to relying on people.”

Now living in St. Mary’s Presentation House for seniors, Hall is one of many Alameda County residents who struggle to find their own home after becoming homeless in the last decade. Many spend years trying to find housing in one of the state’s most expensive regions. 

Delores Hall describes her journey from being homeless living in shelters and families' homes to her present home in Presentation House in Oakland, pictured May 20. Hall received news on the same day that she has been approved for her own apartment in Oakland. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

Alameda County stands out among California's most populated regions facing homelessness crises, with a 22% jump in homeless residents since the last count in 2019. According to EveryOneHome, Oakland has 47% of the county’s homeless and saw an increase of 24%. Berkeley, with the next highest share of homeless at 11%, saw a 5% decrease.

By comparison, San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office reported a 3.5% decrease in San Francisco's homeless population. Nearby Contra Costa County saw a jump of nearly 35% in all categories of homelessness, according to the community news website Danville San Ramon.

Some leaders point to success in housing people, but advocates doubt accuracy of recent homeless population counts and say the county and state must commit to funding affordable housing.

Project Roomkey, an emergency program launched by the state during the first months of the pandemic, provided the first pathway to sheltering homeless seniors and vulnerable people. According to Alameda County's Homeless Care and Coordination department, its Roomkey programs used $102 million to shelter 5,301 people during the pandemic, with 70% now in permanent housing.

A breakdown of Project Homekey and other funding spent on homelessness services in Alameda County. (Courtesy of Alameda County)

Alameda County will receive a slice from $12 billion state funds for homelessness, having spent $15 million placing people in purchased hotels and other buildings to use for supportive housing, dubbed Project Homekey. The Board of Supervisors has also approved a $138 million homeless response plan and Oakland is preparing a companion plan setting goals to reduce homelessness, with a price tag estimated at $65 million. Oakland officials and Mayor Libby Schaaf declined to comment on the plan.

This past week, City Councilmember Carroll Fife demanded an accounting of recent costs for addressing homelessness and moving homeless services under the city administrator’s purview.

“It’s more expensive to keep people on the street than in permanent housing," Fife said. “We’re constantly being told we don't have the resources to house (people). I feel like if we did things differently, we might be able to. Homeless people are very, very visible to the community — but the cost that taxpayers are paying is not.”

A graph from the Oakland Local Action Plan draft shows how funding for homelessness services is divided up for use from the state, federal city and county amounts (Courtesy of the city of Oakland)

In Berkeley, Mayor Jesse Arreguin issued a report noting the city “spends more per capita on homelessness than any other jurisdiction in the area”. Several shelters have opened in the city since 2018 and affordable housing developments are underway, such as Berkeley Way Apartments and Hope Center, which will boast 142 units and a shelter when it opens in September.

Vice Mayor Kate Harrison said she wants to see a commitment to building affordable housing in Berkeley, but noted the city has decreased homeless people living downtown “by nearly 69%” using “a hands-on approach to deal with people where they are.” 

“We’ve done that without massive sweeps. We’ve done that by paying attention to the needs of each individual person," Harrison said.

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This graph shows the balance among homeless residents in Berkeley and how they are distributed by sheltered or unsheltered status (Courtesy of the city of Berkeley)

While service providers say homelessness counts can be useful, some doubt the data’s accuracy.

Jonathan Russell, chief strategy officer at Bay Area Community Services, said the count can help assess the need for increased state and federal funding for nonprofits. However, he said, “Everyone knows it’s not representative of the flow and breadth of the experience of homelessness.”

Although EveryOneHome estimated 9,747 Alameda County residents are homeless this year, Russell thinks the number is closer to 15,000. While some advocates think homeless people have been moved into the county from other areas, data show otherwise. His team operated three Roomkey projects in Contra Costa County and believes the population looks larger because the county has "more open space and spread out homelessness, just by the way the county is structured."

CityTeam Oakland takes a different approach, using private funding for outreach. Executive director Angela Aguilar said Oakland has many “working poor” families and individuals who are homeless due to high costs of living. By contrast, their San Francisco team sees more cases of people arriving from other counties with substance use issues.

