How One California City Is Working to Stop Homelessness – Before It Happens

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Marquisse Moore outside his home
Marquisse Moore stands outside his home in Oakland on Jan. 10, 2021. He was one of more than 3,000 people who have received direct rental assistance as part of a program called Keep Oakland Housed, which got its start in 2018 to prevent people from experiencing homelessness.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When the pandemic hit, Marquisse Moore lost his job, and it didn't take long before he lost his home, too.

He had been working as a forklift driver at a tortilla factory before being laid off in early April. New jobs were hard to find.

When he realized he wouldn’t be able to continue paying rent on his Mountain View apartment, he told his landlord he would be moving out. For the next six months, he and his 6-year-old daughter bounced between family and friends' couches. Sometimes he slept in his car.

“I made sure my daughter always had a roof over her head, even if I didn't,” he said. “It was a very big struggle.”

On a leap of faith, he applied to a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale District in December. And to his surprise, the landlord was interested in renting to him even though he wasn't working yet.

Moore had just been offered a job at Alameda Health Systems, working in its COVID-19 ward. But there was still another problem: He couldn't afford the security deposit and first month’s rent.

That’s when the landlord connected him to a program called Keep Oakland Housed. Since 2018, it has provided more than $11.5 million in direct financial assistance and legal counsel to nearly 5,000 households. Most of the money — 85% — comes from philanthropic donations.

“It actually had me in tears,” Moore said, after finding out the program would foot the bill to help him move in. “It meant everything to me.”

Marquisse Moore looks out the window at his home in Oakland on Jan. 10, 2021.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The idea behind the program is simple, said Zoë Polk, executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center: “Stop homelessness before it happens."

The program began in 2018 as a three-year pilot program and is a partnership between the city of Oakland and local nonprofits.

Some people need legal support to fight an eviction, Polk said. That’s where the law center comes in. Others, like Moore, need direct rental assistance or housing. And for that, Bay Area Community Services intervenes.

And some people need other kinds of help, Polk said, such as connecting to employment or health services. Catholic Charities East Bay takes care of that piece of the puzzle.

“We want to be targeting people so they can stay where they currently are, stay in their homes,” Polk said.

Keep Oakland Housed launched in response to a dramatic rise in both rents and homelessness in the city.

The average rent for an apartment more than doubled between 2010 and 2019, from $1,396 to $2,905, according to an analysis by the apartment listing service RENTCafe.

Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given night increased 85% between 2015 and 2019, growing from 2,191 people to 4,071, according to the city’s biennial survey.

“It may be hard to remember, but our homelessness crisis was huge then even before COVID,” Polk said. “And, in light of COVID, it became even more imperative that people are able to stay in place, where they have a place that they’re comfortable in, a place where they have been able to keep their family together.”

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Lower-wage workers and people of color who were already more at risk of eviction and homelessness have only seen those risks grow as a result of the pandemic, said Mary Cunningham, head of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

The center recently published a study showing that across the country, 9.5 million renters reported problems paying rent in September, including nearly 17% of Black and 23% of Latino renters, compared to 8% of white renters. Black and Latino renters were also four times more likely to have received an eviction notice from their landlords since the beginning of March last year.

In Oakland, Black residents make up 24% of the population but account for 70% of people experiencing homelessness.

“We went into the pandemic with a pretty big, longstanding affordable housing crisis,” Cunningham said. “And now the pandemic has added additional stress and added more people to the pool of those who need help and who are at risk of eviction and homelessness.”

There is a real public health concern that housing instability can lead to higher coronavirus infections and deaths as people who lose their housing double up with friends or family or become homeless, Cunningham said. But even without the pandemic, homelessness is just expensive for taxpayers.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that a person who has experienced homelessness longer than a year costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year. Those costs include emergency shelter, visits to the emergency room and interactions with police. Comparatively, a year of housing with supportive services on-site costs an average of $12,800.

Preventing someone from losing their housing is even more cost-effective.

Keep Oakland Housed provided each household it helped with an average of $2,149 in direct rental assistance in the latter half of 2019. That figure grew to an average of $3,309 between July and September of last year, according to The San Francisco Foundation, which administers the program on behalf of Oakland.

Marquisse Moore smiles inside his home
Marquisse Moore at his home in Oakland on Jan. 10, 2021.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Polk says the third year of the pilot program will be pivotal in preventing an onslaught of evictions as moratoriums expire and months of back rent come due. The program still has $8 million available to assist residents this year. And Polk said that money will be crucial since the unemployment rate in California is still high at around 8%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor – and many people remain out of work.

“We are very far away from universally people getting a vaccine,” Polk said. “So from our standpoint, Keep Oakland Housed has a lot of work to do in this next year making sure that we are not putting the cart before the horse in terms of trying to evict people while it’s still not safe to do so.”

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The latest stimulus bill included $25 billion in federal rent relief, $2.6 billion of which was allocated to California. Gov. Gavin Newsom has expressed urgency in distributing that money quickly to low-income renters, affordable housing providers and small property owners.

Cunningham said it’s critical that local governments target that money to the lowest-income residents who have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“We know that Black and Latino households, because they're essential workers, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 both as a public health crisis and as an economic crisis,” she said. “So we need to make sure that rental assistance is addressing past housing inequities, but is also trying to provide assistance in a targeted way so we can address racial inequities moving forward.”

For Marquisse Moore, the opportunity to get into stable housing and get back on his feet has been humbling, he said. The past six months of moving between friends' and family’s houses took a toll on his daughter.

“Now that she has her own place, she’s at peace,” Moore said. “She’s just enjoying being a kid and not having to worry about what's going on around her.”

How to Get Help Via Keep Oakland Housed

Keep Oakland Housed advises Oakland residents who have a household income at or below 50% of the area median income and are experiencing a housing crisis to contact any of the three collaborative organizations:

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