Why Alameda Has So Few Homeless Residents

Social service servants take a proactive stance to keep roofs over residents’ heads.


Terry Williams, and her children Zaakir, Nadiyyah, and Nairobi, live in APC housing.

Williams family by Chris Duffey


Alameda, with a population of about 75,000, seems to have a startling lack of homelessness, especially compared with nearby communities such as Berkeley and Oakland. You don’t see panhandlers or people pushing shopping carts with all their possessions.

Doug Biggs, president of Alameda’s Social Services Human Relations Board, said that’s because there just aren’t a lot of people living on the street. Biggs went out with a few volunteers to do a count from 6 to 9 a.m. on a September day. They counted 17 people and interviewed eight. Of those eight, five were chronically homeless, and four of those five were from Alameda. Biggs said there are several reasons why there’s not much of a transient homeless population.

“It’s not tolerated here,” he said. “Police are aware of people who are chronically homeless, and passer-throughs are encouraged to move on, so it’s hard to get a foothold here. And there aren’t many services—all the pantries and shelters are somewhere else.”

Additionally, Biggs said the city focuses on keeping people from becoming homeless, trying to provide short-term rental subsidies or to put them in housing quickly.

“It’s much better if someone doesn’t become homeless in the first place,” Biggs said. “If we can put them back in their homes and avoid the shelter experience, that’s what we want to do.”

That’s why the city of Alameda, for example, provides some funds to prevent homelessness, said Liz Varela, the executive director of Building Futures, a nonprofit that runs Alameda’s only shelter—Midway Shelter of Alameda—for victims of domestic violence and their children.

“It’s for folks who have hit a bump in the road, whether it’s a family breakup or a loss of a job, so they can’t pay rent,” Varela said. “We have a limited amount of funds to help them pay back rent and back utilities, and we help them come up with a plan, which people really need with the rents rising.”

Seniors in Alameda seem to be particularly affected by higher rents. Ebony Brown, who directs case management at the nonprofit Alameda Family Services, said she is seeing longtime renters who moved to Alameda in their 40s or 50s now losing their housing.

“About 17 percent of the population we see are seniors, and out of those, 60 to 75 percent of them have issues having to do with having secure, stable housing,” Brown said. “Some are having health issues, so they can no longer live alone, and some say their landlord raised the rent $200 to $300 and they can’t afford it, and some were living with a family member who has left. That’s the population we see who is struggling.”

Rosemary Reilly, a lifelong Alameda resident who has run Meals on Wheels in the city for more than two decades, said the population she serves is struggling more. In the last 25 years, Reilly said she has seen an increase in need and more mental health issues. And some people don’t have a support system, she said.

But in spite of that, Reilly said Alameda has a genuine sense of community, and people really want to help. Varela, with Building Futures, agreed.

“Alameda really cares and is thoughtful about people in need,” Varela said.

Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who participated in the homeless count with Biggs, said the city works hard to prevent homelessness and get services to people who are on the street.

“I would say our city has a compassionate response,” she said. “And also an informed response.”

The city’s police force has a homeless liaison officer, and the policy is to get resources to homeless people and try to interrupt the cycle, said Officer Alicea Ledbetter. Ledbetter, who works with the county’s Crisis Intervention Services, gives workshops to educate other officers on dealing with homeless people. Over the last few years, the focus has been on more community policing and finding creative solutions, Ledbetter said. Also the nature of the city of Alameda is one reason homeless people are so scarce there, she said.

“Alameda is a very tight-knit community, so problems don’t get overlooked,” she said. “People don’t just turn their heads to things. They pay attention and want to hold everyone accountable. Also, Alameda is smaller, so it’s more realistic than in bigger geography like Oakland.”

Biggs has seen a change in how the city and its residents approach homelessness. Along with his work for the city’s social services, he is executive director of the highly regarded Alameda Point Collaborative, which provides housing along with therapy, job training, case management, and academic classes at the former naval base.

Many Island residents were less than pleased when hundreds of formerly homeless people moved in there back in 1999.

“To say we weren’t welcomed with open arms is an understatement,” Biggs said. “There was definitely a perception that the homeless were invading Alameda, and community leaders talked about needing to arm themselves.”

People don’t say that anymore, and Biggs partly credits APC’s Ploughshares Nursery with that attitude turnaround. The 3-acre nursery sits across from the Main Street ferry stop. The nursery, along with the adjacent 1?-acre farm that the collaborative also runs, provides fresh produce in a food desert, along with job skills and work opportunities. This benefits everyone on the Island, Biggs said.

The collaborative houses about 500 residents, two-thirds of whom are children. There are two tracks—temporary housing for two years and permanent. Lisa Dyas, director of fund development and community relations, said the plan now is to make both tracks permanent.

“We found that just when they were starting to get settled, they’d have to move, and the cycle would start over again,” Dyas said. “It was creating more trauma for people.”

Terry Williams, 35, has been living there for three years. She ended up in a Berkeley shelter to get away from domestic violence. Now she and her children live in a three-bedroom house, and she recently started an on-the-job training program. Williams likes that her children have a stable place to live with a park and their school nearby.

“This is more than just a place to lay your head at night. You can work on self-sustainability,” Williams said. “There’s more of a community here.”

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