Oakland's homeless seeking shelter, kindness as housing crisis pushes more to streets

Oakland's homeless seeking shelter, kindness as housing crisis pushes more to streets
By Mike Blasky

The homeless man stood outside the downtown Burger King with his eyes at the ground, shivering in the chilly, rainy Oakland weather despite his two heavy jackets.

David Basa had passed the man huddled near his office building before, but they'd never spoken. But on this day, the man asked: "Could you spare any change?" They emerged from the restaurant together about 10 minutes later, the man munching on fries from a heavy bag of food, sipping on a fountain drink.

Basa said he wanted to help the man because of the world's focus on materialism instead of charity, especially regarding the ongoing human rights crisis in the Middle East.

"We're desensitized by this in Oakland," said Basa, who initially asked that his last name be withheld. "We're the richest country in the world, and we're better than this."

The homeless man that Basa helped did not want to speak to a reporter, but he could be a poster child for the most vulnerable population at risk for homelessness in Oakland, said Susan Shelton, the city's community housing services manager.

The city is seeing about a 45 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless, according to preliminary data to be released early next year. Most of those are single, adult men -- many of them black men, Shelton said.

Oakland's winter shelter at the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul on 23rd Street opened earlier this month and will have up to 55 beds, serving only single adult men and women. The shelter is open daily from 6 p.m. until 8 a.m., but only to those with vouchers from a referral agency.

According to figures released last week by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, San Francisco leads the Bay Area in total number of homeless people, with 6,775. Santa Clara County follows with 6,556, while Alameda County registers at 4,040 and Contra Costa at 2,031 per the count, which was conducted in January.

However, Santa Clara County has the dismal distinction in the Bay Area for the highest percentage -- 70 percent -- of its homeless classified as chronically homeless, defined as someone who has been on the streets for more than a year or had four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. It is the highest percentage in any urban area nationwide.

Officials there scrambled to open the Gilroy cold-weather shelter on Tuesday, although only 17 people showed up at a space that can hold 130. The San Jose Boccardo Reception Center site will open on Monday, the traditional start of the winter shelter season.

In addition, on Dec. 5 the county will open a 100-bed temporary facility in Sunnyvale to make up for the loss of the former north county shelter, which closed in 2013 and was converted to low-income permanent housing. Unlike the former Sunnyvale Armory site, the new center will not be a drop-in facility. The spaces are assigned through referral agencies, and there's already a waiting list.

"Everybody worked really hard to make this happen," said Sunnyvale Vice Mayor Tara Martin-Milius.

San Mateo County doesn't have winter shelters but has 383 year round shelter beds, with the capacity to add 15 more bunk beds in cold or rainy weather.

Spokeswoman Effie Milionis Verducci said the shelters, which are almost always at capacity, added beds for the first time this year on Tuesday. There will be extra beds until at least Monday, she said.

Contra Costa County Health Services runs emergency shelters for adults at two sites in the unincorporated areas of Concord and Richmond. Both can serve more 160 men and women. When winter bears down, there's rarely room to fully meet the demand.

The nonprofit Shelter Inc.'s family shelter in Concord normally houses about 29 people, but the population can swell to 35 children and adults during winter months when cots are added in an upstairs living area, said spokeswoman Chris Flitter.

"There's always a greater need than capacity," she said.

The nonprofit Trinity Center in Walnut Creek campaigned hard this year to win permission for a temporary winter shelter to house a maximum of 30 of its registered clients. That shelter at the National Guard armory near Civic Park will be open from mid-December to mid-March.

Oakland's Shelton said the number of overall homeless in Oakland and Alameda County -- about 4,000 to 5,000 at any given time in the year -- is relatively flat. But the affordable-housing crisis, coupled with less funding from the federal government available for housing and safety-net programs, leaves local agencies to determine whether to prioritize shelters and transitional programs over long-term housing plans and mental health funding.

"We don't have the luxury to focus on just one issue," Shelton said. "All these things are encompassed."

 

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