How hard is it for homeless people to get and retain housing? The City of Albany and some local volunteers are seeing firsthand just how difficult it can be.
From the fall of 2013 through the spring of 2014, KALW’s “Crosscurrents” covered Albany’s official efforts to move people and campsites off the Albany Bulb, a former landfill in the East Bay. In return, the City promised to provide help to residents of the Bulb in finding apartments.
To that end, the City of Albany has spent nearly $141,000 in 2013-14 on contracts with the non-profit Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP) to help Bulb residents find rentals. An additional $75,000 in rent subsidies from the Albany Housing Subsidy program went to the newly housed as well: although many former Bulb residents already receive some kind of public assistance -- General Assistance, or SSI for those with disabilities -- the benefits they receive are low compared to the cost of living in the Bay Area, so subsidies are often used to close the rent gap. By grouping former Bulb residents with one, two, or three others in the same apartment, usually in Richmond or Oakland, the BFHP managed to house 31 people from the Bulb, and all but one are still housed.
Keeping the newly housed in their hard-won apartments, however, takes a lot more than just paying the rent. People living together as new roommates have to work out things like who cleans the kitchen, who pays the bills, and what time each one showers. In some cases, people are searching for work and dealing with transportation issues. Besides negotiating daily tasks, some of the former Bulb residents are also dealing with domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues. A few of them have invited other homeless friends from the Bulb to move in with them, violating the lease and putting their housing at risk, says Lara Tannenbaum, Director of Client Services for BFHP.
Handling the various issues that arise with the newly housed is called “case management,” and all of that fell to Charles Joseph, the only full-time social worker from BFHP assigned to Albany. Joseph had to manage, singlehanded, the cases of all the housed clients from the Bulb, while at the same time continuing to help the other 30-odd former Bulb residents -- now scattered across several East Bay cities -- get financial support and look for apartments.
To ease some of the pressure off Joseph, volunteers from Solano Community Church and a few Albany residents have been pitching in. For example, when realtor Francesco Papalia learned that former Bulb resident Doris Sanchez could only eat soft foods while awaiting dental work, he picked up overstocks of her favorite cereal from a local grocer and arranged for delivery to her. A few months later, when a couple from the Bulb was expecting a baby and moved into an empty apartment, Papalia collected donations of used furniture from other Albany residents and delivered them to their new place.
Even before the City of Albany got involved in mid-2013, Andrew Franklin of Solano Community Church was already building relationships by holding regular Thursday afternoon pizza parties with Bulb residents. After they started moving into housing, social worker Charles Joseph occasionally called on Franklin to do things like solicit donations from the church to help pay bills or drive people to medical appointments.
Franklin and Papalia continue to stay involved in local efforts to create more affordable housing in Albany. However, Charles Joseph left his job at Berkeley Food and Housing Project in November, and the Project is searching for a replacement. While that position is vacant, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project is assigning other social workers to manage the 10 to 12 Albany clients who “are in crisis,” according to Tannenbaum. The others are fending for themselves.
In the last two years, through February 2015, Albany, a city of only 18,000 people, will have spent more than $700,000 on providing temporary shelters and helping their homeless find and keep their housing. And it’s clear that continued support is needed. At a meeting on December 1, 2014, the Albany City Council voted to budget another $35,000 in rent subsidies and extended its contract with BFHP through June 2016, to the tune of another $141,400. Following the advice of City staff, a half-time social worker will also be hired, to share the workload with the yet-to-be-identified full-time employee. Because combining people in households seems to work best when it’s only two individuals, rather than three or four, says Tannenbaum, another task for the new BFHP social workers will be looking for smaller apartments to move clients into, after breaking up the larger groups. Their work will not be easy, as rents in the East Bay continue to rise.
Listen to past stories about people living on the Albany Bulb here: