Homelessness had already been on the rise in big cities across the United States following the 2017 West Coast affordable-housing crisis, which emerged as a result of rising rents and low wages. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and now nearly 28 million households are at risk of experiencing homelessness due to job losses.
The organization Destination: Home is working to ensure that families in California’s Santa Clara County can survive the crisis. By creating permanent housing and offering long-term solutions, the organization aims to protect families from homelessness.
In collaboration with over a dozen community-based partners, Destination: Home has disbursed $10 million in financial assistance to over 4,000 low-income families since March.
Global Citizen spoke to Destination: Home Chief Operating Officer Ray Bramson about how the organization is helping to prevent homelessness in vulnerable communities during the pandemic. Read the full interview below.
Global Citizen: As an organization on the front lines of COVID-19, what is the biggest thing you want the general public to know about what you've observed and how the crisis has evolved?
Ray Bramson: It is definitely a crisis that disproportionately affects our poorest residents. We know we need to get support in their hands soon. It's more than just the disease that is going to break their backs.
We're really going to need to focus on resilience and recovery, and that will mean for some folks more than just one-time help. It might need to be an ongoing subsidy and support for multiple months or for a longer period of time, because the job that they had may never come back.
We're expecting not as many jobs in the service sector to come back. We know that people, without those jobs, are going to need some kind of other supplemental income if they're going to continue to be able to pay rent and feed their family.
We're really trying to target folks with the greatest risk for homelessness without intervention — people that have a lot of risk factors and are also extremely low income and are affected by COVID-19.
Our Lived Experience Advisory Board members deliver hot meals to men & women living in homeless encampments in @CityofSanJose 3x a week. This is not an easy task during #COVID19. We are so grateful for your leadership and your commitment to our community. #SiliconValleyStrongpic.twitter.com/rMfnlrdHKh— Destination: Home (@DSTNHome) May 19, 2020
What are some of those risk factors?
Does the household have savings? What are your incomes? How rent-burdened are you? Are you paying 80% of your income toward rent, or are you paying 35% of your income toward rent?
Looking at it from the financial vector, also looking to see if there are other factors within the family that may be complicating things.
Has a family member become really sick and hospitalized and infirmed as a result of COVID-19? Do you have vulnerabilities in your household that make it harder for you to go back [to work]?
When you are reliant on all people in your household working and then all of a sudden one of the parents has to stay home to take care of the kids because there's no school or child care options during that time, it has a serious impact.
How is Destination: Home tackling the needs of various people and communities amid the pandemic?
We have a high cost of living, with people every paycheck on the verge of homelessness. We have 65,000-plus households that in the best of circumstances are extremely low income, which means they're making 30% or less of the area’s median income. What that means, more often than not because rents are so high, is that they're one paycheck away from losing their house. They're severely rent-burdened paying more than 50% of their income toward rent. They're predominantly households of color.
We knew there was going to be a flood of need because all of those service industry jobs, those minimum wage professions, disappeared when the lockdowns began. The very, very vulnerable people were barely making anything. We just gave them direct financials.
We were able to help over 4,000 households, give them support — on average, about $3,000 [per] household. We have 23,000 names on the waiting list.
As the federal response came through with the CARES Act, we began to better understand the general need in the community.
We saw that some folks were going to get some help, whether it was through a stimulus check or unemployment insurance. There was going to be some relief and some support for a lot of people. And in some cases, it was going to be very meaningful, but then there was another group of people that for whatever reason were ineligible for benefits and they were also extremely low income. In the second phase of our work, we’re focused on trying to help those households.
What's the most inspiring thing you’ve seen as the world tackles COVID-19?
This has just been a really hard time and the crisis revealed how vulnerable so many of us are.
Whether it's making masks or spending time volunteering, there's lots of people that are stepping up and trying to help in a variety of different ways. We've seen that from our corporate donors and partners, groups like Cisco. But we've also seen that from community volunteers and organizations like Sacred Heart Community Services, our lead partner in this effort.
People feel helpless because they want to do something. That internal reflection of what can I do — the folks who have that thought and then go out and actually do something regardless of what it is, gives me a lot of hope.
Has COVID-19, and the global response to it, changed your perspective of anything essential to your work?
For a while, we have been talking about the vulnerabilities of extremely low-income households. COVID-19 just exposed them a lot faster.
All of a sudden these households that were figuring out how to make it in this community, even though it required a lot of sacrifices and hard work, all of those workarounds and all of those decisions that they made to make it work, disappeared. They were left with nothing.
We have to start figuring out how to do more, to get support into the hands of people who are most vulnerable, or they're going to end up on the streets.
The other thing is something that the international community has been doing for a while. It's this idea of providing people who need money [with] direct financial assistance. Getting cash into folks' hands is a very effective way to help. The people are absolutely going to spend it on things that they need the most to make it day to day for themselves and their families. We don't necessarily need to put in rigid structures and systems of care to get help to people.
We can just give it to them and they're going to figure it out on their own.
How can people take action and help your efforts?
We've been very fortunate in the fact that we've been able to raise over $25 million, but there's still a huge gap and there are a lot of people that are going to need enduring help going forward.
There's lots of ways that folks could slot in, but the financial need is considerable right now.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.