No Easy Answers: Richmond confronts a growing homelessness problem
on December 22, 2017
It’s November in Richmond, a time when everyone breaks out their winter coat. Thelma Thomas sits on a twin mattress, wearing a hoodie with the iconic red-lipped logo of the Rolling Stones. She crunches granola between her fingertips while reliving some of the worst moments she’s endured in the past few years, which she’s spent in a tent along a creek in North Richmond.
She stayed away from homeless shelters until about two years ago, when her friend insisted that she take a bed after she was assaulted.
“I was attacked by four guys, and I was beaten, left for dead,” Thomas said, wiping away tears. “But, you know, I made it. I rose like Lazarus from the grave, I tell ya.
“I’ve lived to be pretty tough.”
Thomas, who is 64 years old, doesn’t remember exactly how long she’s been living outside. But she does remember that she never thought she’d be homeless.
At least 109 individuals living in Richmond city limits have no home to return. This is according to the annual Point in Time count, a county-wide assessment conducted on one night of the year that tallies the number of people sleeping outside.
But the Richmond Police Department reports encountering up to 800 separate individuals sleeping outside on any given night.
The situation is desperate. Research indicates that homeless individuals live shorter lives, endure higher rates of mental illness, drug addiction, poor health and injury than their sheltered counterparts. Still, people without homes are often dismissed as careless or crazy, the lasting legacy of a stigma that has its roots in the Great Depression era, when welfare programs were introduced in the United States.
Homeless populations are seeing a steady decrease in the country as a whole, but the opposite is true in California, where 28 percent of the nation’s homeless population resides. As a result, more policymakers, activists and concerned citizens are coming on board with initiatives to help.
In Richmond, local advocate Kathy Robinson is spearheading a crusade to lessen the burden of homelessness, and ultimately eradicate it altogether.
She’s the head of Richmond’s homeless task force, launched in April 2017 and sponsored by former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. Robinson tours encampments, handing out food and water, and shows up to every city council meeting. She is hatching a plan for viable solutions to the crisis.
Robinson does not sugarcoat, however, and her efforts have not escaped criticism. Politically, supporting the homeless population can be a double-edged sword, with high associated costs for little return and a persistent stigma that some say contrasts with the American pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work ethos.
In spite of the obstacles, Robinson is determined. The people she talks to are “not criminals,” she says, and most have fallen on hard times very suddenly.
“Everybody’s walking on eggshells, but we can’t do anymore because the problem is too serious.”
Feet to the fire
The first week of September 2017 was record-breaking.
On September 2, temperatures at Point Richmond broke an all-time heat record for the area, reaching 111 degrees. That morning, Richmond resident James Smith was found on a park bench early in the morning, passed away from a heart attack likely induced by the heat. It never made the news, there was no obituary and there was no service. Smith was homeless.
You could add Smith to the steadily growing list of climate change victims, though not everyone agrees on how these victims should be tallied. Do victims of heat stroke during a week of extreme heat die because of climate change, or because of happenstance and vulnerability? Did victims of Hurricanes Irma and Irene perish because of brutal winds and flying debris, or could you tie their deaths directly to a warming, unpredictable atmosphere? It’s difficult to know where to draw the line.
A paper published in the Journal of Urban Health on homelessness and climate change said that “homeless individuals, particularly those who live on the street, are particularly vulnerable to morbidity and mortality resulting from heat or cold exposure.”
And in the coming decades, models suggest a doubling or tripling of heatwave deaths in urban centers, according to Harvard Medical School. California faces considerable climate risks before the end of this century, including up to a 55-inch rise in sea level, an increased prevalence of drought, fire, extreme heat and cold, and a disappearing snow pack.
With broad scientific consensus that life will get harder for everyone in California over the next 80 years, cities and counties are now focusing on helping homeless populations, which will be particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and weather extremes.
Nationwide, homelessness is experiencing a steady decrease, but in California where real estate prices surge far ahead of the rest of the county, the unsheltered population is increasing — by 3 percent in 2016. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires counties and cities conduct an annual count of their homeless populations, in exchange for government funding earmarked to address the homeless problem. The count typically takes place over one or two nights in January, during which volunteers canvas the area to reach the most accurate headcount possible.
The process has its limitations, according to Jaime Jennet, a county employee and key organizer for the annual Point in Time count in Contra Costa.
“It happens once a year because it’s really challenging to do,” Jennet said. In most areas of the country, winter hits hard, and taking a tally in January can be the best opportunity to catch homeless people indoors and in shelters, she said.
The Point In Time count stops short of entering abandoned homes and knocking on car windows, though. Still, Jennet says it’s one of the best chances the county has to analyze trends over years.
The number of homeless veterans on the streets in Contra Costa County decreased by 27 percent in one year, according to the 2016 Point In Time report. Jennet says a separate initiative, Built for Zero, a nationwide collaborative campaign to end veteran homelessness, contributed to the sharp decline.
