Public Comment

Stereotyping The Homeless Equals Blaming The Victims

Harry Brill
Sunday February 11, 2018 - 09:02:00 PM

A proposal I have been making to provide housing for homeless individuals and families involves persuading those who are comfortably housed to make their vacant rooms available. Since there are far more empty bedrooms than homeless persons in the Bay Area, there is really no shortage of housing waiting to be built. The task of matching people is considerable, and would require resources and time. However, to build an adequate supply of low cost housing units, although certainly desirable, will take much longer and will be more expensive. 

But the unpopular stereotypes of the homeless serve as formidable barriers to home sharing. For it is widely believed that those who live on the streets are mentally ill or are substance abusers. Consequently, it is very difficult to even mobilize progressives to actively participate in a program that encourages house sharing on behalf of homeless applicants.  

Although serious mental illness afflicts a larger share of the homeless than among the population at large, the numbers are certainly not overwhelming. It is estimated that between 13 to 15 percent of the homeless suffer very serious mental problems. But the vast majority of those living on the streets are not afflicted. Moreover, it is a mistake to even assume that those who are mentally ill are more likely to commit violence. Less than five percent of the overall violence in the United States is directly related to mental illness. 

Here is one hurdle that has been reported. According to the research conducted by the John Hopkins School of Public Health sensational media coverage perpetuates the inaccurate perceptions that many who are mental ill are dangerous. In fact, it is even nonsense to think that those who have emotional problems are unlikely to be excellent roommates. 

Substance abuse is a serious problem for large numbers of homeless persons. About 26 percent of those living on the streets use drugs, and the rate is higher for alcohol addiction, which is 38 percent. However, despite the tremendous difficulties that the homeless suffer, the majority are not resorting to substance abuse. 

It is immensely important that we resist the tendency to attribute the presumed shortcomings of a minority to virtually all of its members. Unfortunately, the mass media, which is controlled by the wealthy, encourages us to blame the homeless victims rather than the institutions and individuals that have contributed to their abysmal life situation. In fact, those who are really dangerous are the ones who are doing the blaming. It is they who are mainly guilty for paying poverty wages and charging incredibly high, unaffordable rents, both of which have increased homelessness and poverty considerably. Incredibly, a recent Harvard University based study reports that more than a quarter of renter households are now paying over 50 Percent of their incomes for housing. As a UN official looking into poverty in the United States concluded, "extreme poverty in the United States is a political choice of the powerful". Homelessness included 

Progressives who have been concerned about the homeless issue have favored what they call a Housing First Approach. They recognize that what the homeless need as quickly as possible is affordable housing. And if needed, only then should they be provided with necessary social services. Utah has taken this issue seriously. It has reduced chronic homelessness by 90 percent over a ten year period -- from 2,000 to 200. Tenants pay either 30 percent of their income or up to $50 a month, whichever is greater. Among the factors that motivated Utah to tackle the homelessness problem was the realization that the annual costs of providing services like emergency room visits and jail time was far more expensive than providing housing. Another advantage has been the vigorous advocacy by influential organizations. Clearly, Utah's achievement is quite an accomplishment. 

But things are very different In the Bay area, where developers are far more influential. Most developers share the same unhealthy addiction, which is to maximize profits. Although builders are required to set aside a few units to rent at below market rates, even these monthly rents, which are in the thousands, are still very high. However, the Berkeley City Council recently voted unanimously to explore the construction by a private developer of micro-units for the homeless and others with low income. These units according to one developer would be only about 160 Square feet. The catch is that the rents will be $1000 a month, which is still high. It is expected that some of the rents would come from other sources than the tenants. But that remains to be seen. 

Councilman Ben Bartlett, who was a co-sponsor of the micro-unit ordinance, remarked that "I am not willing to sit by and watch people die in the street." Bartlett has the right instinct which is why we should move as quickly as possible to encourage home sharing A home sharing program would not only benefit those in need of housing. They could benefit the hosts as well.  

Among those who should be solicited are the substantial number of seniors who are living alone. Many would welcome a compatible housemate. For example, a Berkeley senior, who is a friend of mine, recently sent out an email to find a housemate who would pay a low rent in exchange of doing some chores. Certainly many seniors as well as others who live alone could benefit from the many advantages of having a housemate, including sharing some of the costs. Believe it or not, many who are homeless are also working. Losing a place to live is not necessarily accompanied by a loss of a job. 

If the appropriate background checks are made of both the hosts and the homeless, who are seeking shelter, there is very little to worry about. In New York City, the New York Foundation of Senior Citizens has been involved for more than two decades in helping seniors find housemates. The organization has a staff that checks out prospective housemates. They thoroughly screen and check the references of both hosts and guest applicants. And they have a system that helps determine how compatible the match would be. Their efforts have been highly successful. As a result of its excellent reputation, the organization has been able to obtain both public and foundation support.  


If it can happen in New York, it can be made to happen here. It is vitally important to persuade the Berkeley City Council and similar political bodies in other communities to provide the initial funding to set up a similar organization in the East Bay. And it is especially important that progressives become actively involved. Ben Bartlett is absolutely right. We cannot sit by and watch people die in the street