Roberts: Here we grow again: Increased homelessness?
The entrance of the "Jurassic Park" homeless encampment in San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

We thought that we survived the worst.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost half of its value within months, and unemployment was at 10 percent. No, I am not referring to today’s crisis.

Thirteen years ago, the “Great Recession” knocked our national economic and social stability dramatically off course. We were told this was all a “once in a lifetime” occurrence.

Consequently, homelessness increased significantly. In 2007, there were 650,000 people in America struggling with homelessness. Back then, President Barack Obama initiated a federal stimulus program called HPRP (Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing) that would help stop the flow of people becoming newly homeless. We were one of the largest privately funded HPRP organizations, as we worked in dozens of cities across California.

I remember local city managers and City Council members contacting me in desperation. They were receiving an avalanche of phone calls from constituents frantically looking for help because they couldn’t pay next month’s rent.

The personal stories were heartbreaking. The architect who used to design homes for other people was losing his own home because of being laid off. The mom with three children was losing her job as a secretary and not knowing how to buy food and pay rent.

It all seemed like the American dream was falling apart.

But for over a decade since that crash, community-based organizations, policy makers, advocates and community leaders slowly worked hard to rebuild a social safety net torn apart by a devastating economic crisis. More permanent housing was built, new ways to prioritize the most vulnerable on the streets were initiated and more resources were invested in addressing homelessness.

By 2018, the number of people experiencing homeless declined to 553,000. Not a significant drop, but a reduction nevertheless. Although some people say the economy has rebounded since 2007, many have still struggled with our uneven economic system.

In January of this year, a study showed that 59 percent of Americans would not have enough money to cover a $1,000 emergency. That means a job loss or health crisis could result in homelessness. And this study occurred before this current financial, social and health crisis.

Today, we are experiencing the “the Great Virus” that completely overshadows “the Great Recession” of 2007. At the time of this writing, unemployment is at 14.7%, 38.6 million people have no work.

Some experts are predicting that homelessness will increase by 45% — 250,000 more people becoming homeless — given these devastating unemployment numbers. And just when we thought we had survived the 2007 Great Recession.

Today, our frontline workers are scrambling to help provide personal protective equipment to people living on our streets. Others are buying groceries for people who are living in supportive housing. Some of our staff are providing case management in hotels/motels that have been turned into emergency housing for people affected by COVID-19.

We are all trying to prevent a terrible outbreak of sickness among our homeless population.

The fight to save lives, however, won’t end when there is a vaccine that will prevent people from becoming sick. Because this virus not only affected our health, it also devastated our economy and our jobs.

You’re healthy today, but you have no work, no way to pay your rent. That certainly is not a healthy state. Sadly, in the near future, our frontline workers may be helping you.

I am resignedly waiting for those phone calls or emails again from frantic public representatives telling me that their constituents are losing their homes and apartments. Are we returning to the same economic and social crisis that we thought we had overcome just over a decade ago?

The same heartbreaking stories of job losses? Mental health breakdowns? Housing evictions and foreclosures? Why is it that we as a country did not prepare for such a crisis?

Today, universities and pharmaceutical companies are in a frenzy to create the first COVID-19 vaccine to save the world. I wish there was the same zeal for a solution to prevent and end homelessness.

What we really need is vaccine for homelessness.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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