Bramson: No easy answers for poverty in a pandemic
The entrance of the "Jurassic Park" homeless encampment in San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Amid all of the chaos of the past few weeks, I find myself dumbfounded by the raging national debate over the amount of stimulus checks. Whether it’s $600, $2,000, or any other one-time denomination, part of the discourse feels like our leaders are agreeing that we should be allowed to eat cake, but still not quite sure how big the slice should be.

Looking at the dire situation for the thousands of Santa Clara County residents living in abject poverty, I can already tell you whatever we’re served won’t be enough.

Over the past few months, thousands of extremely low-income families have requested emergency assistance to avoid homelessness locally. Of those receiving help, most reported losing more than half of their incomes as a result of the shutdown. The only thing holding off their loss of housing has been the state’s strong eviction protections, but that hasn’t stopped the accumulation of massive back rent that will lead to insurmountable debt and catastrophic consequences in the not so distant future.

The new federal stimulus package fortunately contains money for rent relief. And millions of desperately needed dollars will come to our community, but we’ll still only be scratching the surface. If anything, the pandemic has reminded us that the gap between the rich and the poor in Silicon Valley, along with the complete lack of affordable housing development, means that an economic crisis like the one we’re all facing right now is going to push lots of people out into the cold.

Around these parts, the richest families have 12 times more income than those at the bottom. And from 2000 to 2015, the poorest folks have seen their income decline by more than 10%. Moreover, the housing we have just isn’t affordable to our poorest neighbors: there are only 34 affordable and available units for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the San Jose metro area. And while some parts of the state are finally seeing the rents drop, it isn’t happening here.

Which brings us back to the small slice of cake we are being asked to eat. We’re actually being told it is good for us and it will make our lives better. While there’s no disputing extra money will help right now, it’s not the fix to systemic issues like a need for a real living wage, more deeply affordable housing and an extensive retrofit of an outdated safety net that wasn’t prepared to catch anyone when the virus hit.

None of this will be easy. But we also can’t afford to get caught up in the urgency of the moment, nor can we accept the handouts being doled out as a substitute for the long-term changes really needed for all of us to thrive. These problems were here long before most of us knew what coronavirus was and plugging the holes on a sinking lifeboat won’t save any lives; it will just prolong the misery that so many of our hardest working residents have already been experiencing for years.

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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