On colds and neighbors and unsheltered people in Oakland

I woke up with a hacking cough at about 3AM this morning. I focused solely on my own misery until I heard an accompanying cough through the wall; my neighbor in the next apartment in my fancy Jack London Square building must have the same cold. So we coughed away in solidarity until we both drifted to sleep around 5AM.

I remember about 4 years ago, on a much more typically cold and rainy January night that I had the same cold and work up with the same hacking cough. I was in the garden apartment underneath the church I pastored near Auto Row. That night, my hacking cough was also met by the cough of my neighbor. But that night, my neighbor was sleeping in the alley next to the church, right outside my window, barely sheltered from the rain.

I met a lot of homeless people in the four years I lived in the church (where I now work as director of the Oakland Peace Center). Very few of them were temporarily down on their luck. One of them turned tricks for money to occasionally check into a cheap hotel a few blocks away. Two of them were a father and son who couldn’t get into a shelter since they were designed for mothers and sons, and after the son had been molested when he went to a shelter alone he planned never to be separated from his father again. A few of them had criminal records that stopped them from being eligible for most housing although they were some of the most industrious workers I knew. Some of them came to church and some of them didn’t; one of them even became a board member. One or two of them were unstable; one who hangs around the building now scares me a little, I won’t lie.

But I never met one person living on the streets in that neighborhood who deserved to be homeless. And none of them really needed to be. The right programs and support—the same kind of support I would get easily if I hit a snag in life as a middle-class gal with a social support network—would have been all that was required to keep any of them off the street.


The other thing I remember from that night of simultaneous coughing was that my neighbor in the alley was going to heal a lot more slowly from our cold than I was. That was going to impact her ability to collect recycling and her ability to walk the distance to places that would provide warm and nourishing food. Homelessness wears down the most vibrant and creative people spiritually and emotionally, but also physically. It would also increase her risk of being harmed by people who might want to steal what little she had (which was why she had tucked herself into that alley in the first place—to avoid being a target).

The first time I got to meet one of Oakland’s best citizens, Carol Johnson of St. Mary’s Center, a day center for the street community in Oakland, she said, “We’re working with a university who’s providing some funding to study whether homeless people age more quickly.” She paused and didn’t quite roll her eyes as she said, “We don’t need a study to tell us that, but it helps fund our work and bring broader attention to what you and I already know.” (Carol will be receiving an award at the city’s annual MLK event next week on behalf of St. Mary’s Center.) The  research report is still in process; here is some earlier work on the subject by St. Mary’s Center.

The city of Oakland has taken on the issue of affordable housing in some innovative and important ways in the last few years, creating programs to stem the spike in foreclosures after the recession, creating standards for how much affordable housing needed to be built any time there was new middle- and high income development built, and looking seriously at the need for “workforce housing,” housing that is affordable for people who work in this city but can’t afford to live in this city in a place where it is safe to raise a family.

But as we look at all of those issues, I think of the neighbors I used to have just off of Auto Row. And it may just be the Jesus-follower in me, but I find myself thinking that this city I love would have been better off if those particular neighbors had been off the street. I know housing with supportive services for homeless people does not come cheap. And I know that we need to address the needs of the working poor. But I cannot shake the belief that the costs of police interventions and jail time (for sleeping by Lake Merritt, for example) and unpaid emergency bills due to illness and violence and city clearouts of homeless encampments would all be substantively lower if there were safe shelter with solid resources for my homeless neighbors. And there are folks in the federal government who have crunched numbers that say the same thing: chronic homelessness comes at a significant cost to all of us (spiritually as well as economically, I believe).

I imagine that my current neighbor’s coughing and mine will keep one another awake for another couple of nights. And I’m looking forward to getting better. I’m staying dry and warm and hydrated. I just wish that were an option for my previous neighbor and for everyone in my community.

Note: Alameda County has brought together homeless service providers, advocates and government entities to work together to address the homelessness crisis county-wide–the initiative is called EveryOne Home and it takes on this issue much more rigorously than I could. They are an excellent resource for delving deeper into this issue. They are also the source of my chart. 

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