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Don’t call them homeless encampments. They’re “curbside communities”

As part of their continuing coverage of the homelessness crisis in the San Francisco bay area, CBS produced a profile of one woman who has been living out on the streets in Oakland for at least a year now. Obviously, if you want to understand the problem from the street level (so to speak), this is a worthwhile approach. But some of the opinions expressed by Ms. Mavin Carter-Griffin are curious, to say the least. And they seem to be popular points of view among other homeless citizens.

They’re commonly referred to as homeless encampments, but Mavin Carter-Griffin would prefer you call them “curbside communities.”

She’s lived on Wood Street in Oakland for more than a year now and has a lot of ideas about what could help the homeless in the midst of a housing crisis. For example, she’d like to see the showers at Raimondi Park be open to the homeless community, believes all homeless people need a pit bull, and loves Oakland.

She says if it were any other community, she might not have survived this long. We talked to her about what she calls “this ever evolving changing new face of homelessness.”

Much of what she’s saying is certainly understandable. If there are public showers available in a park, that’s something that homeless people could really benefit from. And I’m sure everyone could use a, um… I’m sorry. Did you say a pit bull? We might have to circle back to that one.

She discusses the unique challenges of being a woman in the homeless encampments. This has been highlighted in the media before and it’s a real concern. The rates of rape and sexual assault among homeless people in California are off the charts compared to the rest of the population. Personal security is a definite issue and law enforcement is overwhelmed with cases, leaving them unable to keep up with the workload.

And how did she wind up living on the streets? One big factor she cites is that her previous two-bedroom apartment costs $5,000 per month in rent. I’ve heard of worse rates in New York City, but not by much. That’s an insane amount of rent to have to pay unless you are doing very well financially. Anyone working a job that pays closer to the national average couldn’t possibly keep up. In fact, the median family income in this country (gross) is actually less than the rent on that apartment.

Carter-Griffin’s description of the encampments as “curbside communities” is also interesting. It probably helps highlight the gap between how local property and business owners see the masses of homeless people and how they see themselves. This woman is asking people to recognize and accept that they are all members of the community just like those living with roofs over their heads. But the locals understandably have a hard time seeing past all of the problems that the homeless encampments bring with them in the form of higher crime rates, drug abuse, trash and human waste clogging up the streets. It’s not as easy to be “welcoming” under those circumstances.

Charitable institutions do what they can to help the homeless, but in the end, it’s the city’s responsibility to address this problem. And trying to treat these encampments like a 21st-century version of “communities” isn’t the answer. That’s just accepting the crisis as the new normal and throwing in the towel. Living in a tent on the sidewalk is not a lifestyle choice. The only real solutions are going to come from identifying what’s driving so many people into the ranks of the homeless, changing those conditions, and then getting these people off the streets and into places where they can get help and rebuild their lives. But thus far, most of California’s cities are still failing miserably in this task.