As homelessness grows, Alameda County declares a state of emergency

Despite a multi-billion-dollar plan to battle the crisis, data shows it has only deepened

When Alameda County adopted a $2.5 billion plan to address homelessness, it aimed to stem the tide of a crisis that had worsened since the pandemic’s start. Despite the multifaceted effort, more people are still becoming homeless than are being housed nearly two years later.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a countywide state of emergency on homelessness this week, giving officials another tool for turning the tide.

“We can’t just let people live like this,” said Supervisor Nate Miley in an interview.

Between 2017 and 2022, the number of unhoused people in Alameda County increased by 22% to 9,747, with the majority of them living in or near cars. According to the county declaration, many of the unhoused have at least one disability, and the maximum social security disability check of around $1,000 is woefully inadequate to afford housing in the exorbitantly priced Bay Area.

Furthermore, experts who work with the unhoused community say there aren’t enough services to support those suffering from mental illnesses, and that the rise in fentanyl use has exacerbated the crisis.

Alameda County has the authority to declare a local emergency when residents face “conditions of disaster or extreme peril.” Supervisors are confident that it qualifies, given the growing number of unhoused people and the “devastating” effects of homelessness, as described in the report.

Over a thousand people experiencing homelessness died in Alameda County between 2018 and 2021, with an age-adjusted mortality rate nearly six times higher than the rest of the county. Almost half of those people were African-American. According to a recent county survey, while Alameda County has a 10% Black population, approximately 43% of its homeless population is Black.

Those figures, according to Miley, demonstrate how the homelessness crisis is a social justice issue as well as a humanitarian one.

The resolution directs the county’s Office of Homeless Care and Coordination to create an emergency homelessness response and report back to the board within 60 days. It will also provide the county with “additional tools,” such as the ability to request funding from the state and federal governments, expedite hiring to support programs, and streamline housing creation.

The response, according to the report, will inevitably necessitate “the county and all cities within the county joining forces.” Marguerite Bachang, executive director of Operation Dignity, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to serving veterans and the homeless, believes that such coordination is one of the most beneficial outcomes of an emergency declaration.

“If the state of emergency could somehow help the county, the city, and the housing authority work more closely together like they do in some other counties, that would be tremendously helpful,” Bachang said. “This crisis is only getting worse, and you have to think differently to keep up.”

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