Barron: Vote for candidates who address root causes of homelessness
The entrance of the "Jurassic Park" homeless encampment in San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

With the March elections on the horizon, City Council candidates are working hard to solicit votes by appealing to the chronic issues facing the residents of San Jose. Appropriately, a key talking point across the various districts is homelessness, which intensifies with each passing year. However, candidates continue to whitewash the root causes of homelessness.

The city’s current plans to address the homeless crisis are highly uncoordinated, relying on a mixture of underfunded, subsistence programs (such as seasonal, overnight warming shelters), limited low-income housing (largely funded by taxpayers via municipal bonds), and the promise of corporate philanthropy. While some of these approaches are likely to bear more fruit than others, the city’s homeless plan remains incoherent.

Understandably, candidates for City Council are making homelessness a key component of their platform. At the San Jose City Council and state Senate candidate forum held at the Santa Teresa Library last month, candidates underscored the need for more expansive mental health services and drug treatment facilities as a way of tackling the crisis. Such solutions follow a fairly consistent but simplistic depiction of the issue. Assuming that poor mental health and drug dependency are the primary forces that put people on the street, homelessness can be most effectively reduced – so the argument goes – by providing mental health services and rehabilitation.

There is no doubt that mental health, alcohol/drug dependency, and homelessness are highly correlated phenomena. However, research does not necessarily support the solutions proposed by the candidates. This is partly because time and again, studies suggest that the causes of homelessness are mix of individual and structural factors. However, targeted studies of homeless populations in the Bay Area also indicate that the primary driver of homelessness is “economic instability.”

To be fair, alcohol/drug use are consistently cited as significant causes of homelessness in the Silicon Valley (about 19%). Thus, candidates are justified in their discussion of treatment for dependency as a necessary component of any plan to address the quality of life for homeless residents. But even these studies show that job loss accounts for the highest percentage of the causal pie (about 35%). Another important factor, which candidates failed to address at the forum last month, is eviction (15%), which is on the rise in San Jose.

No matter how one interprets these figures, the data overwhelmingly suggests that the forces behind the staggering rates of homelessness in the Bay Area and San Jose in particular are matters of structural inequality. To paraphrase (reluctantly) the Clinton strategist James Carville — “it’s the economy, stupid.”

If not lip service, commitments to mental health and rehab centers, what might substantive solutions to homelessness in San Jose actually look like?

To be sure, mental health care and rehabilitation must be part of the program. But grassroots organizations, policy network teams and engaged citizens have already posed various other policy recommendations that stand to decrease the severity of the homeless crisis. Local and state representatives as well as civically-engaged residents would do well to consider the following.

At the local level, the San José Anti-Displacement Policy Network Team, a public-private partnership, is pushing for maintaining protections stipulated in the Ellis Act Ordinance and expanding existing funds for legal representation for tenants. Studies show that when tenants face eviction without legal representation, they are far more likely to be displaced.

Perhaps the most radical approach has come from the city’s action group Serve the People San José. The group categorically opposes the development of the future Google campus in downtown on the grounds that the project will inevitably drive up the cost-of-living in a part of the city where displacement already runs rampant as a result of high-rise developments.

The obstacles to implementing these plans and others are legion, even for some of the less controversial proposals. Under the leadership of the mayor’s office, city government appears convinced that San Jose’s saving grace will come in the form of market-value housing in dense mass transit locations and (miniscule) affordable housing promised by tech giants. Any proposal that compromises such partnerships is likely to come under fire from the movers and shakers in City Hall.

Voters would do well to support incumbents who have already made strides to address not just the immediate crisis of homelessness but the inequalities that fuel it.

If you are at all concerned with the plight of your unhoused neighbors, let the candidates and representatives in your district know that you want a more substantive solution to the homeless crisis that confronts the underlying causes of homelessness.

Dr. Nicholas Barron teaches anthropology at several local community colleges including Mission College, Evergreen Valley College and Gavilan College. He was born and raised in San Jose.

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