A Personal History of the San Francisco Bay Area

Alternatives to Compassion Fatigue


Homelessness and

the Charitable Heart


By Michael Chacko Daniels

". . . We cannot construct a housing policy for all, if it is not based on a foundation of affordable housing."

This article was written in 1990 to examine our attitudes about who the homeless are, how they became homeless, and solutions for their homelessness. It was part of an effort to combat the prevalence of compassion fatigue, and to inform the homeless service field and its public and private supporters. It had an influence far beyond our expectations.

Copyright 1990 and 2005: Michael Chacko Daniels.

"My being homeless embarrasses me," says John. "When I was working, I never thought I'd become homeless."

Pulling his baseball cap further down his face, he says he is tired of wearing a cop to cover his uncut hair.

As John shares with his homeless peers at a session to renew his job search skills, the tough, blank face--a mask it turns out for holding in the pain--opens up and it becomes clear that he, like others in the group, has been living on the streets, or in emergency shelters, caught in the vise-like shame/blame grip.

Unwashed and bedraggled, the formerly fashionable, gregarious participant in our consumer culture, gets a chance to talk about his depression, anger, guilt, and shame that escalated after a series of events--which he tried his best to control--rendered him homeless.

Others in the group share similar feelings and experiences.

What has happened to traditional American certainties? Most of them had been stuck with jobs that were out paced by sky-rocketing housing costs. Forced to live from paycheck to paycheck, they feel economic changes--which have moved too fast for them to adapt to, and over which they exercise no control--have marginalized them. They are the expendables of the modern industrial state run by managers and politicians with short-run returns in mind.

John and his colleagues acknowledge a truth they, themselves, had given no thought to--till the big "H" word hit them--that most people are only a few paychecks from becoming homeless.

What can you do when your job has been exported overseas, when it takes a two-income family to maintain adequate housing and your partner leaves you, when you have a personal problem and there is no family support to fall back on while you recover, when your rent rises and your income doesn't, when your affordable apartment goes up in flames, when such crises awaken dormant addictive family diseases such as alcoholism and eating disorders, or an active addiction coupled with one of the above crises, in the absence of family support, forces you into a quick, downward economic spiral?

John is one of the homeless persons that John, himself, would have avoided when he accepted the fiction that he would never become homeless. And it is also inevitable for many persons to avoid John today--overwhelmed by the growing numbers of homeless persons.

Compassion fatigue, they call it . What has happened to the charitable heart? "After a couple of years of 'band aid' solutions proposed by politicians, movie stars, and the like--to 'help the homeless,' which have been altogether unsuccessful, people are feeling the pinch and are turning towards blaming the victims," says David Modersbach, a homeless service provider at Berkeley Oakland Support Services, the chief homeless emergency services program in Alameda County.

The charitable heart is ripe for fatigue, that is, until the socio-economic fiction it won't happen to me is pierced.

While the bulk of the homeless population is drawn from middle and low income ranks, the rich, especially their children, are not immune to the tremendous internal and external forces that contribute to marginalizing human beings in the last years of the century that many for so long confidently called the American Century.

Of course, low income persons bear the brunt of these forces that are larger than their power to control. They are caught in the pincer movements of falling real wages and rising housing costs.

In April 1990, the Center on Budget and Policy reported that, "Some 61 per cent of all poor renter households in the San Francisco-Oakland area--or 39,900 households--spent at least 70 per cent of income on housing costs, including rent and utilities, in 1985."

This is at best a tenuous hold on housing and America. Unsurprisingly, the report found that significant numbers of these poor households can be considered "near homeless" or at risk of becoming homeless.

Important contributors to this souring of the American dream are the loss of 20,000 low cost units (those renting for $250 or less a month) in the previous 10 years in the San Francisco-Oakland area, and the passivity of the local municipalities. On the income side, the report adds: "While rents were escalating (between 1975 and 1985), household incomes were relatively stagnant."

