Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Wave of homelessness crashes over West Coast

Effective Compassion | Unsheltered people line the streets in absence of affordable housing
by Rob Holmes
Posted 12/20/17, 05:00 pm

Crowded encampments have sprung up along transportation corridors, rivers, and sidewalks up and down the West Coast following a surge in homelessness, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released this month.

Though the national total of homeless people grew by just 1 percent a year ago, to 554,000, California, Oregon, and Washington state battled a 14 percent increase in their homeless populations. Los Angeles County numbers alone skew the homelessness rates. Excluding that region, the nation would boast of a decline in total homelessness of 1.5 percent since last year.

A quarter of those counted are “unsheltered” homeless people sleeping outside.

Ten city or county governments have declared states of emergency on homelessness since 2015. The designation helps officials relax or bypass regulations that prohibit use of churches or public spaces for shelter. The Los Angeles city council made the declaration in tandem with a $100 million commitment to confront its homelessness epidemic. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti pins part of the blame for his region’s crisis on the lack of affordable housing.

“The city of Los Angeles is making progress in our efforts—housing more than 9,000 people in 2016 alone,” he said. “But … we still face a historic shortage of affordable housing, a staggering mental health crisis, insufficient support for veterans and foster youth, and inadequate resources to help formerly incarcerated Angelenos turn their lives around.”

Everett, Wash., population 110,000, lies north of Seattle, about 80 miles from the Canadian border. The seat of Snohomish County, it saw a 65 percent increase in unsheltered living over the past two years. Besides a reported high cost of living, the city has a high rate of opioid addiction. The severity of the problem has led the city of Everett to file suit against Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin painkillers.

Another prong in the city’s attack on homelessness is a Catholic Housing Services permanent housing project. The 65-unit “Safe Streets Supportive Housing” is part of a bigger program offering mental health and addiction recovery services. It mimics programs in other states where permanent housing has been the first and most important step in reducing homelessness—ahead of tackling substance abuse or mental and family problems.

In urban areas along the West Coast, a booming economy leads to higher rents, especially as millennials eschew their parents’ suburban lifestyles, driving up demand for city housing. In 2015, Portland, Ore., used $61 million of mostly federal money to build affordable housing under the condition that developers not allow the rents to float to market levels for 60 years.

Nationally, the news is better. Overall, homelessness has dropped by 13 percent since 2010, with homelessness in families with children declining by 5 percent. The number of veterans who are homeless also continues to drop, down nearly 50 percent since 2010. Some areas that made headway include Atlanta, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, and Hawaii, following a 2015 state of emergency declaration statewide.

Getty Images/Photo by Justin Sullivan Getty Images/Photo by Justin Sullivan A holiday display in a window at the San Francisco SPCA

Robots v. the homeless outside San Francisco SPCA

San Francisco’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), an animal advocacy group, faces scrutiny for renting a security robot to shoo away homeless people near its premises.

SPCA media specialist Krista Maloney said her organization just wants to police the sidewalks around its offices and deter homeless people from setting up any type of encampment in the area. The SPCA claims its sidewalk sweeping “K-9” has provided a month with fewer car break-ins and homeless people around, so animal advocates have been able to move about safely in the trendy Mission neighborhood.

“We weren’t able to use the sidewalks at all when there’s needles and tents and bikes, so from a walking standpoint I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment,” SPCA president Jennifer Scarlett told the San Francisco Business Times.

Some homeless people threw a tarp over the robot and knocked over their 5-foot, 400-pound nemesis. Once down, they painted barbecue sauce over the robot’s sensors.

Now the SPCA is calling off its robot. It received a Dec. 1 email from the San Francisco Department of Public Works prohibiting use of public right-of-way without proper approval. The fine is $1,000 per day.

The battle for the sidewalk may only intensify: The city’s Board of Supervisors must make decisions about limits on all kinds of robots that roam city sidewalks—whether for delivery of food and goods or to patrol.

Local activist Fran Taylor expressed her outrage over a robot taking over the public space. She said the robot and its cameras seemed “like an obvious attack on the very people in San Francisco who are already having such a hard time surviving in this expensive city.” —R.H.

Associated Press/Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register Associated Press/Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register Jennifer Galdames, 17 (center), with Thomas Ahart, his wife Jami, and son Eli Bassman, 6

Iowa school superintendent fosters migrant teen

Jennifer Galdames has moved constantly during her three years as an illegal immigrant in the United States. But she has also managed to stay in school. Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools Superintendent Tom Ahart and his wife Jami opened their home to her when her family had to leave the country.

At 14, Jennifer crossed the U.S. border alone. Her mother had lived here illegally for years, and her father had died in Guatemala. A smuggler, or “coyote,” brought her as far as the Texas-Mexico border for a fee paid by her mother. After being picked up by immigration agents in October in Iowa, her mother chose to return voluntarily to Guatemala with Jennifer’s 8-year-old sister, Samantha. Her Mexican stepfather also faced imminent deportation.

About to turn 17, Jennifer was alone again. Now she has just a year and a half left to graduate from Roosevelt High School. And as her new legal guardians, the Aharts wanted to make sure she reached the finish line. They wanted the same opportunities for her that Jami’s son Eli has.

Jennifer has Special Immigrant Juvenile status, so she is eligible to go through the process for lawful permanent residency. And after five years as a resident, Jennifer would be able to file for citizenship. If she becomes a citizen, Jennifer will not be able apply to bring back her immediate family members to the United States because of her original illegal status.

Beyond policy debate, the Aharts have done what many Christians could do: Defend the fatherless, helping them get the education they need while Congress wrestles with how best to be a nation of immigrants. —R.H.

South Carolina declares opioid emergency

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster this week declared a statewide public health emergency over opioid addiction in the state. South Carolina is the seventh state to officially go to war against the drug crisis that led to nearly 59,000 deaths nationally in 2016. The states of emergency accompany the October 2017 federal declaration announced by the White House. —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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  • hawaiicharles
    Posted: Thu, 12/21/2017 08:54 pm

    Homelessness has also become a big problem in Hawaii, also one of the nation's most expensive housing markets.  The city of Honolulu has responded by passing laws against sitting or lying on public sidewalks, but enforcement has been spotty, and most people return shortly after the police are done rousting a certain area.  As for long-term solutions, the government seems mostly stymied, though there have been limited attempts to turn shipping containers into residences in one area near the ports.  The island of Oahu has a serious shortage of affordable housing, and there's no sign of that improving any time soon.