Aguilar said she thinks the Alameda County organized homeless aid well, but temporary program closures were hard on homeless people. She fears that with temporary protections like the eviction moratorium and unemployment aid ending, more people will be in precarious situations as rents increase.

“My concern for the population we serve is that they’ll find themselves in another impossible situation of a different kind,” Aguilar said. “As resources shift yet again, what’s going to happen again to our unhoused and unstably housed in Oakland?”

California Homeless Union attorney Anthony Prince said he thinks homelessness counts are “deeply flawed” because many homeless people are not on the street. 

“They’re hidden away, doubling or tripling up in apartments,” he said. “Even those who might be on a street at any given time might be somewhere they can’t be counted.”

Prince said cities must stop taking punitive approaches by clearing people from public areas without housing them.

“Stop counting people and start housing people,” he said “I think the sweeps are definitely intensifying, and the intensity of sweeps has the political objective of making life miserable for homeless people.”

In Berkeley’s People’s Park, some are fighting a likely sweep while they stay on UC Berkeley property.

University spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the property will be cleared this summer to build student housing, though no deadline is set. He said about 64 people at the site were told the park will soon close, and about 18 households out of 30 who expressed interest have been moved into Berkeley's Rodeway Inn. About 35 still sleep at the park every night.

June Nelson of the organization Defend People’s Park said there will be resistance when UC officials come to clear the park.

"They’re trying to maintain the image that they’re helping with homelessness, but they’re actually just contributing to the same cycles," she said.

Nelson said a report on Project Roomkey sites prepared by the group Where Do We Go Berkeley found sites like Rodeway Inn are not providing adequate food and safety measures. The city did not respond to requests for comment about the report. 

Still, some park residents say they hope to get a room in the motel. 

Tyson Guerrero arrived in Berkeley three months ago from Phoenix, Arizona, after losing his job during Covid layoffs.

“Everybody treats me good, nobody bothers me," he said of the park's residents. "If you don’t know where to go when you come here, the social workers come to you.”

Tyson Guerrero has been homeless at People's Park in Berkeley, California, for three months after losing his job in Arizona. He has just been approved for a motel room to share with his dog. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

Guerrero said he is relieved to finally be on a list to get a motel room with his dog.

“It’s got a shower, I can buy food, I can microwave,” he said, adding he hopes to soon have his own home in Berkeley.

But some people may be homeless for years before getting approved for transitional housing. 

Sharon Cornu, executive director of the nonprofit St. Mary’s Center, said state funding helped place 40 seniors in permanent housing for about $700 per person last year. But she’s worried about how the state will address a growing number of homeless seniors, most becoming homeless for the first time after turning 50, “surviving on $942 a month.”

“For every person exiting homelessness, there are two new people being pushed into homelessness,” Cornu said. “What we really need to see is the state get serious about housing. We need housing that will remain affordable.”

St Mary’s operates three transitional houses in Oakland where seniors live while receiving case management and food. At Presentation House, where Hall — the woman who lost her home in 2016 — lives with roommates like Carolyn Sutton, many residents are over the age of 60, have lived in Oakland for decades and were homeless for at least five years. 

Sutton said she spent years bouncing between overnight shelters and friends’ homes around the county after being evicted. She was relieved to get her own room at St. Mary's Presentation House after sleeping around large groups of people.

“I had enough faith to believe I had to get where I needed to be safe," she said. But she has spent six years hoping to get her Section 8 housing voucher back, and struggles with communal living.

“I’m not used to being under anybody's roof but my own," Sutton said.

Hall, Sutton’s roommate since 2020, got good news this month — she was approved for her own apartment in Oakland. She said she is grateful to soon have her own home, where her son can visit. 

“I waited patiently, and I tried not to count my chicks before they hatched,” Hall said. “I think good things are going to be happening, I really do.”

Carolyn Sutton, left, is a senior roommate at Presentation House in Oakland, which is operated by St. Mary's Center with oversight by operations manager Cara Granger, right. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

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