Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2022  
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  Homelessness Rises to the Top of Bay Area Problems
April 7, 2022

According to a Bay Area Council poll, 86% of Bay Area registered voters say homelessness is the areas’ top problem and is getting worse.

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Homelessness is the most important problem facing the Bay Area, so say the majority of 1000 Bay Area registered voters responding to the Bay Area Council’s annual poll with 86% saying the problem is getting worse.

“The Bay Area voters are sick of seeing the levels of despair on the streets of a region where they believe it shouldn’t exist, certainly not to the extent that the despair exists and certainly not for the length of time it has existed on our streets for,” Adrian Covert, senior vice president of the Bay Area Council said.

The poll also found 70% agree with the statement, “It’s time to get tough on the unsheltered who refuse shelter and treatment.”

A further 87% support an increase in government authority to place homeless people who suffer severe mental health and substance abuse disorders into a conservatorship and treatment. 

“What we’re doing now is just, you know, leaving thousands, probably tens of thousands of people who need a much higher level of care to fend for themselves and I don’t think that’s protecting their liberties,” said San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who has long been a supporter of conservatorships. 

But the Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach says the focus should be placed elsewhere. 

“What we need for them is to have a stable housing and ongoing mental health care,” she said. “That way they can get better and stay better and that’s the piece that’s lacking and what this report totally misses.” 

For all its problems, the Bay Area Council credit San Francisco with having nearly the highest density of permanent supportive housing of the region. The poll also found a majority of those surveyed felt governments should spend more money to address homelessness in San Francisco.
Ground Zero for the homeless issue is Caltrans rights-of-way, which have become the favored location for many homeless camps. Despite a $17 billion budget (more than the entire budgets of 11 states), Caltrans continues to avoid taking responsibility for transitioning homeless people into stable housing or shelters. Instead, Caltrans displaces them into surrounding cities, claiming it is a city or county responsibility.

Meanwhile tragedies and litigation plague homeless camps on Caltrans ROW. Earlier this week, an encampment blaze on Caltrans ROW near the Bay Bridge resulted in one death and displacement of five other campers. According to Oakland Fire Department spokesman, Michael Hunt, “there were about 90 different fires of varying size and severity from March 3, 2021 to March 2, 2022 along Wood from West Grand Avenue to 34th Street, with a large majority on Caltrans property inside the encampment under the freeway and involving debris, vegetation or vehicles.”

In a San Rafael homeless camp under Highway 101, a camper is suing Caltrans and the City of San Rafael for exposure to freeway noise and pollution that has led to hearing loss and risk of illness.

The class-action lawsuit cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states the World Health Organization recommends that noise exposure levels should not exceed 70 decibels over a 24-hour period and 85 decibels over a one-hour period to avoid hearing impairment. The CDC also says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends workers should use hearing protection when exposed to 90 decibels or higher during an eight-hour work day.

The suit cites a CDC report that links living in proximity to a major road or highway with health effects such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory symptoms and other diseases.

The plaintiff, James Hellard, 49, alleges that the city has been “forcing” him to live under the overpass for the past two years because “living anywhere else means my survival gear will be confiscated.”

In Richmond, Caltrans cleans up homeless camps on Caltrans ROW, but they reappear before the sun comes up the next morning. Below is the camp on the southwest corner of Harbour Way South and Cutting Boulevard that persists despite Caltrans’ efforts.

Figure 1 - Homeless camp at Harbour Way South and Cutting Boulevard

Homelessness is a statewide issue of such magnitude that it can only be solved by the State of California. The governor and legislature need to act now. For about 1 percent of the state budget, every homeless person in California could be provided an apartment. Why don’t we get this done?