Hidden Homelessness Surges as Economy Falters

Photo: A woman leaves the Berkeley Food Pantry, located at Sacramento and Cedar Streets, with her groceries.
Michael Kang/Photo
A woman leaves the Berkeley Food Pantry, located at Sacramento and Cedar Streets, with her groceries.

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As 46-year-old William Clark stuffs the spaghetti, rice and milk he just received from the Berkeley Food Pantry into his ragged black backpack, it's obvious that the man has fallen on hard times.

After a work-related accident cost him his job at the Pak N Save grocery store in Emeryville six months ago, Clark has been on disability while he and his wife share a small apartment with another family near the North Berkeley BART station.

He is now searching for work to support himself and his wife, as well as his seven-month-old baby.

"Times have been rough," he said. "Real rough. I'm not optimistic. But I need a job, that's the bottom line."

Clark's story is just one among thousands in Alameda County, which has seen a striking increase in its hidden homeless population, defined by law as those living temporarily with family or friends, in motels or within seven days of being evicted.

According to a census conducted by EveryOne Home, an organization that coordinates with the county's homeless agencies, while there has been about a 15 percent decrease in the number of literally homeless in the county, the number of hidden homeless people has skyrocketed by more than 168 percent since 2003.

Experts all point to the economic recession as the main culprit in the increase, though some suggest its effects could have been mitigated with better resources.

"Few homelessness prevention resources targeting the hidden homeless existed during (the last six years)," said EveryOne Home Executive Director Elaine deColigny in an e-mail. "The cumulative causes of the recession have caused the hidden homeless to increase at a rate that far outstrips the quantity of prevention resources previously available in Alameda County."

The census also showed the number of children in hidden homeless families has increased by 290 percent, from 278 children in 2003 to more than 1000 this year.

No one knows that better than Nancy Johnson, a caseworker for the Berkeley Unified School District, who is responsible for providing counseling and resources for the 535 homeless students in her district.

Johnson agreed that the recession plays a significant role in the number of hidden homeless students, often placing once well-to-do families in unfamiliar situations when jobs are lost.

"This year there is an increase in people with foreclosures, educated people even," she said. "Those kids must be in real shock because they've never known what many people are used to, and that's real poverty."

The realities of hidden homelessness, as Johnson described, can prove to be daunting for students attempting to fit in at school and focus on their studies.

"Those kids are suffering badly, even if it doesn't seem like it," she said. "They're sleeping on other people's floors, or they're living in bad homes, places that are too crowded or have illegal activity going on. Some kids are living with people who are mentally ill, and they just about had it at the age of 14 so they leave on their own."

Johnson added that confronting homelessness at such a young age often compels kids to turn to violence or crime when there is seemingly nowhere else to turn for support.

"There's one boy I really love, who has a gun, whose brother was shot to death, who lives with his sister who's addicted to drugs," she said. "And he told me that he robbed someone, and I asked him, 'Would you rob me?' And he said 'No, I would never rob you!' And he placed his hand on his heart, and I knew he was telling the truth. He wouldn't rob me. But he'd rob my sister."

Back at the Berkeley Food Pantry, director Bill Shive said the pantry has struggled to keep up with demand, which has increased by 50 percent over the last year.

"One of the things we've noticed when we ask (patrons) how many people are in their household, we're getting huge numbers," Shive said. "Looking back at that, I've realized that has to be two or three households in one."

Former pantry director and current volunteer Elizabeth Strain said that in dealing with the effects of homelessness and the recession, the least advantaged, such as minorities and the poor, are hurt the most.

"For well-off types, there's that support, there's food, there's room for you (if you lose your home)," she said. "But for a lot of minorities, even if you went to college and have a job, there isn't the property and support that families have built and maintained for generations."

But despite all of their challenges, many of the hidden homeless, such as retired Navy sailor Charles Avery, still remain thankful.

After completing an eight-year tour in the Navy, the 48-year-old Avery returned to his home in Berkeley to work as a tree landscaper until 10 years ago, when he said that the work "just ran out." Since then, he has worked odd jobs to support himself, but recently that work has run out, too.

He now shares a West Berkeley apartment with his retired mother and relies upon government assistance and the pantry to support himself. But Avery said it could be worse.

"I'm blessed," he said. "Blessed because I'm not homeless, I have food to eat and people that care about me. The money, it can come and go, but health is what's important."


Contact Chris Carrassi at [email protected]

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