April 19, 2024
Bay Area News Group poll asks about support for possible measures, from building more housing to creating a court system with the power to order homeless people into mental health treatment.

Most mornings in Berkeley’s Gilman District, customers line up in droves at Emily Winston’s new East Coast-style bagel shop. But what had seemed like the perfect neighborhood for her business has also brought constant fear about the safety of her patrons and staff.

A few blocks away, a roughly 40-person homeless camp has overtaken much of the sidewalk. In May, a homeless man was arrested on suspicion of attacking the owner of a nearby coffee shop. “We’re living in like this crazy world where this is somehow now OK,” said Winston, owner of Boichik Bagels. “And I don’t know why we’ve decided it’s now OK.”

Her exasperation is reflected in a new poll by the Bay Area News Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley, which found three-quarters of registered voters across the core five-county region believe homelessness is getting worse in their communities.

 

Despite unprecedented billions of dollars spent in recent years to bring people indoors, cities across the Bay Area continue to struggle with what to do about encampments. Earlier this year, Berkeley launched a plan to move residents of the Gilman camp to a former motel. But a federal judge held up that effort, asserting it’s in the “public interest” to ensure unhoused people are not “parted from their homes and community without cause.”

The situation is familiar to many local communities confronted with jarring scenes of human suffering but often stymied in their efforts to address them, stoking what the poll makes clear is growing frustration.

According to the poll, 73% of respondents think communities should prevent homeless people from living in parks, on sidewalks and under freeways because it’s a public safety and health issue — up from 59% when the question was asked in 2020. Two-thirds want to ban people from living in RVs parked along major thoroughfares, up from 56% in the earlier poll.

And 86% support a controversial new program known as CARE Court, which aims to make it easier for judges across the state to order severely mentally ill people into treatment programs.

The poll results come as the region’s homeless population has swelled roughly 35% since 2019 to an estimated 38,000 people. The surge has been propelled by a chronic affordable housing shortage, an intensifying fentanyl emergency and an overburdened mental health system — all exacerbated by the economic upheaval of the pandemic.

“This is where society fails to have an answer — that’s how I see it,” said San Jose resident Elleen Crockett, who used to be homeless and now lives in an apartment across from what was a large tent encampment the city cleared earlier this year.

“Most of these people had just left their jobs or got fired or got evicted,” said Crockett, 63, who shares the compassionate viewpoint of 74% of poll respondents that many Bay Area residents are just a few bad breaks from becoming homeless. “You lose your job today — how many months can you stay in your apartment or house?”

As more residents have come face-to-face with homelessness in their neighborhoods, officials have sought to add supportive housing — an evidence-backed solution supported by 69% of poll respondents — despite reports of poor conditions at some of the multimillion-dollar sites.

Other housing and shelter solutions also received strong backing in the survey, with large majorities supporting tiny homes and sanctioned campsites. But those surveyed were clear they want those accommodations to be offered only on a temporary basis.

Tolerance begins to wane when people set up camp in parks or along creeks, and stay there for longer periods. In recent months, many cities have expanded no-camping laws and encampment sweeps, which advocates say traumatize homeless people and do little but push camps from one area to another.

“You see mayors across the state that are coming up with more carceral approaches, coming up with more reactionary approaches, because of exactly what you’re finding in this poll: Non-homeless constituents are tired of seeing so much homelessness,” said Jennifer Loving, chief executive of South Bay homelessness solutions nonprofit Destination: Home and a frequent critic of San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan’s proposals for reining in encampments.

But as cities have moved to close or clean up camps, they’ve run into increasing resistance from federal courts.

In many instances, including recent efforts to clear massive encampments from near the San Jose Mineta International Airport and along Wood Street in Oakland, judges ordered officials first to prove they could provide shelter to camp residents. But even then, many homeless people turned down beds, often concerned shelters couldn’t accommodate their physical or mental disabilities.

Poll respondent Larry Sekuler, 71, said he understands the courts’ reasoning. But he also believes cities should be able to move homeless people out of busy public areas, including from the sidewalk and parking lot by the local Walgreens near his home in Mountain View.

“Yes, they have a constitutional right to be there, but don’t I have a right to my safety?” he asked.

Accusing federal judges of having “tied the hands” of officials seeking to address encampments, Gov. Gavin Newsom last month formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify when and how camps can be cleared. To bring more people off the streets and into treatment, the governor has spearheaded the state’s CARE Court program over opposition from disability rights groups. CARE Court launched in seven pilot counties, including San Francisco, at the start of this month. Newsom is also backing a $6.4 billion mental health bond likely to appear before voters next year.

In focusing on the chronically mentally ill, a relatively small but visible subset of the homeless population, Newsom appears likely to score a political win. In the survey, CARE Court found large majority support among all racial and ethnic groups, age groups and income levels. Strikingly, Republicans and Democrats back it at an identical level: 87%.

Rishabh Kumar, a poll respondent and Democrat in Berkeley, is in favor of the new program despite his reservations about infringing on homeless people’s personal freedoms.

“How do we help people who don’t want to help themselves, while also balancing public safety?” he asked.

Kumar, 32, also said that if the Bay Area hopes to solve homelessness, it must work to ease its housing shortage, agreeing with the 64% of poll respondents who said a lack of affordable housing is the primary driver of the level of homelessness in the region.

“As long as that’s the issue, there’s going to be more homeless people on the street,” said Kumar, who recently drove by the Gilman encampment on his way to the Apple Store in West Berkeley.

Erin Spencer chops firewood at a homeless encampment in Berkeley that a judge preserved earlier this year, ruling unhoused people should not be “parted from their homes and community without cause.” (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Last week, the judge overseeing the encampment lawsuit agreed to allow Berkeley to remove most of the tents, RVs and makeshift structures around 8th and Harrison streets. But camp resident and plaintiff Erin Spencer said he has no plans to accept a motel room the city is offering, likening it to a prison.

Asked about his plans once the encampment is cleaned out, he answered half-jokingly, “I’m going to make a parade down San Pablo,” referring to the East Bay thoroughfare.

And then?

“I don’t know,” he replied, “come back?”

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