Homeless By The Sea
If the Peninsula becomes an exclusive community for the wealthy, what'll happen to the poor?
Thursday, December 23, 1999
Last month the Weekly profiled the Johnsons, a working-poor family struggling to find a home they could afford after being evicted by the Seaside Assembly of God. They''re in a shelter now, hoping to find a new home before their time there runs out-and before their third child is born next month.
Regardless of how you feel about the Johnsons and their individual situation, they are but one of hundreds of Monterey County families who, due to various circumstances, have no address.
While you may be surprised to hear that hundreds of families in the county--no one knows for sure how many--are homeless, you may be even more surprised to hear that there''s only one shelter for families, like the Johnsons, whose only "problem" is that they''re poor.
While the former Fort Ord is being held up as a national model for housing and treatment programs for people with drug, alcohol, and other problems, there are just nine housing units in the entire county set aside for families like the Johnsons. That''s to serve a population represented by homeless families of more than 2,000 countywide (based on prevailing estimates).
As the Johnsons'' dilemma shows, find yourself evicted or priced out of your home and, without a hefty nest-egg for security deposits and first-and-last months'' rent, you could find yourself homeless. As many families are finding, it''s much easier than you''d think to end up on the streets.
Denise Humphries lives with her 6-year-old son in a camper, since losing her home and car, as well as her husband, to his bout with drugs. "This whole experience has completely humbled me. I had everything--then we lost it all. I used to look down on homeless people. You don''t understand how quickly it can happen to anyone."
Humphries'' friend Barbara Johnson agrees, and shares Humphries'' lament that they''ve gone everywhere looking for help for themselves and their children-and they can''t find it.
Tom Melville is the executive director of the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers, the nonprofit organization that helped create many of the treatment and housing programs at Fort Ord. Melville says the programs are designed for families with special challenges because when they were planned earlier this decade, working-poor families like the Johnsons weren''t as close to the edge as they are today.
"The definition of ''vulnerable'' is expanding," Melville says, "beyond people who are experiencing violence, people with substance addictions, people with psychiatric disabilities, people living with AIDS. Ordinary working families have become the vulnerable population because the county hasn''t met its official housing goals."
While certain types of homeless programs are better than ever, the local economy is no longer supporting people as it once did, and affordable housing simply does not exist as it used to. In fact, in order to afford a place to live, one in seven families often goes without basic needs-food, clothing, heat.
According to a recent report, Monterey County residents must earn at least two to three times the minimum wage in order to adequately support themselves. And upwards of 60 percent of those surveyed in another survey spend more than a third of their income on housing.
Melville explains there simply aren''t enough apartments affordable for the working poor being built in Monterey County. And single-family homes, which make up 82 percent of new units built during the 1990s, "are gobbled up by Santa Clara County residents." It goes without saying that homes officially deemed "affordable" are well out of reach for most people living at or near the poverty line.
And it''s not going to get any better without the help of deep reforms locally, in Sacramento, and in Washington, D.C. As it stands now, housing developers aren''t always required to follow local rules mandating the construction of low-income units on their properties. Moreover, government bureaucrats have fallen laughably short of meeting their own affordable housing goals.
Who exactly are the homeless families of Monterey County? Not who you''d think. According to a just-released census conducted by the county, 78 percent of homeless families are working, 78 percent do not use alcohol, and up to 96 percent do not use illegal drugs. In reality, this percentage of clean and sober families is much higher than families with homes. Often it''s bad luck, a sick child, or a lost job that puts families out on the streets.
CalWorks'' Welfare to Work Program hasn''t seemed to have made a whole lot of difference. According to Melville, many of the working poor who have stopped receiving welfare have traded one form of poverty for another. CalWorks is succeeding in finding jobs for people, but it''s generally failed to make them self-sufficient.
Volunteers are desperately needed for programs such as the Food Bank of Monterey County, which serves 30,000 to 40,000 people a month. New programs in the works need funding, too. The Food Bank would like to open a pantry at Ford Ord--a low-cost grocery store, of sorts.
Voices for the homeless are also in short supply. Melville urges people who care to attend the county''s general plan update meetings. At the top of the issues list is housing, specifically the need for a balance of single-family and multi-family units.
"Citizens need to express their outrage that we are such a rich country and such a rich county, and yet so many are hungry and homeless," says Melville. "We need to ensure housing growth parallels job growth."
Melville stresses that the best way to deal with homelessness is to prevent it in the first place. And once someone becomes homeless, an intervention ideally should take place within the first six months, or it becomes much more difficult to get them back on their feet. "Despair and misery start and exacerbate any existing crises: drinking, depression."
Melville''s programs teach people how to keep and maintain their housing. But given the current economic climate of Monterey, there is only so much that people like Melville can do for the homeless.
As northern residents migrate south, and southern residents migrate north--driving up housing prices in the process--the county seems to be in serious danger of becoming a rich man''s paradise.
For emergency homeless services, call the Spanish/English hotline at Shelter Outreach Plus: 1-800-339-8228, 24 hours a day.