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GUEST COMMENTARY: Uprooting Homelessness in the Bay Area

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Authored by Mercy Housing California’s partners at ALL HOME, the Bay Area’s leading driver of region-wide solutions to disrupt the cycles of poverty and homelessness, reduce racial disparities, and create more economic mobility opportunities for extremely low-income people. For more information about All Home or to get involved in their work, reach out to Edie Irons, All Home’s Director of Communications, at or visit

Ensuring that everyone has a safe place to live is essential for a strong, healthy, vibrant region. While the rising cost of living has made staying rooted in the Bay Area impossible for many, now is the time to turn our housing and homelessness problems around. Luckily, our region has an amazing track record for innovation.

At the state and federal level, the events of the last 18 months have created a greater sense of urgency, awareness of racial disparities, and new resources to tackle homelessness. Instead of “managing” homelessness, we’re ready to reduce it to a rare experience by bringing new levels of regional cooperation, commitment, and resources to the issue.

Understanding homelessness in order to prevent it
Many people think mental illness and addiction issues cause homelessness, but the reality is more complex. The real root causes are interlocking systems of poverty, racial discrimination, lack of affordable housing, and land use policy. In fact, the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative found that homelessness often deteriorates an individual’s health, which can trigger mental illness and substance abuse. Also, other “developed” nations have similar rates of mental illness and substance abuse as the U.S., but much lower rates of homelessness.

The biggest driver of homelessness is actually poverty. At around 18%, California has the highest functional poverty rate in the U.S. due to the high cost of housing and utilities. In the Bay Area, more than 200,000 highly rent-burdened low-income households may be just one financial emergency away from homelessness. Statewide, 53% of renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent.

Disrupting the systems that cause homelessness requires a significant investment in homelessness prevention — primarily help for extremely low-income people to stay housed.

Advancing Bold Solutions
This spring, All Home’s Regional Impact Council — a group of more than 100 Bay Area public and private sector leaders — put forth a Regional Action Plan (RAP) aimed at reducing unsheltered homelessness by 75% in three years.

The RAP advances our “1-2-4 framework,” recommending that for each interim housing unit created, jurisdictions should invest in two permanent housing solutions and four homelessness prevention interventions. We are now working with county and local governments to rethink existing resources and provide a range of solutions with prevention as the foundation.

In our cross-sector collaborations with government, nonprofits, philanthropy, and the private sector, we urge our partners to advance bold, targeted solutions to help the people most impacted by poverty and homelessness — Black and Indigenous Americans, as well as Latinx people and Pacific Islanders. When the people most in need get help, everyone in the community benefits.

  • Racial inequities in homelessness and housing area are a direct result of discriminatory policies past and present such as redlining, racial housing covenants, and barriers to building affordable homes. We must confront the inequities within our policies and systems with the same level of resources, intention, and systematic design with which they were created.
  • We can improve our mechanisms to reduce and prevent homelessness, but until our society grapples with structural racism and inequality, any gains will be short-lived. It is time to consciously consider the effects of our nation’s legacy of discrimination, and unapologetically target resources and policies that directly address racial disparities.
  • Acknowledge that housing security and economic security are inextricably linked. Consider the power of “income as prevention” and create job opportunities, guaranteed income programs, and partnerships with employers that reduce barriers to employment for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, including formerly incarcerated people.