- I’ve reported from refugee camps in Mexico, and the homeless camps in San Francisco feel familiar.
- Both refugees and unhoused people are forced to leave their homes through no fault of their own.
- By rethinking the crisis, we can stop blaming our unhoused neighbors and better take care of them.
- Jack Herrera is an independent reporter writing about immigration, race, and human rights. He is a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In August, around the same time I realized I could no longer afford the rent of my home in San Francisco, I began speaking with Afghan refugees arriving in California. They had survived a perilous journey – but their struggles were not over. Many were still living in hotels as they diligently worked to find apartments for themselves and their families. In the Bay Area, however, that could prove impossible.
Median rent in San Francisco is $US3,900 ($AU5,335) a month for a two-bedroom. To the south, in San Mateo, it’s more than $US3,200 ($AU4,378). Oakland, where rents are cheaper than elsewhere in the Peninsula, still has a median rent cost of more than $US2,600 ($AU3,557) for just two bedrooms.
For most people working anywhere in the world, those rents are simply not tenable. For Afghan refugees, who had to sell off their possessions in a rush – or simply leave them behind – the basic requirements to get one’s family in an apartment are impossible. In the Bay Area, landlords often ask for proof of income three times higher than rent; they also ask for credit checks. Security deposits, which legally can run up to two months rent, can easily put a family back more than $US6,000 ($AU8,208).
Something about talking with refugees in the Bay Area crystallized a realization – putting words to an amorphous frustration I have felt. Even before we welcomed these latest Afghan newcomers to the Bay, California’s housing crisis has been a kind of refugee crisis. And it’s time we think of it that way.
Rethinking the housing crisis
I was born in San Francisco in the ’90s, about three miles from where I live now. In that time, I’ve seen the number of my unhoused neighbors increase horrifically, year after year. Right now, up to 35,000 people are living on the streets in the Bay Area.
When I was a kid going to school in San Mateo, just to the south of San Francisco, it didn’t feel like Silicon Valley quite yet. But steadily, tech’s tentacles spread throughout every city and suburb. GoPro opened offices on the hill by the community college; a historic hotel was turned into a gauche and self-satisfied start-up incubator. The costs of living skyrocketed. And every year, people leave.
Young people decamp to Denver, Austin, and Portland; families flee to “the other valley” – the dry, hot grasslands of the San Joaquin, in towns like Manteca or Fresno. As the years have gone on, community support systems have broken down as neighbors and relatives escape to cheaper cities. Now, there is little infrastructure left to support those who are still here.
When I get out on the 16th Street BART in San Francisco’s Mission District, I see tents and tarps on the sidewalks. In Oakland, entire encampments spring up, get brutally “sweeped” by the city, and spring up again in an unending cycle. City governments and the state have invested billions in the issue, but when I talk to my unhoused friends and neighbors, they say the shelters aren’t safe: Robbery and assault are common.
It sometimes shocks me how similar the homelessness “camps” around the Bay Area resemble the refugee camps I’ve spent time in as a reporter in Northern Mexico. In both, rows of tents, many of them housing families, bear the tender marks of home – a teddy bear, a battered copy of the Bible. These marks are juxtaposed against the precarious tarps, mended with duct tape, pitched on concrete.
In both places, local residents regard the inhabitants of the tents with a mix of pity and distrust; I’ve spoken to Central American asylum-seekers in Mexico who bear scars from robbery and assault by locals. In San Francisco, besides robbery and attacks, unhoused people have to deal with constant police harassment, as their housed neighbors use 911 like a concierge service to come “sweep” their stoops of any evidence of our city’s economic brutality.
One of my unhoused neighbors, who I share a coffee with every few days, says one of the hardest parts of being unhoused is sleeping – he’s woken up countless times every night, often forced to move somewhere else to sleep.
Being homeless is like being a refugee
Asylum-seekers in Mexico and so many of my unhoused neighbors in the Bay share something else in common: They’re fleeing something. Domestic abuse is one of the leading causes of homelessness. But beyond physically dangerous homes, the forcefulness of displacement in a place like the Bay Area and, say, Honduras, have some similarities. In towns like San Pedro Sula in Honduras, gangs have taken control of entire neighborhoods, and these pandillas charge townspeople an impuesto, or a tax – extortion money (typically 80% of income) in exchange for safety. The cost of living becomes untenable; people are forced out of their homes, and, without any guarantees of safety in their hometowns, they often flee northward.
In the Bay Area, rents have risen precipitously almost every year (the pandemic caused a sharp dip, but rents have steadily increased in the last few months). In 2019, 13% of all people living on the streets in San Francisco had become homeless because of an eviction; 26% were forced out of their homes after losing their jobs.
Speculative real estate has seen national and international moguls buy up huge swaths of housing stock, leaving a shocking number of houses and apartments empty as they wait for their value to appreciate – in San Francisco, there are as many as five empty houses per unhoused resident. Silicon Valley has also disrupted the traditional labor market, for the worse. Increasing numbers of workers, especially janitors and maintenance staff, are no longer salaried employees with benefits and a chance to move up in the company; instead, they’re hired as contractors. The result is that greed and brutal economics are valuing profit over basic facets of human well-being, like a roof over one’s head. The manic, speculative real estate market has led landlords to charge rents that cannot be survived.
While it can get complicated in the law, refugeeism is simple from a moral perspective: People who have been forced to leave their homes through no fault of their own deserve hospitality, and we have an obligation to house and welcome them.
Where do we go from here?
The homelessness crisis is a social creation, a danger so much larger than any one individual or their choices. The response, then, must take place at the societal level.
For both Afghan refugees trying to make a new life for themselves and unhoused people across California, the answer is simple: Massive public investment. The US government had a direct role in the crisis that forced Afghans to flee, so it should be responsible for their rent and any other costs of relocation, now that Afghans are in the country.
Likewise, the thousands of people forced out of their homes in the Bay Area have been forced out by the failures of our society at large, rather than any personal failings. The costs here will be massive: A recent report estimated that it would take $US11.8 ($AU16) billion investment to end homelessness in the Bay Area alone. To put that in perspective, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the largest ever effort to address homelessness last year, with $US1.4 ($AU2) billion designated in the state’s budget.
However, the costs of homelessness already exist: They’re simply being felt by the economic refugees from Hunger Games-esque inequality we’ve allowed to fester in the Bay. To fix this problem, we will all need to pay our part.
In California, this will require levying taxes on the corporations and real estate interests that have created such a horrific housing market in the first place.
And on a personal level, my neighbors in this city need to abandon a mindset that blames an unhoused person for their own homelessness. They are refugees from a society and an economic system we created, and our responsibility to help them comes not just from a place of charity, but from moral obligation. We are all part of this society; they are owed our help.