Report: Bay Area has most visible homeless population in the nation

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Bay Area’s unsheltered homeless
These are the percentages of the homeless populations in each of the nine counties that are living on the streets or in cars or tents.
Santa Clara County, 74%
Solano County, 74%
Alameda County, 69%
Sonoma County, 65%
San Francisco County, 63%
Marin County, 63%
Contra Costa County, 57%
San Mateo County, 51%
Napa County, 37%
Source: Bay Area Council Economic Institute

The 28,000 people in the Bay Area scattered in emergency shelters, temporary housing and on the streets make it the third-largest homeless population in the nation, behind New York City and Los Angeles, according to a report released Wednesday by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

Nearly 70% of the nine- county region’s homeless population is unsheltered — meaning they’re living on the streets, in cars or tents — a number that’s much higher than homeless in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City.

The high level of unsheltered homeless in the region compared with other major U.S. cities makes the Bay Area’s homeless the most visible in the country. The report also described the severity of homelessness in this area as the worst nationwide.

The 40-page report found that it would take an estimated $12.7 billion to build permanent housing for each homeless person in the Bay Area.

In Sonoma County, there were an estimated 3,000 homeless people at the beginning of the year. The report found that 65% of the county’s homeless are unsheltered, ranking fourth behind Santa Clara, Solano and Alameda counties in the Bay Area. San Francisco has 63% of its homeless people living unsheltered, ranking No. 5 in the region.

New York City has the largest homeless population in the nation at more than 76,000 people, but only 5% of them are living on the streets.

“We are at a tipping point,” Alena Wall, Kaiser Permanente’s regional community benefit manager, said of the Bay Area’s dire homeless problem. “This is now a social imperative that we pay attention to this.”

Unsheltered homeless individuals are at an increased risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis, typhoid and other ailments, said Adrian Covert, one of the authors of the comprehensive report that was requested by Kaiser, a major regional health care provider that said last year it would spend $200 million to help eliminate homelessness nationwide.

Lawmakers, health care workers and homeless advocates continue to grapple with ways to try to reduce the number of the region’s homeless. Wednesday’s report follows a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report in December that said Sonoma County had one of biggest homeless populations in the country among largely suburban communities. Local and state leaders have touted efforts to help get people off the streets, but it’s clear from the regional and U.S. reports that more needs to be done to curtail homelessness.

“We’ve seen the homeless population grow in six years, despite the Bay Area having record economic growth, so this shouldn’t have happened,” Covert said.

The Bay Area Council’s homeless report is based on a year of research that included interviews with health care leaders and is the first to focus on homelessness in the Bay Area. The public policy organization collaborated with management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to draft the report.

“Understanding the full scope and nature of the homeless problem is critical to solving the problem,” Kaiser’s Chairman and CEO Bernard Tyson said.

The report also found that compared to other cities across the U.S., the Bay Area’s homeless population is disproportionately comprised of single, male minorities older than 25 and is mostly longtime residents.

Bay Area’s unsheltered homeless
These are the percentages of the homeless populations in each of the nine counties that are living on the streets or in cars or tents.
Santa Clara County, 74%
Solano County, 74%
Alameda County, 69%
Sonoma County, 65%
San Francisco County, 63%
Marin County, 63%
Contra Costa County, 57%
San Mateo County, 51%
Napa County, 37%
Source: Bay Area Council Economic Institute

Investment in permanent housing for the homeless and stemming the flow of new homeless people were recommended in the report as the best ways to gain traction on tackling the challenge.

Jenny Abramson, homeless services manager with the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, said that at the county level there has been a decline in housing for homeless people over the past 12 years, and that the state only recently started to take notice of the issues related to homelessness.

“There is no constant funding stream for shelters or permanent housing,” Abramson said.

She said a regional approach is critical to solving the growing homeless crisis, particularly in Sonoma County, since the overheated housing market has an effect on the wider Bay Area.

“Statewide we have not taken this seriously until last year that we finally got engaged in homelessness as a planning and policy level,” Abramson said. “It is the first time that we have had the chance to even think about addressing the scale of what’s really needed.”

Abramson said with Gov. Gavin Newsom taking on homelessness as one of his flagship issues things have begun to shift in a positive direction.

Newsom in March announced a push for an additional $500 million to build shelters and to add more homeless services.

This was two months after he proposed spending $1.75 billion to build homes statewide for low-income and working-class residents.

Jennielynn Holmes of Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa said she was impressed by the Bay Area council’s homeless report, calling it the best collective look at the region’s homelessness dilemma she’s seen in more than 10 years.

“The fact that they painted homelessness as the crisis that it is, us having the third-largest homelessness population in the nation, is something we should be both saddened and alarmed by,” said Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

She hopes people will pay close attention to one particular number in the report — that 60% of homeless people in the Bay Area have lived in their home county for more than a decade.

“Housing is the only way we are going to solve it,” Holmes said. “We need to enhance our existing systems and really invest in them and build on them as well.”

Covert, a co-author of the report, said copies of it were delivered to leaders in each of the nine counties in the Bay Area and to Newsom’s office in Sacramento. He hopes this will put greater pressure on local and state leaders to take a more regional approach toward resolving this quandary.

“This is a Bay Area-wide problem and you can’t solve it from any one city or county,” he said.

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