The report also highlighted a 33 percent increase in the unsheltered population in the eastern half of the county in 2016.
“There’s sort of this trend that we’ve been seeing in that way, of people following where the affordable rents are, and then people becoming homeless along the way as rents just continue to skyrocket,” Jennet said.
In March 2016, a critical component of east Contra Costa’s homeless care system shut down, a day shelter run by the nonprofit Anka Behavioral Health. Once a hub for east county homeless residents, the shelter distributed meals and clothing and offered showers to those in need.
“Ironically, it was basically oversubscribed, so the space was too small to handle the amount of people that needed services there,” Jennet said. A new care center is on the horizon, she said, but it’s very early in the planning process.
The eastward trend follows a massive migration out of the Bay Area in the wake of surging real estate prices and cost of living expenses.
Richmond’s Mayor Tom Butt says that, on the heels of this massive migration, it’s time for eastern Contra Costa County to step up their game.
More than 300 shelter beds for the homeless are located in Richmond, making up over half of the county’s total inventory, while according to the Point In Time count, Richmond is home to approximately 10 percent of the county’s homeless population.
“It is time to demand that the other cities in Contra Costa County step up to do their share, and it is time for the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors to ensure that Richmond gets the bulk of the millions of dollars the County spends annually on homeless services,” Butt wrote in a draft report on homelessness policies and initiatives released in November.
But not everyone agrees that Richmond is shouldering the majority of the burden.
Solutions and challenges
Kathy Robinson makes it a point to come to Richmond’s city council almost every week, and most of the time she takes the stand to address the council directly during the time allotted for public comment.
On October 24, the homeless task force she created with former mayor and councilmember Gayle McLaughlin early in 2017 finally received some recognition.
“The homeless task force deserves everybody’s respect because they’ve been working hard and diligently to make sure that this issue does not lose any fire,” said Councilmember Melvin Willis, who took lead of the task force after McLaughlin resigned earlier this year.
He praised Robinson individually for her tirelessness and how she shows up for “every single council meeting until something got established.”
At a retreat in August, the task force developed several potential solutions to help tackle Richmond’s homeless problem: supporting and augmenting mobile services, developing a city of Richmond homeless fund and establishing a “Safe Park” community.
Robinson’s task force drew attention from the county, as well. Jenny Robbins, the housing and services administrator for Contra Costa County Homeless Programs, started attending the task force’s Richmond-based meetings and attended the August retreat. She runs Contra Costa County’s Coordinated Outreach, Engagement and Referral program, also known as CORE; a fleet of six homeless outreach teams that spread out around the county, visit encampments and connect homeless individuals with crucial supplies and services.
“Richmond has a lot of folks who are homeless, and a large majority of one of my teams’ time is spent in Richmond and we have really, really high numbers, and so we’re looking at and considering, should the city of Richmond potentially partner for street outreach,” Robbins said.
On a blustery day in North Richmond, John Eklund holds a stack of thick wool blankets procured from the back of an unmarked black minivan. The van is the center of operations for one of Contra Costa’s six CORE teams — consisting of two highly trained outreach specialists and a trunk full of food, water and other crucial supplies needed for prolonged outdoor living.
The program started in January 2017, and is now a lynchpin for the county in addressing homelessness. They link the county’s most vulnerable homeless residents with shelter beds, medical services and mental health and addiction programs.
Six teams are scattered throughout the county, though east county cities Martinez and Concord designated city funds to pay for their own dedicated team. Two teams focus on Richmond and North Richmond, where the concentration of homeless encampments is the highest.
“It’s kind of like we’re walking into their home,” Eklund says. He’s more aware than most of the sensitive nature of homeless outreach work — he’s worked in his current capacity for over 17 years. He started after his own close brush with homelessness.
The work Eklund does is critical, but can become emotionally challenging, especially after 17 years.
“We see the same faces. All the time, same stories, nothing has changed over years,” Eklund said. “Or we’ll be able to step up and help that situation change and get them housed and watch them lose the housing and start it over.”
Fatigue can set in at the policy-making level, as well. Butt emphasized at city council that counties, like Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco, receive millions of dollars in annual funding from HUD, greatly subsidizing efforts to curtail homelessness.
“One of the things we need to do is make sure that Richmond gets our share of that money,” Butt said. Councilmember Jovanka Beckles said that she had brought the possibility of using in-lieu fees — a fine assessed on housing developers that they can pay in-lieu of building affordable homes and apartments — and tiny homes to city council in the past. But in spite of council support, the ideas never progressed beyond pen and paper.
“There are a lot of solutions people have talked about. I think somehow we need to put dollars by those,” Butt said. “These solutions are very, very expensive.”
