Love Your Neighbor
As housing costs continue to soar, homelessness is a reality that a growing group of people in the Bay Area face. To properly address the issue, we must ask the right questions: who are the homeless, what is currently being done and most importantly, what is next?
March 2, 2020
“I’m just like you guys. I was born upper-class, went to school. We just look different, that’s all. We had dinner every Sunday, my mother would cook.”
Eddie Washington has lived in Palo Alto for over 20 years and lived in his van for the past four. Born and raised in Detroit, he moved to California when he was 16 years old after losing his mother to breast cancer.
“It affected everything,” Washington said. “I mean, I tried to be normal. I did whatever most people were doing. I tried to do it, but eventually I fell off the wagon. I started looking at things a little differently.” Washington joined the military when he was 22 years old, serving for three years before working as a chef when he returned to the Bay Area.
Living in Palo Alto, Washington has noticed that community members do not treat the homeless population with respect. “It doesn’t feel like a compassionate city. It’s all about me, me, me,” Washington said.
The city of Palo Alto does not support Washington or others in similar situations. In fact, the city has recently removed resources for the homeless population. “Last year they took away a place near Cubberly where you could go and take a hot shower,” Washington said.
Without any help from the city, Washington has to find his own ways to support himself. “The real resources I get are from jobs I do,” Washington said. “I do a little cooking for people. I don’t make that much money, but I stay busy. I meet people, talk to them, make them smile.”
Homelessness is not a label that can define all of those who experience it. Yet, as the Bay Area homeless population grows, many people become invisible, and neighbors forget to see the life stories behind each person. “People don’t say hello,” Washington said. “They don’t make eye contact. Everybody looks just by what they see on the outside. It doesn’t hurt me. I think it hurts them more when they are shallow.”
For Washington, the dominant aspect of his identity lies within human connections and his benign role in the community. “I got a van so that’s my home, right?” Washington said. “I identify myself as just a caring person and a loving man.”
A large factor in the increasing homeless population of the Bay Area is the limited and unaffordable housing supply, Washington being just one of many to fall victim to this demanding economic scene.
The cold, hard facts
According to a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, homelessness in the Bay Area has reached crisis levels. According to point-in-time estimations, the Bay Area had the third largest homeless population in the U.S. with an estimated homeless population of 28,200 in 2017.
“Until very recently, homelessness was considered the problem of individual cities and counties,” the report said. “For a metropolitan region like the Bay Area, which is divided into nine counties and 101 cities, this approach fails to meet the needs of an intra-regionally mobile homeless population. Problems in one community spill into another.”
The Bay Area’s homeless population is disproportionately composed of unaccompanied youth, people of color and homeless men, with a relatively high percentage of those who identify as LGBTQ+. Additionally, the Bay Area shelters only 33 percent of its homeless population; despite the Bay Area having a warmer climate, this is low compared to the 74 percent sheltered in Chicago, 85 percent in Washington, D.C. and 95 percent in New York City. The Bay Area’s high rates of unsheltered homelessness only mean severe health and safety risks that have led to epidemic levels of disease and multiple fires in homeless encampments.
The report acknowledges that there are many difficulties in estimating the total resources dedicated towards homelessness due to a lack of consistency and transparency between local, state, and federal jurisdictions. However, its estimates show that San Francisco and Alameda counties spend more than 50 percent of dedicated homelessness funding on housing and subsidies. Further analysis found that across the region there is a large range of spending on services for those at risk of or experiencing homelessness, primarily because the costs to build affordable housing widely varies across the Bay Area.
A personal story
Despite the allocation of funding for housing, not all people living on the streets decide to utilize these resources. The circumstances surrounding homelessness vary drastically from case to case. Kim Lohse, an English and creative writing teacher at JLS Middle School, understands this all too well. While she has never been homeless herself, Lohse has felt the impacts of homelessness through the experiences of her immediate family members.
Growing up, Lohse’s husband participated in various violin and piano competitions. His Catholic mother placed a significant amount of pressure on him, criticizing his musicianship even after he won a competition. Along with other family issues, this caused him to develop anxiety to the point where he would black out on stage.
As an adolescent trying to find his own identity, he was pushed to a breaking point; he informed his mother that he would quit playing his instruments and that he did not want to follow the Catholic religion anymore.
His mother told him that he could no longer live under her roof.
As he couch-hopped between friends’ homes and refused to go to class, he often turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the weight of his living situation. He first started with pot, but then escalated to using harder drugs once a friend introduced him to acid. After living out of a car around San Francisco with a friend, he lived in and around the Panhandle in Golden Gate Park for about nine months, often begging for money and living off of scraps from nearby bakeries during this time period.
Without his family, he found support within the LGBTQ+ community, specifically the transgender community. Many of the men he met were kicked out of their homes while trying to find their own identities and places in society. To this day, he stays in contact with the people he met during this period and remains involved within the community of the Castro District in San Francisco.
Despite living almost a year without a place to call home, Lohse’s husband was able to find his way out of homelessness. Building a life for himself, he stopped consuming the drugs and alcohol he once used to numb the outside world and began to repair relations with his parents. When he and Lohse connected, he was finishing a graphic arts degree at the University of Pittsburgh. With his circumstances, he was lucky enough to regain control of his life and begin making choices for himself rather than his mother.
Not all, however, are fortunate to have had the same resources as Lohse’s husband did. Many who want to help the homeless are unsure about how to properly provide support. Should they give them money or food? Is donating to an organization that focuses on assisting those experiencing homelessness more effective?
