Prior to the 1970s, Berkeley saw almost no homeless people sitting out on the streets. Shops and businesses on Telegraph Avenue and in the Downtown area thrived as people crowded the streets.
Then, slowly, over the years, the city began to change. The sight of people sleeping on the streets became increasingly common, and more and more shelters began to pop up to address the needs of the homeless population segment that had gone relatively unnoticed before.
“When I first came to Berkeley in the late ’40s … there were no homeless people on the streets at all,” recalled Shirley Dean, a former mayor and former City Council member for the city of Berkeley.
Berkeley, like many other cities across the nation, saw its homeless population rise with changing federal policies and the economic downturn in the 1980s.
In 1981, the Reagan administration deinstitutionalized the mentally ill by providing funds for state governments to create a more community-based support system of mental health departments and clinics.
However, the policy ended up decreasing federal mental health spending by 30 percent. It also closed state mental health services without creating the intended community support systems, leaving many mentally ill people on the streets, according to Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Now, nearly four decades later, the nationwide homeless population has reached 634,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2012 annual homeless assessment report. As the city of Berkeley seeks to help its own homeless population, many still struggle with the complex causes of homelessness.
“The initial response to homelessness in the ’80s was that it was a kind of crisis situation, and when the economy gets better, it’ll go away,” Berg said. “The problem didn’t … (The time) since the 1980s is the only extended period of mass homelessness during a time when the economy was healthy.”
Because homelessness was seen as a relatively unknown issue at the time, the government began to gather data about the homeless population.
One of the first homeless counts was in 1984, which estimated a nationwide range of 250,000 to 350,000 homeless in a single night, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“There just simply weren’t the services, the studies or the contact between city employees and services and organizations and agencies and homeless people as there is now,” Dean said. “That structure really didn’t exist.”
‘At risk’ populations
Certain populations may be more at risk of becoming homeless than others, according to Berg.
In Alameda County, of the nearly 4,200 homeless, about 1,400 suffer from chronic substance abuse, 818 are severely ill, 711 are victims of domestic violence and 488 are veterans, although some people may have co-occurring issues, according to a 2011 EveryOne Home report.
On a local scale, Berkeley also follows this trend. In the city’s most recent count, 40 percent of the homeless population suffers from chronic substance abuse, 41 percent are severely mentally ill and 20 percent are veterans, according to a 2013 city report.
“If you have those issues, you’re more vulnerable to that kind of stuff … but the problem is that we have not committed as a society to housing as a human right,” said Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home.
For instance, military veterans appear to be homeless at a higher rate than nonveterans, with 29 homeless veterans per 10,000 people, according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
This circumstance might be attributed to factors such as high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as physical injuries and disabilities that make it difficult for veterans to reintegrate into civilian life and to find employment, according to a 2012 Housing and Urban Development report.
A majority of California veterans, who number nearly 550,000, served in the Vietnam War, according to a 2013 estimate by the California Department of Veteran Affairs. Locally, veterans from the Vietnam War comprise the majority of Berkeley’s homeless veterans, with 46 percent of those reporting having served in Vietnam, according to a 2013 city report.
“Veterans from Vietnam did not have the same kind of public investment that there had been for World War II and Korean War (veterans), so there was no GI Bill for these young men to go to college or to buy a home,” de Coligny said. “They were essentially abandoned.”
Poverty and the lack of income also increase the risk of homelessness by making it difficult for people to maintain housing. Millions of low-income households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Robert Barrer, deputy director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency — a nonprofit organization to aid the homeless that was started in the 1970s — remembers seeing large influxes of people to homeless shelters when the recession hit in the 1980s, as well as more services created in response to the economic downturn.
Most recently, when the 2008 recession hit the nation, the total homeless population decreased while the number of homeless families increased by 7 percent between 2008 and 2009,according to a U.S. HUD press release.
Yet some of the city’s homeless population prefer to call themselves “homeless by choice,” whether they are traveling through Berkeley or choosing to settle down on the streets of Berkeley, and they choose not to visit shelters.
Still, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin maintains that the majority of people on the streets are not “homeless by choice.”
“We’ve always had a street culture in Berkeley, but that does not make up the majority of the people in the streets,” Arreguin said. “They’re an exception. There are some people traveling through Berkeley and are part of a street culture but also others that have left very different circumstances.”
Reducing the numbers
It is unlikely that the entire nation will ever have no homeless population at all, due to economic circumstances or natural disasters, de Coligny said. But policies have been implemented to help reduce the population.
To alleviate the homelessness situation, the Obama administration passed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act in 2009, which aims to have homeless individuals and families return to permanent housing within 30 days.
“If you’re poor, you can end up in the shelter system or streets for a year rather than saying we need to step in and help them quickly,” de Coligny said. “The idea is that you resolve the crisis before they end up for that long.”
According to a 2011 EveryOne Home report, in Alameda County the homeless population has been reduced by 13.6 percent since January 2007. EveryOne Home conducted a 2013 Alameda County homeless count in January and will release the results later this summer, which are anticipated to lend more insight into the current homeless trend.
In Berkeley, between 2003 and 2009, the total homeless population decreased from 835 to 824 people, a 2009 EveryOne Home report states.
“(Homelessness has) gone through several different cycles over the years,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “We’ve had ups and downs … (but) part of the situation has been improved by the services that are being provided.”
A number of issues still need to be tackled to shelter the more than 800 homeless people still on the streets. Affordable housing for low-income individuals in Berkeley remains scarce, and local funding for homeless services is limited.
In just the last decade, rental prices have risen dramatically. In 2002, a two-bedroom housing unit in Berkeley cost about $1,650 a month. By the end of 2012, the same unit averaged $1,995.
“Berkeley is a wonderful city with a vibrant culture, and a lot of people want to live in Berkeley, and that’s part of why the rents are so high,” Worthington said. “Some people who are homeless in Berkeley, if they were in a different part of the county, might be able to afford the rent.”
Berkeley has tried a myriad of ways to address local homelessness, from the 2012 ballot initiative Measure S — which would have prevented people from sitting on the sidewalks during certain hours — to the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan, which seeks to create a community group to analyze possible solutions, but whether a centralized plan of action will be formed soon still remains to be seen.