Shahera Hyatt is the Director of the California Homeless Youth Project, an initiative of the California Research Bureau focusing on educating policymakers on the needs of homeless youth in California. She has authored several publications on the topic of youth homelessness including policy briefs on LGBTQ youth, as well as the nation’s first state action plan on ending youth homelessness. She is also a local comedian and was a special guest at our May 2 Talk-Back for Treatment.
Artistic Associate Sean Patrick Nill sat down with Shahera to discuss Mayor Daryl Steinberg’s new initiative to house 2000 homeless residents of Sacramento, how to better understand homelessness issue, and how the arts can play a positive role in that issue.
For the past decade, as Sacramento has grown, so has the homeless population. In the last two years alone there has been a 30 percent increase. How many of these individuals are between the ages of 12 and 24? What is the correlation of a growing metropolis and an increase in a homeless population? Is there a way a city can both grow and assist individuals from living on the street?
The impacts of the foreclosure crisis are still being felt across the country and that is certainly true here in Sacramento. When people lost their homes more folks were pushed into the rental market thereby decreasing vacancy rates and increasing rent. Couple that with the fact that Sacramento developers can opt out of developing affordable housing by paying a fee up front, which is a fairly recent policy change that makes it less likely that affordable housing is being constructed. This negatively impacts not just low income renters, but all renters. I think that a city can grow without homelessness increasing, but if there are not protections in place, then gentrification and displacement take hold pushing more people onto the streets, or into other precarious housing arrangements.
A week ago, Mayor Steinberg declared that he would work to reduce the amount of homeless inhabitants in Sacramento by 2,000. What is the most effective way in doing this? How do you think the mayor will go about reaching this goal?
This is a really big question! The mayor’s plans to reduce homelessness can be found online, but essentially he plans to allocate 1600 housing vouchers to chronically homeless folks. This is one strategy, that is a little controversial among providers and advocates because it doesn’t add to the housing stock or help to prevent homelessness, but it could rapidly help to get some of these folks off the streets and into permanent housing.
The California Homeless Youth Project works to educate law makers on youth homelessness and ways to go about avoiding it. How was this initiative started? How has it fought against homelessness in Sacramento? What are CHYP’s plans for the future?
This year we celebrate one decade of doing research and policy work to better address the needs of homeless young people across the state of California. We have conducted nationally groundbreaking research and helped to pass landmark legislation to respond to the crisis of youth homelessness in our state. Locally, we started the Sacramento homeless youth task force creating a coalition of providers and advocates working with young people experiencing homelessness across the county of Sacramento to create a united voice and organize together to better serve young people. We also co-facilitate a weekly organizing meeting made up of young people with lived experience of homelessness where we strategize about how to improve conditions in our community to better serve unhoused youth and young adults. The criminalization of homelessness has been a big priority for our organization and for the young people that we work with. We’re also focusing specifically on the needs of homeless college students and increasing housing strategies for young adults transitioning into adulthood.
Many people see Sacramento homeless as the city’s priority. How can individuals assist on a daily basis? How can organizations such as B Street support?
Homelessness primarily exists because of poor policy and funding decision-making at the local, state and federal levels, but the narrative that exist about homelessness is that it is a personal problem or character deficit. People can and should challenge this narrative. There is an unfair stigma that exists for people experiencing homelessness that leads to discrimination, harassment and worse. People can treat people experiencing homelessness with dignity and respect, and share resources if they feel comfortable and able to do so. Individuals can advocate to elected leaders to address homelessness and listen to people experiencing homelessness as experts and allies in this struggle.
How can the arts assist in initiatives such as Mayor Steinberg’s and YHP’s?
Avoid stereotyping people experiencing homelessness in the arts. Find local organizations that are doing good work to meet the needs of this community and create performance opportunities that benefit these organizations.