A number of non-profit housing advocates alarmed by the compassion fatigue syndrome point to this and other trends as proof of the need to bring America's and the Bay Area's focus back from the current fashion in fatigue to the affordable housing solution to homelessness. Not only have the alternatives to compassion fatigue always existed, they say we will not be able to make a dent unless we understand both the causes of today's homelessness and the alternative approaches available to resolve them.

"The number one reason for homelessness is eviction due to inability to pay rent," says Barbara Cappa, coordinator of ECHO Housing's Project Share, a shared housing program that serves Berkeley and Oakland.

She is quoting from a recent study by the Emergency Services Network of Alameda County to stress the point that behind the inability to pay rent is insufficient income, either from a job or public assistance.

For Barbara, a seven-year veteran of Project Share, the central question is:

"Can America solve its housing problem, or must we accept seeing people crouched in doorways, sprawled on the sidewalks, and sleeping in the park?"

"We keep going around in a circle. This is because in an attempt to ease our conscience with a fast fix, we commit a limited amount of financial resources to the problems homeless persons face."

For those who are subsequently hit by the newly discovered compassion fatigue syndrome, Tony Jones, a non-profit housing developer with the East Bay's Resources for Community Development, explains that the biggest government housing subsidy is not to the most needy of our citizens--it is to the better off, who have received a $50 billion subsidy annually in the form of income tax deductions for mortgage payments.

Simultaneously, the government's overall expenditures on housing programs for those at the bottom of the income scale has fallen from $33 billion to $8 billion between 1980 and 1988--the years of the Reagan presidency.

What troubles Tony in this disjointed modern "welfare" equation of the world's most powerful democracy, is that these beneficiaries of America's tax largesse have pocketed their "returns" and then turned around and adopted a "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY) response to affordable housing development efforts; they bury them in a sea of civic conflicts. Fearful of lowered property values, these Nimble Nimbys have become clever tacticians who are able to strangle all but the bravest affordable housing developer.

"Nimbyism," says Tony, "is the status quo crying wolf."

"It then shows up in local governments' tacit support of the Nimbys by making the development process difficult even after affordable housing developers get the resources to create a successful low income housing development."

For Tony, the real wolves are the Nimble Neighborhood Nimbys and the politicians they influence. He wishes there was more moral leadership on this issue.

Tony points to two ironies:

  1. The lopsided tax subsidy has historically inflated housing prices and been a major contributor to pricing low and moderate income persons out of the housing market.
  2. In the last decade, tax subsidized homeowners who oppose affordable housing have not reaped a profit even when their houses have appreciated in value because replacement housing prices have been inflated even higher.
However, the final irony is that when these Nimble Nimbys face an economic or personal crisis that results in the loss of their homes, they too become victims of their Nimbyism at the altar of inflated housing prices. Alas, they then have no affordable housing to fall back on.

It simply boils down to this--we cannot construct a housing policy for all, if it is not based on a foundation of affordable housing.

The major force in laying such a foundation in the past, especially in the 1970s, was the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD's massive reduction during the Reagan years, which ripped up the housing safety net for many low income persons, has had a devastating effect on one group that usually gets nonpartisan rhetorical support--physically disabled persons on fixed income.

"The chief reason for the growing numbers of disabled homeless in the last 10 years," says Marsha Simril, "is HUD's unresponsiveness to the housing subsidy needs of disabled persons on limited incomes." Marsha Simril is housing coordinator at the Center for Independent Living, the pioneering disability rights and advocacy organization.

Commenting on the neglected needs of physically disabled persons, Marsha adds, "While there is not enough affordable housing for all poor people, the situation is even worse when you are looking for affordable accessible housing in the mainstream of America. Don't forget for a disabled person like myself even a single step can be an insurmountable barrier."

As for mentally disabled persons, Marsha says HUD's discriminatory attitude towards them has contributed to the homelessness of mentally disabled persons nationwide. HUD continues to warehouse them in segregated "mentally disabled only" developments.

