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Who Is My Neighbor: Facts and Fictions About Homelessness

The Rev. Anna Horen

As many are aware, the city of Fremont has been moving forward on a Navigation Center to assist the unhoused in transitioning to permanent housing.  The selection process for location for the center has generated much controversy, with concerns raised about drug abuse, mental health issues, and crime, among others.  Some concerns are reasonable and have been expressed in a reasoned way, while others have been wildly exaggerated, based on stereotypes and prejudice.

With this in mind, I’d like to share with you some information and insights I gained at a July 11th panel discussion on the issues surrounding homelessness sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Alameda County.

  • Data reporting by city and non-profit agencies show that about 60% of homeless persons are seniors, the disabled, veterans, and families with young children who are neither drug addicts, nor mentally ill, nor criminally inclined.
  • There is a sharp increase in evictions of long-term residents due to steep rent hikes by landlords wishing to take advantage of neighborhood gentrification.
  • Deaths on the streets are on the rise: 6 in Berkeley in June alone.
  • Cars and RVs occupied by homeless people are being towed and impounded at a rapidly increasing rate. Because owners cannot afford the fines, they are left on the street without transportation or safe shelter.
  • In some cities, police wake those living on the street, many with young children, 2-4 times a night to order them to move on.  This sleep deprivation affects both physical and mental health.
  • There is little to no collaboration between Bay Area cities on possible solutions to this difficult nexus of issues; instead there is a patchwork quilt of stop-gap measures from various sources.
  • When constructive measures are undertaken, it can take 5-10 years to go from a proposal to completion of projects.
  • Given the lack of short-term help, many homeless persons have begun organizing and advocating for themselves. There is a “safe and clean encampment” movement in the Bay Area, with strict self-governance, particularly with respect to drug/alcohol use and criminal behavior.  However, the denial of access to empty city/county land, means encampments end up in unhealthy and unsafe areas, like freeway underpasses, where enforcement of community rules and basic hygiene is impossible, and community concerns are understandably reinforced.

These facts make it clear that homelessness cannot be solved by “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” It is a complex issue touching on many social-economic factors. The panel discussion included three homeless persons and they were clear-eyed and clear-minded about the problems and solutions. Partnership between cities, NGOs, and faith communities is needed in a two-pronged operation to address immediate problems and work on long-term solutions.

By coincidence, the Gospel for the Sunday after a raucous July 9th City Council meeting was the parable we often call The Good Samaritan, told by Jesus in response to the challenge posed by a lawyer: who is my neighbor?  Jesus’ answer is clear:  everyone, even those you dislike or fear.  We are called to show mercy, as God does, without exclusion, and help and advocate for those on the margins.   It is time to call for partnership and political will to address this seemingly intractable issue with mercy and the greater good in our minds and hearts.                         

– Rev. Anna Horen