In November, a 160-square foot home parked right outside of Richmond’s civic center. The MicroPAD — short for prefab affordable dwelling — comes complete with a kitchenette, bathroom, a couch and closets. At a news conference in front of the unit, Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia praised the dwelling as a novel solution for homeless people who don’t do well in a dorm-style shelters.
The county is trying to secure a grant to lease 50 of these MicroPAD units for the city of Richmond. It could happen in a year. It could also not happen at all.
On the heels of budget cuts to HUD — the sole source of funding for many counties and cities for developing affordable housing and homeless services — public officials and advocates are being pushed to get to a little creative.
“HUD isn’t funding shelters, living programs, or street outreach programs anymore. That’s one of our challenges,” Robbins said. “So, what we do is we draw down different state and local funding streams.”
Contra Costa County Homeless Programs teamed up with Concord and Martinez to pool funding and create their CORE teams, now a critical part of homeless care in the county. But Robbins emphasized that the county couldn’t have done it on its own.
“We kind of had to pivot and pick different areas and look creatively around how can these cities who have a lot of skin in the game,” Robbins said. “That’s how we were able to generate the additional revenue to get the additional teams rolling.”
In 2015, Richmond contracted outreach services from Contra Costa Homeless Outreach for $20,000 per year. The contract was set to last two years, but owner Doug Stewart retired before the contract ended, in July 2016.
At that time, the county was developing its CORE program and the city was in the middle of its budget cycle. After 2016, the funding for outreach dropped off the budget, but now some are advocating for its return in the form of a dedicated city of Richmond Homeless Fund.
Richmond’s homeless task force proposed the idea at city council, but it met scrutiny by the mayor, who wrote that such a fund would need to draw from a combination of grants, development fees, the general fund and other sources, and specify “what the fund would be used for and who decides, which is likely to be a controversial subject.”
Robinson also introduced the idea of a “safe park,” an outdoor community with similar models in Austin, Texas and San Francisco: The city buys a lot where homeless residents can go and experience a level of safety and care they wouldn’t normally receive spread out on the streets.
“When they get in these places, then the county can come out, the medical facilities can come out, the social services can come out and get them counseling and get them medical attention and get them ready to go into a home,” Robinson explained.
It all comes down to cost. Infrastructure for parks that cater to the homeless can be expensive: similar programs in Sonoma County and Monterey cost between $300,000 to 700,000 per year, but efforts in San Diego with the nonprofit Dream for Change clocked in at less than $75,000 per year. For Robinson, this is yet another reason to establish a dedicated fund for homelessness in Richmond.
“It’s heartbreaking that in the richest country in the world, we have this. I’ve been to 26 countries and 28 states, but America is the worst place,” Robinson said. “We talk about injustice, we are the most unjust place in the world that we’ve ever been to, because we’re so cruel to each other.”
One for the unknown
A single bell clangs over and over inside the Concord United Methodist Church — one for every homeless person who died on the street in 2017. Fifty-nine names are called, a toll for each, and then the bell rings a final time, for “the unknown.”
James Smith goes unnamed in the ceremony, prompting the question of how many others die unnoticed every year. There are no viable statistics on this number.
Dozens of family members, friends, shelter employees and outreach workers pack the church for an annual homeless memorial put on by Anka Behavioral Health, a nonprofit that works with homeless individuals with mental illnesses. The event is in its thirteenth year, and Dr. Amanda Russell, vice president of program services for Northern California, said it’s a larger turnout than ever.
“It’s important to remember everybody, these are often men and women and children who are ignored on the streets, who no one really remembers,” Russell said.
After the ceremony, Anka employees open the floor to those with stories to share. Military veterans are among the dead, and the United States Volunteers, a nonprofit unit with the ability to perform military funeral rights, has shown up in force. A Volunteer is first to the mic:
The Volunteers’ executive director, Major General Dan Helix, takes the podium and offers perspective from his decades-long experience working with homeless veterans.
“They feel thwarted, our population the people we serve. They feel thwarted and frustrated at every turn. So incapable, because of mental illnesses and disorders. That’s real,” Helix said.
While debate and disagreement reign supreme in city halls and board rooms, homeless individuals continue to suffer on the streets.
In North Richmond, Thelma Thomas still lives on the side of a creek that flooded over during last years’ record rainfall. She’s visited often by CORE, and with her tent that she’s managed to furnish and an upbeat attitude, the CORE team says she’s in relatively good shape — for now.
Still for her, a former employee for CalTrans with a formal education, she doesn’t understand how the situation seems to get worse.
“I don’t understand why so many people are homeless. Period. It’s not just the occasional wine-o or something like that. There are people out with families, with little kids and stuff. And it’s not just here it’s all over, and it shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t be like that at all,” Thomas said. “There’s something wrong. Something terribly wrong.”
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