HUD's Section 8 rent subsidy program could be a powerful tool to reverse the decline in affordable housing and to alleviate the housing needs of homeless persons.

"Properly implemented Section 8 rent subsidies can prevent homelessness," says Marianne Lawless, director of Housing Rights, which provides advocacy services for families with children in Berkeley and Oakland. "These subsidies can make private sector housing affordable for low income people and simultaneously provide landlords of these properties a subsidy. And by requiring yearly inspections of subsidized units, rent subsidies could prevent housing deterioration.

"However, HUD is not seeking the appropriation of enough funds, and it is not releasing what has already been appropriated. The vast majority of seniors and disabled who need the subsidy are not getting any help from HUD."

Not surprisingly, emergency shelters have become the major housing policy tool in these last years of the "American Century."

Emergency shelter can provide a "breathing space" which can enable "some" homeless persons to develop the resources, says Barbara Cappa. But lack of privacy, limited facilities, and inconvenient or inaccessible locations which separate the shelter from the rest of the community make them anathema to homeless persons afraid of being warehoused.

Shelters, she feels, would provide more of a breathing space for homeless persons, if they were designed as mini-shelters on scattered sites in easily accessible areas. This will require a social reorientation from the current policy that has the effect of warehousing human beings.

David Modersbach agrees. "Shelters," he contends, "are human warehouses, modern day almshouses. Most are not fit for human living. You get in line for a lottery at 10:00 PM and if you are lucky, maybe a cot for the night in a cold, dreary building filled up with a hundred men, women, and children, many shouting, hacking, fighting . . .  They have to deal with abusive counselors and at six sharp, they are awakened and asked to spend the rest of the day back on the streets."

David agrees with Barbara that the needs of the homeless cannot be met by the construction of a few warehouse shelters. He favors small (20 bed) facilities located in different neighborhoods, so that no neighborhood bears all the social costs of an area-wide problem. "Large shelters are dirty, unhygienic, and unsafe. Nor do they allow a case management approach which allows clients to interact and access available social services and counselors.

"Focusing on shelters to solve homelessness," Barbara Cappa contends, "diverts people's attention from creating a solution that will work."

"A shelter, however well designed, is not a home," she adds simply.

Barbara recommends that we "re-examine our own attitudes about who the homeless are and how they became homeless." When we do this, she feels we will come up with solutions that recognize that most of us are only a pay check or two away from becoming homeless.

How then can we help resolve the growing problem of homelessness?

"We need to expand the housing choices of homeless persons," Barbara says. "It is within our power to create the solutions to this problem, but it will take a national decision to reprioritize our resources and a commitment to become less 'me' oriented. We need to make better use of our existing housing stock through shared housing, preserve Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units, rehab abandoned property through sweat equity programs, and create communities that can share resources and provide mutual support. We must realize that housing is for people and not for profit."

For retaining the affordability of existing housing, Barbara and Marianne are also in favor of rent control besides Section 8 rent subsidies. A shared housing advocate who lives in a shared limited equity cooperative, Barbara enumerates six reasons for promoting shared housing options in the present affordable housing crisis, despite the opposition of Nimbys such as the Rockridge Nimbys: It makes better use of the existing housing stock and utility resources; spreads expenses over a greater number of people; decreases isolation; increases a sense of community; and allows people to remain housed after they become incapacitated; all of which would not be possible if afforability had not been made possible through the mechanism of sharing.

On SROs as a housing solution, Marianne Lawless quotes from a report she, Barbara Cappa, and other housing service providers worked on at the Berkeley Network of Housing Agencies (BNHA) and which was presented to the Mayor and City Council of Berkeley a couple of years ago:

"Residential hotels are one housing alternative for people in urban areas, including Berkeley. Also known as SROs (Single Room Occupancy), these hotels are relatively inexpensive, averaging $300 a month, and they do not require large move-in costs. SROs allow independent living for those who cannot or do not want to live completely alone, and the rent can include utilities, maid service, and security services. SROs are also usually located in areas with convenient public transportation.

