Conversation with Homelessness Advocate Daniel Barth
The Activist sat down with Daniel Barth of SOS! Richmond (Safe Open Spaces) to talk about how to tackle homelessness in Richmond. Daniel has been a longtime advocate to reduce and end homelessness both in Alameda and Contra Costa. SOS! Richmond works as an important partner with the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s Housing Action Team.
TA: Homelessness has been a problem for decades. What in your view are some of the drivers?
DB: Our communities have for decades seen a lack of community-based support for treatment of mental illness. In the 80’s, crack and AIDS ravaged families. No surprise that intergenerational homelessness exploded during the 90’s. Yet our safety net shrunk as shelters, treatment centers, and transitional housing were shuttered. The federal agenda has been a major driver for increasing homelessness, with decreased spending and losses of public housing. We all know how rental prices continue to rise, resulting in more rent-burdened renters, while homeownership has declined for lower income earners, since higher wages for some households, results in further pressure on rental markets for lower wages earners and those on fixed incomes. What happens? There’s simply not enough access to housing, supportive services, opportunities for making personal change, and emergency interventions to address homelessness.
TA: What are some of the most significant new developments you are seeing these days?
DB: One of the biggest new trends is the aging of the existing homeless population, in parallel with the aging of the general population. More seniors are also falling into homelessness due to the increasing cost of living in the Bay Area – more than half are 50 years of age or older, and yet the average life span for a homeless person living on the streets is 64 years. When we talk with people who are sleeping along freeways, train tracks, and at any edge of our neighborhoods they can stay at, we know that more than 1/3 have been homeless for 5 years or longer, and yet more than 1/3 have been Richmond residents for 20 years plus.
TA: What ultimately needs to change?
DB: The #1 need for change is our own willingness to see homeless interventions happen in our own neighborhoods – not across town. Only then can we enable new opportunities for folks to participate in that are low-cost (to scale-up), encourage self-determination (people “owning” their own changing), and are community-integrated (building partnerships between housed and unhoused neighbors).
The struggle to create Safe, Organized Spaces starts with us. Only through community-integrated approaches can we see improved health & safety in people’s living arrangements; the stability required to address unemployment and other issues; a secure place to store belongings and medications while looking for work; improved quality of life and ability to increase income; a sense of dignity and hope; the focus of having a purpose in a community living environment and the ability to serve others in the benefit of community goals. We all need the same things in life.
TA: What should be done in the immediate, short term?
DB: We can’t wait for housing and services to materialize for unsheltered homeless people in Richmond. We need interim sheltering interventions. What does this look like? These are temporary, transitional "villages". Many successful transitional villages have been sustained in other cities around the country, which have enabled people to stabilize their lives and ultimately find work and housing. A village consists of a number of small sleeping structures on a single lot – either tiny houses similar to the ones used in Seattle, WA, or Conestoga huts like those used in Eugene, OR. These “emergency sleeping cabins” will meet all of the codes required for emergency shelters.
Responsible individuals who truly want to change their lives are selected to live in these intentional communities, in which residents cooperate and share duties. These are safe and visually attractive, and a primary goal will be to have a positive impact on the neighborhood. A clearly defined set of rules are enforced and staff and “Safety Guardians” are present at all times.
TA: SOS! Richmond is working with the RPA’s Housing Action Team on homelessness. What are other things we can do here?
DB: In a Richmond where we stabilize our growing crisis of homelessness, we can then take responsibility for access to housing. One model is to provide affordable, integrated, and well-maintained Municipal Housing. Local governments like ours, supported by the federal government, must build a very large amount of affordable, mixed income, publicly-owned housing, initially by developing existing publicly-owned land. We must stand up for having resources come to West County. We start by developing safety nets of "pocket villages" in our own neighborhoods.