Lohse and her daughter make packages filled with essentials and keep them in their car in case they see anyone who might benefit from their small act of kindness.
“It turns out, it’s really hard to get clean, fresh socks, so always having brand new socks [in the packages is important],” Lohse said. “A lot of people have dental issues when they’re homeless, so having soft foods, bottles of water, and just these little baggies, like a gallon baggie with some stuff in it like toothpaste, toothbrush, some stuff, usually $5 or whatever, and just having them in the car.”
The next generation
As a teacher, Lohse is focused on teaching the younger generation to have a true understanding of the topic of homelessness, as they will soon become responsible for creating laws or implementing regulations surrounding this issue.
“I know that so many of my students who come through are going to be decision-makers about who’s on the street, so to speak, without ever having their feet touch the street, so they’re going to be put in places of power without having a real basic understanding of what they’re presiding over,” Lohse said. “For me, trying to help my students realize and have empathy with the different situations they’re going to be in as policymakers is paramount.”
Not only does Lohse believe that future generations should become educated on this topic, but she also believes that everyone today should take an interest as well. With hectic schedules and busy lives, many people forget to look beyond the parameters of their own lifestyles.
“There’s this idea that [the homeless] are dirty and filthy, and the encampments are an eyesore, and people should clean them up and say okay, but how and with what funds,” Lohse said. “I don’t think people understand how complicated it is on families.”
Washington agrees that people should learn to view this issue beyond its face value. “With homelessness, I think people are missing the point,” Washington said. “Whether they are homeless or not, if you like somebody, help them out. Give them some cash, let them get a shower or do their laundry. I mean, everybody needs help, so step up to the plate and get involved.”
As the cost of living around the Bay Area continues, those who work in the Silicon Valley are forced to live farther and farther away from their jobs. Simply because of the lack of affordability, many struggle to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in affluent cities such as Palo Alto.
“There used to be families in those apartment complexes, and now, they house 20-year-olds working over at Google,” Lohse said. “Where do those families go? Those people had jobs; those jobs didn’t disappear. It’s that they couldn’t afford the housing.”
As gentrification overtakes San Francisco, longtime residents uproot their lives from permanent homes to ones that move on four wheels because of skyrocketing rents. Local resident Doniece Sandoval recalls returning home to a neighborhood filled with unfamiliar faces after only three years of living on the East Coast, shocked to find her friends living unhoused.
She discovered that one of the most overlooked aspects of homelessness is personal hygiene. “Every unhoused person I saw was struggling with hygiene and it made me curious what people’s options were,” Sandoval said. “When I did the research, I was appalled at the lack of showers and toilets available.”
People take their cleanliness for granted, unaware of the 10,000 homeless people living in San Francisco with insufficient hygiene facilities. “I knew what being able to get and stay clean and use a bathroom in privacy and safety meant to me so I thought that perhaps I could help,” Sandoval said. “And I believed that if it was possible to put gourmet food on wheels and take it anywhere, why not showers and toilets?”
Sandoval founded Lava Mae, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fulfilling the mantra of Radical Hospitality through providing mobile hygiene services to the homeless population of San Francisco. “Radical Hospitality is at the core of everything we do, based on the belief that opportunity unfolds when people are treated with dignity and that people everywhere will rise to the level of respect they are offered,” Sandoval said.
Lava Mae serves thousands of members in the Bay Area community, providing showers, toilets and hygiene kits. But the Bay Area is not the exception—combating homelessness is a global issue.
In response to rising interest in replicating the company’s model, they relaunched as LavaMaex. “Recognizing that the most sustainable solutions come from the communities where the challenges exist, LavaMaex accelerates local responses to homelessness with open-source toolkits, in-depth training and strategic partnerships,” Sandoval said.
Since its launch, the organization has fielded over 4,000 inquiries in almost 40 countries, training and inspiring communities to start local mobile hygiene services based on programs designed by Lava Maex. With this expansion of influence, the principle of LavaMaex is able to reach more people than ever before. “LavaMaex is changing the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors, and helps restore dignity, rekindle optimism and fuel a sense of opportunity for people experiencing homelessness,” Sandoval said.
Local food banks and shelters have taken up missions similar to that of LavaMae’s, supplying unattainable resources to those in need. The Ecumanical Hunger Program, located in East Palo Alto, is one of many nonprofit social service organizations in the Bay Area. Apart from their primary focus of supplying food to those who are unable to afford it or include it into their monthly budgets, the program aims to support their community in additional ways.
“We are able to help and assist [low-income families] pay their rent once a month,” Sulma Burgos-Arce, EHP’s Family Service Case Manager, said. “We help them with household items and clothes and help our community in all types of ways.”
By partnering up with grocery store brands and working with people, EHP is successfully saving families’ lives without having to decline aid to anybody. Burgos-Arce finds that the only way for change to happen is if more people help build shelters and give resources instead of shutting these people out.
“Homelessness isn’t just what we see out on the streets. Homelessness is not just someone who is dirty and has nowhere to go. Homelessness is very much real,” Burgos-Arce said. “If we just had more resources and made it easier for people to be employed, that would definitely help.”
Homelessness is a reality that many people in the Bay Area, including Eddie Washington, live with every day. With a more caring and informed community, the resources and support to help the homeless can make their situations at least a little bit easier.
“It’s a journey and everybody’s journey is different,” Washington said. “It’s an amazing journey because you can be going straight in life. I had a loving mother, loving father, loving brothers, sisters and all that as a kid. But then life threw a curve.”