Homeless Action Center’s Unique Approach to Serving the Homeless of Oakland and Alameda County California

Homeless Action Center
Homeless Action Center

When the Homeless Action Center (HAC) opened its doors in 1990, there wasn’t even a point in time (PIT) count to assess the homeless population. The count that began in 2003 revealed 5,081 homeless in Alameda County; in 2019, it was 8,022. However, Daniel Homer believes that is an undercount.

One of 10 managing attorneys at HAC, he notes, “There are a lot of homeless people living in areas that are not accessible so they can’t be counted. I would put the estimate at more than 10,000. But whether it’s 8,000 or 10,000, it’s too many.”

HAC provides free legal representation to assist homeless individuals in navigating the maze of programs that can serve as a path out of homelessness. It is funded through multiple county contracts, including Alameda County Social Services and Alameda Behavioral Health Care Services.

“Back then, the streets weren’t lined with tents for blocks and blocks”

The reasons for the growth of the county’s homeless population, says Homer, are twofold: The county and city were not tracking the number of homeless living on the streets so there was no concrete way to track their movement, and there was no effort at housing development which meant no real options to assist the homeless.

The organization’s early history was as a legal clinic designed to provide assistance to homeless individuals who had physical and mental health issues that were limiting their ability to work. The strategy was to help them access SSI benefits that would provide a stable monthly income that, in turn, would provide enough money to find and to sustain housing.

Explaining that, “Back then, the streets weren’t lined with tents for blocks and blocks,” Homer notes that as the needs of the homeless evolved, so did the services HAC provides. Currently, as clients await of approval of SSI benefits, HAC offers assistance to apply for CalFresh and Medi-Cal benefits that result in fewer visits to the emergency room as well as fewer arrests. HAC also accompanies clients to medical appointments and helps with securing birth certificates or IDs since SSI requires documentation. In 2017, the most recent data available, three HAC offices – one in Berkeley and two in Oakland – served 3,023 clients and resolved 2,467 cases.

Unique among legal clinics is HAC’s explicit use of harm reduction as opposed to a paternal approach used as far back as the 1970s that told people to simply pull themselves up from living on the streets, or from mental health or drug abuse issues. Harm reduction recognizes that not everyone will be successful at overcoming whatever societal ills ail them and engages people where they are while supporting them in accessing services.

“Some clients disappear for months, but we don’t stop helping them,” Homer says. “People still make choices. We don’t have a say in those choices, but we will not condition services based on their choices. When we talk to people, we don’t say, ‘You have a problem.’ Instead, we ask, ‘How do you think things are going?’ We don’t treat anyone like a kid.”

Describing the on-the-ground situation, where people don’t have access to bathrooms, clean running water, heat, and other basics that people who are housed take for granted, Homer says it’s important to keep in mind that for every year a person lives on the streets, they suffer many years of physical and mental toll. Among the reasons he gives for why people don’t go to shelters are that shelters are full, they are traumatizing for many people because they can be sites of violence and drug use, people have mental and physical health issues so a shelter is not even an option, and people have companion or support animals that are not allowed in shelters.

“We figure out a strategy that works for them”

Homeless individuals find their way to HAC in multiple ways – via a list provided by Alameda County, weekly encampment outreach so the homeless don’t have to leave their tent for fear of it being stolen or having their space taken, visits to jails, and walk-ins.

“We can pick people up and bring them to the office for intake, if necessary,” notes Homer.

If a person is in a stable situation, intake, which documents physical and mental health, social well-being, and work history, is completed. The SSI eligibility process is also reviewed and an HAC attorney or advocate is assigned.

“We figure out a strategy that works for them,” Homer explains.

Time spent on each case varies from six months to years. Adding to this reality, Homer says, is that “The burden is on the individual asking for help, not the people providing help. The social security office often finds a homeless person is not disabled so they don’t need services.”

If a person is approved, benefits can begin in just a couple of weeks; it can take longer if back pay is involved. If a claim is denied, an appeal process involving a hearing before an administrative law judge can be initiated. Homer describes the process as non-adversarial where the judge, not the attorney, asks the questions. The role of the HAC is more “nuts and bolts” and is related to the greater understanding of the client, such as their medical issues, emotional health, and how they get along with people.

The biggest challenge clients face is negativity – how they have failed and having to show you are so disabled that you cannot work. As Homer points out, “You are literally being judged. We represent an opportunity to present the positive.”

Homer, himself, remains positive that homelessness can be solved and believes people can make a difference in creating human connections. There are big and small ways, from donating money to organizations that assist the homeless to community-based interventions, for example, donating cases of water or towels to use after it rains. At a city and county level, he suggests water fountains, public bathrooms, and shower trucks. And by alleviating the bottleneck that exists with housing development, Homer says the “gold standard” goal of affordable housing can be met.

“There are options we can work through,” he emphasizes. “You have to have the mindset that the city, county, and federal levels will understand the complexities and work from there to drill down. I am optimistic that we can have effective interventions that will impact lives.”

For more information about Homeless Action Center visit their website homelessactioncenter.org/