As the homeless population booms due to sky-high rent prices, we need to think of the California homeless crisis as a refugee crisis

On Tuesday, September 28, 2021, a man lies on a mattress at People's Park, Berkeley, California. Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images
I have reported from refugee camps in Mexico and San Francisco homeless camps feel familiar.

Refugees and those without homes are forced to leave their homes for no reason.

Rethinking the crisis can help us stop blaming our neighbors who aren't housed and instead take better care of them.

Jack Herrera is an independent journalist who writes about immigration, race and human rights. Insider has him as a contributor to the opinion section.

This column is an opinion piece. These thoughts are solely the author's.

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Around the same time that I realized I couldn't afford to rent my San Francisco home, I started speaking with Afghan refugees who arrived in California in August. Although they had made it through a difficult journey, their struggles weren't over. Many of them were still living in hotels while they searched for apartments for their families. However, this could be difficult in the Bay Area.

For a two-bedroom apartment, the median rent in San Francisco is $3900 per month. It's higher than $3,200 in San Mateo to the south. Oakland has rents that are more affordable than other parts of the Peninsula. It still charges more than $2600 per month for two bedrooms.

These rents are not affordable for most people who work anywhere in the world. Afghan refugees had to sell their possessions or leave them behind in order to be able to rent an apartment. The Bay Area landlords will often request proof of income three-times greater than rent. They also require credit checks. Legally, security deposits can be up to two months rent. This can easily cost a family more than $6,000.

Talking with refugees in the Bay Area made me realize something. It was a way to put words to a vague frustration that I felt. California's housing crisis was a refugee crisis long before the arrival of these new Afghan immigrants to the Bay. It's high time that we see it this way.

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Rethinking the Housing Crisis

In the '90s I was born in San Francisco, three miles from my current residence. Over the years, I have seen my neighbors who are homeless increase in number year after year. Currently, there are 35,000 homeless people in the Bay Area.

It wasn't Silicon Valley when I was a child, but it felt like it. However, technology's reach grew steadily in every city and suburb. GoPro opened its offices in the hill near the community college. A historic hotel was transformed into a self-satisfied incubator for start-ups. Living costs have risen dramatically. Every year, more people move away.

Young people move to Denver, Austin and Portland. Families flee to the "other valley", which is the San Joaquin's hot, dry grasslands in towns like Manteca and Fresno. As neighbors and family members move to more affordable cities, the community support systems that were in place over the years have been eroded. There is very little infrastructure to support the people who are still here.

When I walk along the 16th Street BART in San Francisco’s Mission District, I notice tents and tarps along the sidewalks. Oakland is a city where entire encampments are set up and then brutally "sweeped by" the city. They then re-establish themselves in an endless cycle. The state and city governments have spent billions on this issue. But my neighbors and friends who are homeless say that shelters are not safe. Robbery is common.

Sometimes it shocks me how much the Bay Area's homelessness "camps” resemble refugee camps that I visited as a reporter in Northern Mexico. Both have rows of tents that many houses families and bear the tender marks home: a teddy bear, an old Bible, and a copy. These marks are contrasted with the precarious tarps that have been mended using duct tape and pitched on concrete.

Both the local residents view the tent dwellers with a mixture of distrust and pity. I have spoken to Central American asylum seekers in Mexico who are still recovering from being robbed and assaulted by the locals. Unhoused people in San Francisco have to deal not only with robbery but also with attacks. Their housed neighbors use 911 as a concierge service to "sweep away" any evidence of the city's economic cruelty.

My unhoused neighbor, with whom I have coffee every other day, said that sleeping is the most difficult part of unhoused. He's been woken up numerous times each night and often has to relocate to get to sleep.

Being homeless is like being an asylum seeker

My Bay-side neighbors and many asylum-seekers from Mexico share something in common: They are fleeing some sort of situation. Domestic abuse is one reason people end up homeless. There are some similarities between the forcefulness of displacement in places like the Bay Area or Honduras. Gangs have taken over entire towns in Honduras' San Pedro Sula. They charge residents an impuesto or tax, which is a form of extortion money, usually 80% of their income, in return for safety. People are forced to leave their homes because the cost of living is too high. Without any guarantee of safety, they flee to other parts of the country.

Rents in the Bay Area have increased precipitously almost every other year. Although the pandemic caused a sharp drop, rents have steadily risen over the past few months. 2019 saw 13% of San Francisco's homeless become homeless due to an eviction. 26% were forced from their homes after losing jobs.

National and international moguls have bought up vast amounts of housing stock in speculative realty. This has left a shocking amount of empty apartments and houses as they wait for the value to appreciate. In San Francisco there can be as many as five vacant houses per unhoused resident. The traditional labor market has been disrupted by Silicon Valley, and this is for the worse. Many workers, particularly janitors, are now being hired as contractors instead of being salaried employees. In the end, greed and brutal economics have made it so that profit is more important than basic human needs like shelter and food. Due to the insane, speculative nature of the real estate market, landlords have been able to charge rents that are not sustainable.

It can be complicated under the law but refugeeism is easy from a moral perspective. People who are forced to leave their homes due to no fault of their own merit hospitality. We have an obligation to welcome them into our homes.

What next?

Homelessness is a social problem, and a threat that goes beyond any individual's choices. Therefore, the response must be at the societal level.

The answer is simple for both Afghan refugees looking to build a new life and Californians without housing: Massive public investments. Because the US government played a direct part in the Afghan crisis, it should now be responsible for their rents and other relocation costs, as Afghans have moved to the US.

The failures of society as a whole have forced thousands of people out of their homes in the Bay Area. It will cost a lot: A recent study estimated that $11.8 billion would be required to eliminate homelessness in the Bay Area. This is why Governor Gavin Newsom declared the biggest ever effort to end homelessness last year with $1.4 billion in state budget.

But the cost of homelessness is already there: It's being felt by economic refugees from the Hunger Games-esque inequalities we have allowed to fester at the Bay. We all have to do our part in fixing this problem.

California will have to levy taxes on corporations and real estate investors that created this horrible housing market.

My neighbors in this community need to stop blaming the unhoused for their homelessness. These people are refugees from the society and economic system that we have created. Our responsibility to help them is not just out of charity but also from a moral obligation. They are all part this society, and we owe them our support.

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