Fighting Homelessness in the Bay Area

By Nikki Bambauer

Homeless encampment in West Oakland, 2017 (Image by Thomas Hawk via  Flickr )

Homeless encampment in West Oakland, 2017 (Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr)


When Leilana Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, visited San Francisco and Oakland in 2018, she was shocked at the conditions that the cities’ unhoused populations were living in. Speaking to a homeless man about his right to housing, she stated, “That’s something your government is supposed to do,” […] “I hate to tell you, you’re being ripped off.”

The San Francisco Bay Area constitutes the world’s 19th largest economy, but the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is staggering. Walking through West Oakland or the SoMA district in San Francisco, people can’t help but be astonished by the sprawling encampments of tents, cardboard, and other temporary shelters. As they pass by, they must think, “how could this happen?”

According to a 2018 report, the Bay Area has the third-highest level of income inequality in the United States. As more people move to the area for high-paying jobs in the tech sector, rising rents and new, upscale housing developments force long-time working-class residents of San Francisco and Oakland – often people of color – out of their homes and onto the street. This is part of a process known as gentrification.

‘Cruel and Inhuman Treatment’

 An estimated 25,000+ people are currently unhoused in the Bay Area, a grave violation of human rights. According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services […]”

With so many unhoused individuals and families on our streets, can we say with confidence that the Bay Area is living up to the standards of the UDHR? UN Special Rapporteur Farha certainly doesn’t think so. During her recent visit to San Francisco and Oakland, she noted that city governments’ destruction of homeless encampments, laws against food sharing, and other ordinances amount to cruel and inhuman treatment of the cities’ unhoused residents.

Community-Based Solutions

Buena Vista Horace Mann school (Image by Kevin N. Hume via  S.F. Examiner )

Buena Vista Horace Mann school (Image by Kevin N. Hume via S.F. Examiner)

Every year, more than four million young people experience some form of homelessness. In San Francisco, for example, twenty percent of the city’s homeless population is under the age of 25.  For these students and their families, securing affordable housing or space in an emergency shelter can be difficult. As a result, communities in the Bay Area have taken matters into their own handsIn San Francisco, Buena Vista Horace Mann (BVHM), a K-8 dual language immersion school in the city’s Mission District, recently opened its doors to homeless and housing insecure families. Through its Stay Over Program, operated in partnership with local community organizations, students and their families have access to hot meals, showers, and a safe place to sleep – all in the school’s gymnasium.

Across the Bay, the 24-Hour Oakland Parent-Teacher Children Center works to support early childhood education and provide services to keep housing insecure families together. In addition to operating emergency shelters, the organization provides child development programs to those who are homeless and/or searching for employment.

These programs in San Francisco and Oakland are just two efforts to help end homelessness in the Bay Area; however, in cities throughout the United States, city governments and community organizations are working on similar programs to help decrease the country’s homeless population, estimated at more than 550,000 people.

Under the UDHR, everyone has a right to housing. As educators, we must make sure that our schools and our communities are upholding and protecting this fundamental human right. If children are our future, shouldn’t we make sure that they have everything they need to thrive?

What programs does your community have to help homeless students and families?

Resources for Educators