William Ware looks at his reflection in a broken shard of mirrored glass in an empty field near downtown Antioch. Homelessness has grown by about a third in Antioch, according to Contra Costa County Point-in-Time homelessness count in 2016. (Devin Katayama/KQED)
William Ware sits in a large empty field along the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, shaving his face using a broken mirror. He found himself here after a waterskiing accident in 2009 led to painkiller addiction, and a downward spiral ensued.
Ware lost his five-bedroom house in Brentwood, the cars and the boat. Losing his family hurt the most, he said. The names of his two kids -- Michael and Alyssa -- are tattooed on his arms. They no longer talk to him. His wife left him. Ware has been homeless in Antioch for about two years.
“It’s my choice to be out here," Ware said. "What do I do every day? I go fishing. I golf in this field.” He works odd jobs to get by and proudly notes that he doesn’t get any government assistance.
“Out here” is the Bay Area suburb of Antioch, in eastern Contra Costa County, where homelessness has spiked in recent years.
It tracks a national trend: In suburbs across the U.S., poverty has been growing faster than in cities, and communities like Antioch haven’t been prepared to handle what’s often referred to as a shift of “urban” issues into suburban spaces.
Homelessness Increases in the Eastern Suburbs
Some people living on the streets of Antioch migrated to the city for various reasons. Some were evicted from pricier parts of the Bay Area. Some came to avoid being targeted by police in other areas that don't tolerate people living on the streets. Some just drifted here, haphazardly.
Many of those living homeless in Antioch are from these same neighboring eastern suburbs. While the number of people sleeping outside across Contra Costa County saw a 26 percent decrease from 2011 to 2016, there has been a 30 percent increase in the county's eastern flank, which includes Antioch. Officials expect the trend to continue.
“Our topography looks very different than it does in more urban cities like San Francisco," said Lavonna Martin, the county’s homeless services chief. That topography is sprawling cities, with a lack of public transportation and fast-growing populations.
In a survey last year, Antioch residents said homelessness was a top issue after crime and violence. Between 2000 and 2011, suburban poverty across the country grew at more than twice the rate than in cities, according to the Brookings Institution.
Rena Frantz, a friend of Ware’s who also lives in the field, said she migrated here -- sharing a tent with her current boyfriend -- after she had a falling out with her ex-boyfriend over drugs in Concord, a larger suburb closer to San Francisco.
“I was going to move to South Carolina and get clean and leave the state. I ended up not having a way to get out there and I got stuck in Antioch,” she said.
What are the reasons for the surge in homelessness? Antioch residents often talk about the lack of jobs and public transportation, but the absence of sufficient social services is a big problem, too. A study from 2012 says that “for every $8 in social services that a poor person in [Contra Costa’s] West County has access to, there is $1 available for a poor person in East County.” This number does not include government services or outside agencies, but it offers a glimpse into the gap that exists.
For Frantz, it’s the day-to-day things that make it even harder for her to get back on her feet.
“You can’t apply for jobs when you haven’t showered in two weeks,” she said.
There was a homeless service center in Antioch that was open daily, which offered showers, laundry, counseling, mail service, phone calls and food. Frantz said most of the homeless people she knows were using these services.
But in 2016, the same year that Antioch released data showing a spike in homelessness, the center shut down.
While Homelessness Increases, Services Center Closes
The once-bustling multiservice center is quiet now. Before it closed in March 2016, the rooms were loud and crowded. During the last three years of operation, Anka Behavioral Health -- the nonprofit that ran the day center -- roughly tripled the number of people served there.
“A lot of times, people would come in just to talk to staff and let them know what’s going on because they were treated like family here,” said Rebecca Sanders, program manager.
Anka still operates a small 20-bed shelter on-site, but the nonprofit had to shut down its day center because the staff couldn’t handle the large number of people needing help, Sanders said.
Businesses nearby were complaining, too, she said. Plus, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cut funding for multiservice centers a couple of years ago, which meant Anka was losing money. On the final day of the center’s operation, more than 100 people were served.
“It was really emotional,” Sanders said. “Everybody was really upset. The clients were really sad.”
There are churches in Antioch offering free meals and other help, but the city lacks comprehensive homeless services in these farthest eastern suburbs, said Sanders. Often homeless people go to Concord for help, she said.
The county recently upgraded its two homeless resource centers in Richmond (in the west) and Concord (in the center), adding staff who will help people find housing, but it wasn’t able to open a center in the eastern suburbs.
“We have some challenges. There aren’t many providers in east Contra Costa County, where the demand is really high,” said Martin.
Larger cities like Richmond, Oakland or San Francisco are historically where nonprofit providers and philanthropic dollars have created a safety net. But in Antioch, there is a lack of basic infrastructure to serve the poorest residents, said Martin.
Over the next year, county officials will try to create a homeless service center in Antioch, she said. Contra Costa receives federal grants to improve coordination between homeless services across the county. Some homelessness service providers say it’s helping, while others are coming up with their own solutions.
In Antioch, one group is getting city support to build a 50-bed shelter for women and children. Police have also started a new unit that attempts to partner cops and homeless outreach. But almost everyone acknowledges that the suburbs weren’t prepared for the changes they’re seeing.
In the meantime, Frantz and the others continue to call the field home and make do.
“Every night we’d go to bed going, ‘God, there are so many people who would love to be where we’re at right now.’ I mean it sucks because you stink and you’re hungry, but at least where we live, it could be worse,” she said.