California turned pandemic rentals into permanent housing for the homeless

A year ago, Cheyanne Wright was pregnant and living with her 4-year-old son, boyfriend and mother. And things weren’t going well.

“I would say six months was really bad,” Wright said.

Wright and her boyfriend had no intention of crashing with his mother. They had moved to the town of Stockton in the Central Valley to find their own place. But all the rentals they saw were overpriced. So her boyfriend’s mother said they could stay with her. But it was also a problem.

They fought a lot. And after an explosion, his mother threw their furniture in the garage. Space became even more constrained after Wright gave birth to their son, Romeo.

“I was just worried about where we were going to stay the next night. Or what we were going to eat. Or if I had enough gasoline to go somewhere,” Wright said.

This type of hidden homelessness is widespread among Aboriginal people, who constitute a disproportionate proportion of people living in housing insecurity or living on the streets. Nationally, Native Americans have the second highest homelessness rate among all racial groups, behind the Pacific Islanders. This often results in overcrowding, where two or three families live under one roof, as Wright did in Stockton.

With nowhere to go, Wright contacted Joshua Ray, a social worker from their tribe, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. They are headquartered in the rural town of Lakeport, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco.

Ray says homelessness and poverty are huge problems for their tribe. That’s why they asked for a $ 1.2 million state grant to buy and renovate a 10-unit apartment complex in Lakeport, California. This is part of a new program called House key, a statewide effort to quickly convert existing properties into temporary or long-term permanent housing.

Since its launch in June 2020, Homekey has created nearly 6,000 new units statewide for people experiencing homelessness. They did this by cutting down on a lot of paperwork and using existing buildings, mostly hotels and motels, but also vacation rentals, a college dorm, single family homes, office buildings and more. Apartment towers.

Turning unused hotels into housing became more than just a dream during the pandemic

As the coronavirus began to spread, California rushed to bring thousands of homeless seniors and people with health problems into hotels and motels.

“We had commercial hotels that were not in use due to the pandemic,” said Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of political group All Home. “And we had a public health crisis where our homeless neighbors were the most vulnerable. “

California began renting out hotel rooms statewide for homeless people, but these were still meant to be temporary. Officials had to make a plan for what would happen next. The state then launched Homekey to buy some of these sites and turn them into permanent housing. Marin County purchased an 18-room hotel called Casa Buena. This is where Michele Griffin Young, 73, has been living for four months.

Before the pandemic, she lived in her car with her son John Young. It was difficult to keep the insulin cold for John’s diabetes.

“We just had to go to the store and buy some ice cream, you know, ice packs and put them in the cooler,” Griffin Young said. The two moved into a Travelodge and Griffin Young said getting the room was a lifeline.

“We had a refrigerator to store insulin. We had a microwave in which we could heat whatever we needed to eat,” said Griffin Young.

Then, a few months ago, they moved to Casa Buena, a two-story hotel in a small side street next to the highway.

I mean there was food every morning and food every night. And our own showers and bathrooms, “said Griffin Young.” It was just fantastic. ”

The idea of ​​turning hotels into housing has been around for years, said Jason Elliott, who works for California Governor Gavin Newsom on housing policy.

“Everyone always says I wish we could do that,” Elliot said. “And the pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to move from I wish we could to we will.”

Homekey may be what brings the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians home

Joshua Ray, the social worker for the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, says the apartment complex units they purchased through Homekey were run down, but the building has since been renovated with a new coat of paint, laminate wood flooring, new roof, and new appliances including air conditioning. He hopes the complex will become a small modern day village, where the Natives rise up against each other.

“The goal is for me to help you become better than you were when you moved in here. To find you a better job. You will save money,” he said. money that could be used as a down payment.

In Lake County, Native Americans make up about 4% of the general population, but make up more than 22% of the homeless population, according to the county’s 2021. number of homeless people at any given time.

Part of the problem is that the tribe of just over 300 does not have its own reserve.

“We don’t have a large tribe, but we have a tribe that has no housing,” Ray said. “We don’t have a reservation so we have to think outside the box.”

The story of the loss of their lands by the Scotts Valley Band to the Pomo Indians is rooted in the original history of our country. It is a story of denial of the right to vote, relocation and assimilation forged by European settlers and the federal government, with the aim of eliminating tribes and erasing indigenous culture.

But two government policies, in particular, have been the most damaging: the end of tribal status and the voluntary relocation of Indigenous people off their reserves to urban cities.

“Our members didn’t know it at the time, but it was part of an assimilation,” said Patricia Franklin, former board member of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. “Where the government hoped we would get married and not be truly indigenous anymore.”

As a result of these programs, approximately 70% of the Scotts Valley Tribe members had settled in the Bay Area by the 1970s. After a multi-year court battle, the tribe regained its status in 1992, but his homeland has never been replaced.

Franklin says homelessness is one of the effects of the relocation his tribe still lives with today. Now she’s hoping the Lakeport Apartments can start bringing them home.

“It’s a difficult thing when you don’t have a place to feel at home and lay your head,” Franklin said. “I want my tribe to have a home too.”

The government paying for homeless housing for Indigenous people is long overdue, said Colleen Echohawk, founder of the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness.

Echohawk says shelters or Indigenous-led housing projects like the one in Lake County are key to building trust and community.

“When we build our own home, when we own our own home, when we run our own home, we continue to communicate that we are healing, that we are resilient,” Echohawk said.

Members of the Scotts Valley Tribe are hoping the apartment building in Lakeport will be a start.

Some apartments are still under renovation, but every month more and more members of the tribe move in, including Wright and his family.

“When I saw the apartments here I was like, oh, this is actually really big,” Wright said. “You have a large living room, two large bedrooms, a bathtub. Usually you don’t have a bathtub.”

His 4 year old son likes it a lot too. He has his own room now. And at $ 450 a month, the rent is something Wright and her boyfriend can afford.

She watches from the second story deck and enjoys the view of Clear Lake. It was once a rich resource for his tribe, where they fished and gathered reeds to make boats and even entire houses.

“I can understand what I want to do for my future and the future of my children,” Wright said. “It is very gratifying because my children are growing up in a happy and healthy situation and in a home.”

Homekey does not solve the problem but it is a step towards solving it

In Marin County, Michele Griffin Young and her son were grateful for the chance to live in a safe and stable place. But for John, it came too late.

His mother says the 32-year-old’s kidneys started to fail when they lived in the car. Then her eyesight started to deteriorate soon after. He passed away in the middle of the night after moving to Casa Buena.

But those extra few months inside allowed them to spend a little more time together.

“And I just can’t tell you how much that has helped us keep going for as long as we have,” said Griffin Young. “It was really amazing.

It’s already become a national model with Washington, Oregon and the city of Baltimore following in California’s footsteps, according to Diane Yentel, chair of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Congress recently approved $ 5 billion to turn hotels across the country into housing, and California recently approved a nearly $ 3 billion expansion of Homekey over the next two years. Lawyers say it can’t come soon enough. At last count, more than 161,000 people were homeless in California.

Copyright 2021 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

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