Commentary: Antioch homeless advocate shares her experience and solutions

By Nichole Gardner

My name is Nichole Gardner and I am the founder and Director of the non-profit Facing Homelessness in Antioch. I started the organization in January 2016. We serve hot meals to the homeless in the city of Antioch and supply them with donated jackets, blankets, shoes, clothing and toiletries, weekly. We strive to not only get them a meal and other necessities, but to show them compassion and dignity, and treat them like human beings. When we go out, we play music, hold raffles and give out prizes, we laugh and joke and even break out some dance moves from time to time while we are out there. It’s like a family dinner party.

Throughout the years, I came to realize that Antioch has the largest population of homeless individuals in East County but is lacking services and resources for them. There is one shelter in the city that sleeps 25 and that’s for people who have mental illness, and it is constantly full.

I started the Antioch Homeless Advocacy Coalition (AHAC) back in June after researching, doing interviews of homeless people around the city and visiting the shelter and CARE center in Concord, which are also constantly full I realized that Antioch needs to do more to battle its homeless problem and that there clearly isn’t enough services for the amount of homeless we have living on our streets.

I, along with other homeless advocates, started attending city council meetings and voicing our concerns. Initially the city told us that they don’t deal with homeless services and that it was a County issue. After attending city council meetings for about eight months, not missing one meeting, the city put together a Homeless Taskforce and the city realized how important it was to deal with its homeless crisis and they put aside over $500,000 into a homeless account that would go towards homeless services.

Our advocacy group has started doing homeless encampment clean-ups around the city, getting the homeless involved and holding them accountable for their garbage. We were surprised at how many of them jumped in and wanted to assist us with cleaning up the city. We have worked with public works and they have given us dumpsters around the city and have given us bags when we do our clean-ups.

Something that we have found that surprises members in the community is that although we are a homeless advocacy group and we feel like it should be a basic human right for people to have shelter and be out of the cold and rain, and have food to eat and water to drink, that we are not naïve to the fact that we do have Antioch residents who have valid concerns when it comes to homelessness in the city. If you commit a crime, are harassing, vandalizing, stealing and causing chaos in the city, you deserve to go to jail, you need to be punished for those things. Garbage around the city is a major problem and that is why we have pushed for dumpsters around the city.

Homeless people in front of businesses can be detrimental to business owners. Talking to the owner of Straw Hat Pizza, who said he closed his Antioch location because of homeless individuals constantly in front of his business, showed us that. People being afraid to walk in and out of businesses because of homeless people asking for money or laying on the ground is a problem.

Our group’s goal is to let people know that we agree with their concerns. We believe shelter and housing would help with these problems. We know not all people want to get off the streets, but we are fully aware that a majority of the people that we have come in contact with do. And even for those who don’t, they still don’t want to be sleeping in the freezing rain and should also have an opportunity to have a shelter to sleep in those elements.

We want the community to know that although we may have some bad apples out there on our streets, we also have really good people out there that are just down on their luck and need help to get back on their feet. There are people who work and have jobs, we have elderly people, disabled people in wheelchairs, over 300 students in our district that are homeless, families sleeping in cars, and veterans living on our streets.

There are so many reasons why people become homeless. Losing a job, living paycheck to paycheck and becoming ill all of a sudden, having the head of the household suddenly pass away, not being able to afford housing, as we are in a housing crisis. Rent is going up, but wages aren’t. People aren’t able to afford rent or their medical bills and medication, and don’t have family to help them.

I think everyone wants the same thing and that is to have our homeless community off of our streets – maybe for different reasons. But we all want the same thing. The problem is what solutions, other than shipping them off to another city (even though most of them were actually born and raised here) can we come up with? It’s been proven that criminalizing homelessness doesn’t work, and housing is the key.

Safe parking for people who are in cars, and housing is a step in the right direction to dealing with this crisis. There are cities such as Oakland, Berkeley and Los Angeles who have parking programs and tiny homes for their homeless.

We have to do something different than we have been doing for our city. Depending on the County has gotten us nowhere. They have emergency funding for our city, which with they say they are going to build a CARE center in Antioch earlier this year. But they said it would take two-to-three years to build, and from my knowledge nothing has been done, so far.

Although I’m excited about the money the city has set aside for services, that money is not going to help get the homeless off of the streets. So, we as advocates have more work to do. We want our city to go back to the way it was when this crisis wasn’t so bad. Although homelessness is very complicated, providing housing for the unhoused is a start to a solution.

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