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Homelessness Is a Tragedy When Solutions Are at Hand

Formerly homeless seniors help prepare Oakland shelter so that others become housed.

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Just before Thanksgiving, St. Mary's Center will open our Emergency Winter Shelter two weeks early to meet the urgent needs of unhoused seniors 55 and older in West Oakland.

Seniors like Esther C., who became unhoused for the first time when her landlord sold her home. With rents nearly doubled, she found herself living in a borrowed car. During one particularly cold night in the car, she had an epiphany — to drastically change her life by going back to college. After being welcomed into St. Mary's Center's safe and supportive shelter environment, she enrolled and completed her Master's degree while staying in temporary housing. Currently, Ms. C. lives in one of St. Mary's Center's transitional homes while she seeks a permanent home.

Ms. C. is now completing a book to encourage others to know that being homeless need not be equated with being hopeless or helpless.

On Nov. 14, St. Mary's Center's Council of Elders, many of whom have experienced homelessness and used shelter services to become and remain housed, volunteered at our first annual Shelter Work Day to prepare the space so that others can find their own way home.

It's the right time of year to remember that we have solutions to the crisis of homelessness and housing affordability. Some solutions begin with individual interventions like our Emergency Winter Shelter, which have tremendous impact on people directly served.

But there are larger solutions that we must work on together to bring people home and keep them housed. The solutions to preventing, reducing, and destigmatizing homelessness are within reach if we focus on root causes and long-term solutions.

The homelessness we see today is different from the picture many of us hold. You may expect that the seniors who stay in our shelter this year will include some people with mental-health concerns or substance-abuse issues.

However, most will have experienced housing discrimination as a homebuyer or tenant, as well as job discrimination. Most will have worked their adult lives in low- and moderate-wage jobs that failed to provide pension or retirement savings. Most will have relatives that are not in a financial position to support another person in the household, even when the family bond is strong.

Almost all shelter residents will come from Alameda County, if not our immediate neighborhood. As research at the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative is demonstrating, most will have been housed their adult lives and experience homelessness for the first time after 50 — impacting their health, employment and life expectancy.

Those are the problems. We have solutions today.

We can prevent homelessness by protecting tenants, for example, limiting the explosion of unfair evictions and rent increases, while providing legal advocacy, as local and state policymakers are making progress on.

We can increase housing affordability by prioritizing housing for our neighbors surviving at the lowest incomes, not just luxury housing — which simply increases rents and displacement. 

We must respect the dignity and humanity of our neighbors and relatives who are unhoused while we bring solutions forward, by ensuring their right to decent, safe affordable housing, and to dignity when unhoused.

St. Mary's Center is actively involved in all three endeavors. Our Seniors for Hope and Justice advocate for policy solutions that include the voice of people with lived experience. We are, with generous private and public support, planning to build more than 70 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless seniors on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland. We are creating a community of hope, justice and healing that develops the leadership capacity of people struggling to be home every day.

There is a role for everyone in these solutions. Join us as a volunteer, online at StMarysCenter.org, or find a shelter near you.

You can stay informed about Alameda County solutions by joining the EveryOneHome mailing list and learning more about preventing and reducing homelessness while affirming the dignity of all people.

The tragedy of homelessness is not that we have to see it — the tragedy is that people are forced to live it when we have solutions at hand. We can make change together.

Sharon Cornu is executive director at St. Mary's Center, an independent non-profit in Oakland serving Seniors and Preschoolers to create a community of hope, justice and healing. StMarysCenter.org.

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