"The supply of residential hotel units in Berkeley is dwindling. Since 1986, about 200 units have been lost due to fire in two hotels and unsafe conditions in a third. This leaves Berkeley with about 350 units and an increase in the number of Berkeley residents in need of housing. The handful of residential hotels that remain open have numerous problems, including substandard conditions, uncontrolled rents, lack of services, and general mismanagement. The BNHA (recommends) non-profit ownership and management for all SROs."

The goal of producing new affordable housing was addressed by a recent conference in San Francisco sponsored by Urban Alternatives and Shared Living Resource Center which was titled: "Revitalization of Urban Communities: Affordable, ecologically designed, and resident controlled housing."

The recommendations of the conference participants could provide guideposts for those suffering from compassion fatigue. The conference found that housing should be viewed as a human right and given top national and local priority. To bring this about it recommended the following measures to tackle the affordable housing crisis which should provide ample outlets for those who have a compassionate heart:

  1. Develop a coherent national housing policy.
  2. Create a regional planning authority with housing enforcement powers.
  3. Mobilize support of corporations, unions, and influential citizens.
  4. Mobilize community and neighborhood groups.
  5. Pressure lenders to finance affordable housing.
  6. Enforce and expand anti-redlining legislation.
  7. Encourage joint venture housing financing between non-profit and for-profit housing developers.
  8. Promote inclusionary requirements that stipulate that a portion of new housing units must be affordable.
  9. Encourage a mixture of income levels and backgrounds.
  10. Support non-profit corporations that act as collaborative landlords.
  11. Support direct acquisition of properties by non-profits.
  12. Promote land trusts that can induce the inclusion of lower income residents and can support: open space needs, special architecture, social benefit agreements, and equity limits on resale and leases.
  13. Promote limited equity cooperatives.
  14. Create urban communities that are resident-controlled and self-managed to foster a more caring community that can be supportive when the individual member or family faces a job loss or other difficulties.
  15. Promote sweat equity housing, where initial owners contribute work instead of (cash) down payments.
It doesn't look like that either the forces marginalizing us--or their consequences--will disappear by prayer, edict, or police action. Meanwhile, it is a comforting thought for those who are prone to compassion fatigue that a majority of the homeless want to work, that 99.99% want a place they can call home, that they want to help themselves, and, no less importantly, each other, if given the opportunity, like John and his colleagues do.

John has a plan. In the short term, he will use his current skills to get a job, while he gets the training needed to get on track for the 21st century.

Are the managers of American enterprise ready for John?

Another comforting thought is that there are concerned citizens who are ready, willing, and able to work together to reverse the trend in housing affordability. But this willingness of the concerned citizen is not enough. Anyone can fall victim to "compassion fatigue." If you are not to avoid John as he gets on track for the 21st century, you, too, must get involved, contends David Modersbach:

"It is of critical importance to let or make each neighborhood be responsible for accepting the fact that they have a responsibility towards the welfare of their homeless neighbors . . .  If each community knows that it is doing its part for the homeless, it might cut down significantly on the Nimby syndrome."

The choice is yours--to be a mindless Nimby in the throes of compassion fatigue in the final years of this century, or you can be a concerned citizen working for change in your community.

This reprint in a Popular History of the San Francisco Bay Area is dedicated to the memory of Marianne Lawless and Marsha Simril. My good friend Marianne Lawless was a fearless advocate for the rights of dispossessed and disenfranchised persons everywhere. She never hesitated in speaking truth to power. Marsha Simril, my colleague and associate at Berkeley's Center for Independent Living, was an ardent advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. Their contributions live on in the lives of the many people that they stood by.




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Posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2005 at 08:00PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment