Hooverville 1932 credit Tony Fischer

Herbert Hoover, like many politicians in the Bay Area today, believed that the market and private philanthropy could solve all ills even while shantytowns (similar to San Jose’s Jungle) cropped up around every major city: the direct result of mass unemployment, mass eviction, and bankruptcy.

Then as now, people constructed homes of cardboard, lumber, tin, and canvas. They dug holes in the ground. And they situated themselves near waterways. One of the largest Depression-era “jungle” was located outside St. Louis by the Mississippi River, a settlement of 5,000 people with a “mayor” and four churches! Another major Hooverville sprang up in Seattle. Then as now, local governments tried to evict them only to have them return. In Seattle, they reached an agreement on co-existence and self-government that lasted through the bad times.

Recently, San Jose’s mayor Liccardo spoke at the Vatican about moving forward with motel conversions, micro housing, and finding jobs for the homeless. The mayor mentioned a site where 150 micro-houses will be installed, but no one in the housing activist community seems to know where that site is. Some say private philanthropy has been slow to materialize. Maybe San Jose’s wealthy need to have “thrift parties” as they did in the 1930′s where socialites paid a lot to wear old clothes and eat hot dogs, and the proceeds went to shantytowns.

It’s true that some formerly homeless, perhaps several hundred, are now housed. That’s important. Others have gone through rigorous austerity-education programs only to discover that, rationally, they cannot afford to live in San Jose at all.

San Jose Housing Activist photo Bill Black

To activists and the thousands who remain homeless, the rate of change seems glacial. However, a true grassroots movement exists now in the South Bay, including organizations at every level – some so grass-roots they don’t even have a name or official status – that are dedicated to progress in this issue and have painstakingly educated themselves on everything from Housing Impact Fees to housing vouchers and tenant law. Many of those groups include homeless folks and formerly homeless folks as well as church groups and organizations that have advocated affordable housing for decades.

Legal camping is desperately needed as a short-term solution.

This Friday, many of us attended a Santa Clara County meeting of the Housing Task Force. Activist presentations included very persuasive testimony about the feasibility and need for supervised, legal camping for the homeless in county parks. Among those who spoke were representatives of the Gilroy Compassion Center which began a pilot program but has been stymied by resistance from Parks officials who insist that even supervised camps have to move every 14 days, thus disrupting school attendance for children and interfering with everyone’s attempt to create a stable life. Extending emergency permits for six months or better, a year, would be a reasonable and needed step forward.

There were many problems with the shantytown known as The Jungle: no boundaries, for example. In one area, people were organizing themselves, getting to know each other, and building community, but in another, a constant influx of strangers created a “wild wild West.” One homeless couple I talked to said they were afraid living in The Jungle, afraid of theft and possible violence. In addition, there were no showers or laundry facilities. And damage to the creek and surrounding areas was not insignificant.

However, legal, supervised camping for appropriate homeless folks in county parks addresses those problems and offers other key benefits:

We could start tomorrow. Parks already have showers, toilets, tent sites, tables and grills, room for small pets, security, trash pickup, almost everything. The homeless without major mental problems could be housed immediately.

It’s unbelievably cheap. Park fees are $325 for 150 people per night, so about $3 per night per person. By contrast, a County official showed a slide on the annual cost to house a mere ten homeless veterans:

Emergency shelter $131,000

Hooverville sign 1932 Tony Fischer credit

Motel $547,000

Compare that to:

County Campsite $14,600 + maybe $50,000 for nonprofit assistance (a guess: some homeless are already organized, employed, and require few resources)

Money for Poor People Wouldn’t be Rerouted to Landlords and Developers

County parks are public. All fees would go to the county.

Listening to discussion of traditional means of providing affordable housing in the for-profit sector, I found it hard to imagine anything happening sooner than five years from now at the very earliest. Many impasses exist. When landlords allow affordable units in their buildings, no government program pays market rate – because market rate is, by and large, an outrageous amount.

And because homeless tenants are poor, they often have terrible credit, so, not unreasonably, landlords fear the rent won’t be paid. Politicians, possibly knowing which side their bread is buttered on, keep turning to the for-profit sector to cajole, bribe, and pressure them into doing something they, for the most part, don’t want to do. So progress on housing is slow, expensive, and full of obstacles.

Those Capable of Benefitting Would Benefit Immediately

Cities and counties are obsessed with pouring money on those homeless who are the furthest gone instead of helping those who are still “help-able.” It is well known that the longer a person lives on the street, the lower his/her chances of reintegrating with society (even though some cities have made meaningful efforts and achieved meaningful results). Yet cities and counties look only at the cost of emergency rooms and public hospitals where the chronically homeless end up over and over. Agencies keep chasing the chimera of “fixing” the most problematic five percent. Meanwhile, folks who could have been kept from sinking into that bottom five percent are abandoned until they are utterly deranged and debilitated.

Former Jungle dwellers and other homeless now are chased from doorstep to doorstep, park to park, overpass to overpass. Imagine the stress of every few days having your goods seized, being forced away from your only shelter to…where? Nowhere! It’s really time, past time, to stabilize the living conditions of homeless folks. It’s been done in Oregon; it’s been done in Washington. We can do it here.


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