Bramson: It’s more than just a disaster if you don’t have a home
Jose Sandoval, an unhoused carpenter and handyman, picks up what remains of his tools that were discarded and demolished by the city of San Jose during a recent sweep. File photo.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the southeastern United States. All told, the costliest disaster in U.S. history ultimately claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people. But it was not until the storm passed and the waters finally receded that the true extent of the destruction was fully revealed for the people who called the region home.

In the aftermath, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided more than 45,000 temporary housing units to disaster survivors. Considered by many to be the largest emergency housing operation in our nation’s history, the now infamous government-issued FEMA trailers provided to help the thousands left homeless by the storm brought initial relief for some. But for many others without the resources to recover, the temporary housing came to be a symbol of languishing despair for those in deepest poverty who already had so little before the floods washed their few meager belongings away.

From toxic trailers to inadequate funding from the government to rebuild the infrastructure of some of the most vulnerable communities, people were stranded in substandard housing that simply made things worse and harder for everyone. What at first seemed like salvation for so many ended up looking more like a parking lot with no exit for low-income families over time.

You see, disaster response in our country has always been built around the premise of rapid recovery and a clear path to permanency. People who lose their homes are waiting for their insurance check to come through and then they can start rebuilding their lives. Even those who might not bounce back as quickly can rely on a strong safety net of friends, family and coworkers who will help them get back on their feet and return to their lives. The trauma for the individual is the interruption, but there is generally a clear end to the suffering in sight.

But imagine having no money in your pocket, no real place to go back to, and no support to help you recover in your time of deepest need. For the people living on our streets, that’s the enduring condition of their ongoing crisis. In Silicon Valley, it’s not a one-time fire or flood that displaced them from their homes; it’s deep intergenerational poverty caused by systemic racism, decades of underfunded social welfare programs, and an economy that is constantly pushing the cost of everything up and driving the poorest people out.

So when we start to shout out that the direct result of these driving factors – namely, the homelessness crisis – is a disaster, we need to make sure we’re showing up with the appropriate response. Sustained, considerable investments in permanent housing with the appropriate level of supportive services and programming – coupled with temporary options as we build the real solution that we need – is the only way to ensure a lasting recovery that actually works.

If we don’t, there’s plenty of lessons in our own recent history to demonstrate the severe perils of acting with only short-term goals in mind.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter. 

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