Homeless in jeopardy

September 1, 2019

From the September-October 2019 issue of News & Letters

San Francisco—On May 28, just after 9:30 AM, students in a lecture room at University of California-Berkeley noticed a man slumped backwards in a desk. When two of them attempted to check on him, they realized with shock that he was dead. His name has still not been made public, but we know that he was homeless and often took shelter on campus. In the Daily Cal of July 18, one student expressed his trauma and that of his fellow students:

“This man was 58 years old. He died…alone in a university auditorium, 20 years younger than the national average…How long will we wait before we realize this is a problem?”

Then on June 21, Clyde Jones, 61 years old, was found dead on Durant Ave. at Fulton St., and on June 23, 63-year-old Thomas Francis Chockla was found dead one block away on Bancroft at Fulton, both less than three blocks from the center of downtown Berkeley.

Homelessness has skyrocketed in the San Francisco Bay Area in the past two years. According to the latest Point-In-Time count, it has grown by 47% in Oakland since 2017 to around 4,200. Over half of the un-housed in Alameda County are Black, while African Americans make up only 11% of the county’s population. Seventy-eight percent of today’s homeless once had housing in the county. In San Francisco the official homeless count is over 9,700, but many people believe that it could be twice as high. Many of the new homeless are native or long-term San Franciscans, not recent arrivals.


This homelessness disaster is artificially created. The San Francisco Chronicle of March 17 reported that a study by Lending Tree determined that there are now 100,000 empty homes in the Bay Area, enough to house the homeless several times over. Local activists have estimated that as many as 30,000 to 35,000 rental units in San Francisco are being withheld from the market by landlords. Evictions are rampant, as renters often have few resources to defend themselves, even in cases that are clearly illegal. Single Resident Occupancy hotels are being converted to condos in alarming numbers.

At the same time, speculators in housing construction have run amok with demolitions of existing structures in exchange for cheaply built high-rises that resemble office towers, worse than the old “Communist-bloc” housing. Some claim to have a few “affordable units” but they are out of reach for most people. Poor and middle-income people are being driven out of entire neighborhoods. Even young tech workers are forced to rent closet-sized units for $1,200/month or more. The Bay Area is losing much of the cultural life that it was once famous for.

The tech industry is not the only force pushing the Bay Area in that direction. Of equal importance is the fact that foreign investors, enriched by inhuman labor conditions in their own countries, are parking their assets in the U.S. where they feel safe.

After a recent assault on a resident by a homeless man along the Embarcadero, wealthy residents, already opposed to a “Navigation Center” planned for their area, are now spreading claims about homeless people that resemble the “Willie Horton” ads used by the elder George Bush in his 1988 campaign. Real estate interests have been spreading such propaganda for years, but the hate speech is getting worse.

The movement for change is growing and it has even caused a small rift in the Democratic Party. AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act, introduced in the State Assembly by Assembly member David Chiu, may offer some small but badly needed relief. In the larger picture a social earthquake may be building. The Bay Area that once offered so much promise to so many is damaged beyond hope of reform. The present crisis calls for a total uprooting of the crushing inhuman capitalist social relations under which we live. We need to rid ourselves of illusions and keep our eyes and ears open.


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