Why the Oakland Fire Says So Much About San Francisco’s Homeless Problems

In early December, a warehouse caught fire in Oakland, California, causing 36 deaths. The recovery efforts are now complete, but the effects of this incident will be felt for some time.

This warehouse nicknamed Ghost Ship by the people living there was a kind of last bastion of disordered living. All across the Bay Area, skyrocketing rents and the cost of living are forcing low-income or homeless people into a smaller and smaller area. Eventually, something had to give.

The Details of the Fire

Ghost Ship, legally speaking, was zoned not for residential use, but for industrial purposes. As a result, it posed a minor safety hazard at even the best of times. But when the fire broke out, there was little the building’s residents could do.

Inside the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse was an array of living areas, art studios and workshops, where people practiced their craft or merely got some needed shuteye. The space was a maze of battered beds and couches even pianos and entire mobile homes.

But the building caught fire unexpectedly one cold night in December during a dance party, stunning the Bay Area’s artist community and unearthing a problem that doesn’t get nearly as much attention in America as it deserves: homelessness.

But this warehouse isn’t just a living space it’s a very real indictment of the rent and homeless crises in the United States. It’s not a uniquely American problem, but America makes it uniquely unforgiveable, since we’re both the wealthiest nation on earth and the most powerful. Is it controversial to point out that Americans shouldn’t be dying homeless or doomed to ignominy?

In the Oakland area, the average cost of renting an apartment has doubled itself in a mere five years. Hence places like Ghost Ship: illegal havens for the severely financially depressed to find shelter from the elements. It also served as a bustling community center, where residents could create and display visual art, perform on their favorite instruments or build furniture. A space like this would be a welcome addition to nearly any city in America, but in Oakland, it had to exist underground, beyond the eyes of the authorities.

Partial blame falls at the feet of the region’s tech giants, who have ratcheted up both the price of rent and the general cost of living in Oakland and beyond. One of Ghost Ship’s residents, Jose Avalos, was clear about his reasons for inhabiting the place: I am an artist … I was living there because there’s no housing that’s affordable in the East Bay. Previously, his rent was $565 per month. In Oakland, an equivalent space goes for $2,000 or more. It’s just not feasible.

The entire region is facing this kind of no-easy-answer identity crisis as new wealth moves into areas like San Francisco, the affordable housing crisis becomes ever more crippling, causing residents and would-be residents into competition with one another. Low-income households have to move farther and farther away from centers of commerce, making it ever-harder to land back on their feet. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that will take nothing short of a nationwide collective effort to solve.

Possible Answers

Luckily, progressive minds are turning their attention toward reducing America’s homeless population and making sure we never have another incident like what happened at Ghost Ship.

Thanks to initiatives like the Affordable Housing and Community Economic Development, low-income families are better equipped than ever to take advantage of housing tax credits, tax exemptions and grants for community development projects.

In nearby San Francisco one of the world’s capitals of high-tech progress officials are mulling an additional tax on tech-focused corporations to help build up infrastructure and relief programs to get more Americans off the streets and into safer living conditions. Nobody ever said technology companies were causing this problem single-handedly, but since there’s amble evidence they’re playing a key role, it’s only fair that they should help put things right.

Progress as a Curse

It’s clear that, for too many people, progress can actually be a curse or even a death sentence. It’s up to all of us to recognize that the dignity of even a single citizen should be a top priority, and should sweep aside any previous political and cultural differences we might have.

If we’re dead-set on believing in American Exceptionalism, we had better act like we deserve the title and that means looking after our most vulnerable citizens.

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