East Oakland Community Project official ‘cautiously optimistic’ that funds will get into the hands of people in need
By Jordan Rosenfeld
OAKLAND -- Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest healthcare systems in the country, has announced a $200 million housing and homeless initiative over the next two to three years through its Thriving Communities Fund.
The funds will benefit Oakland and four other cities that are home to Kaiser hospitals, including Alexandria, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon. The funds are considered impact investing, a form of investment that aims to result in a “measurable social benefit,” Kaiser officials said in a statement.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the specific amount of money to be invested in Oakland is still unknown, but she said she is sure her city will get its fair share.
“Oakland’s long and positive relationship with Kaiser puts our city at the center of their long-term investment plans,” Schaaf said in an email.
Though it is unclear what percentage of funds will go toward homelessness and how much toward housing stability, Kaiser’s priorities are to prevent displacement or homelessness of lower- and middle-income households in “rapidly changing communities,” and to reduce homelessness through access to “supportive housing.” Finally, Kaiser officials say they want to make the homes they help build more environmentally sound.
“Affordable housing will be a significant focus of Kaiser Permanente’s impact-investing portfolio to generate housing stability and improve health outcomes,” said Bernard Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente. “We hope our commitment creates a broader national conversation on homelessness, and encourages other companies to join with us to advance economic, social and environmental conditions for health.”
Schaaf expressed confidence in Kaiser’s support, citing that Kaiser has already donated millions to the city over the years. She noted that, most recently, the healthcare organization donated $775,000 to help support construction of the city’s Tuff Shed shelter site at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue.
“That site will house up to 40 unsheltered residents and move people off the sidewalks and into services,” Schaaf said.
Schaaf’s primary goal for the funding is to help alleviate the cost-of-living crisis in Oakland because the funds will go toward preventing homelessness and preserving affordable housing.“Sometimes preventing homelessness means paying small bills for lights and water, and sometimes it’s large investments—like converting an old hotel into a new rapid-rehousing center with 70 units, as the city is doing right now in downtown Oakland,” Schaaf said.
In addition, she said, preventing homelessness also means preserving affordable housing while “rapidly producing more housing for all income levels.” She hopes that Kaiser’s investments will also help to expand affordable housing units, which will help prevent the displacement of low- and middle-income families.
“That’s a priority for Oakland, and that’s a priority for our city’s largest employer and cherished community partner, Kaiser,” Schaaf said
Wendy Jackson, executive director of the East Oakland Community Project, which hosts a 15-bed respite care facility—a place for homeless folks discharged from hospitals in need of recuperation—is cautiously optimistic about the news.
She said she has had good experiences with Kaiser on several prior occasions. First, when Jackson took over as executive director of EOCP in 1996, Kaiser canceled $30 thousand in healthcare debt that had racked up under the prior executive director when she agreed to stay with Kaiser for their employees. Second, Jackson said, “When we said that Alameda County needed respite care services, Kaiser was the first organization to put money out in terms of support.” With that support, the facility went from 10 to 15 beds.
That being said, Jackson wanted more information as to the depth of Kaiser’s collaboration with Oakland homeless services providers. “I want to be convinced, as I was in the past, that it’s not just throwing money at a problem, that it’s thoroughly investing in a solution,” Jackson said.
“Each dollar should be used to get the most out of increasing housing opportunities for people who aren’t rich, who aren’t middle class,” Jackson said. She hopes to have the opportunity to sit down with someone in a planning capacity at Kaiser as soon as that is possible.
And Jackson is hopeful that her agency will make Kaiser’s radar, as she has a creative project in mind. “It’s a collaborative project with a community healthcare provider [like Kaiser, which] could be an amazing force to make this happen to the benefit of the community. It would involve 50 units of housing, which could be amazing for vulnerable populations.”
Kaiser’s mission with the investment is two-fold: As part of their stated commitment to offering affordable health care services, they believe that housing stability can improve the health of communities, citing that “housing stability is a key factor in a person’s overall health and well-being.”
Additionally, the organization hopes to see a return on their investment by creating a mix of homeless services and market-rate housing, so that they can continue to make future impact investments of this kind.
“Many of the communities we serve are grappling with some of the highest rates of housing insecurity and homelessness in the United States,” said Dr. Bechara Choucair, Kaiser Permanente’s chief community health officer. “As a family physician, I’ve provided medical care to the homeless, and have seen first-hand the impact that living without a home can have on someone’s health.”
Kaiser also aims to start a trend of similar investments. Choucair said, “We hope this national commitment to impact investing in housing stability will inspire other companies to share the responsibility of this critical issue growing in the United States.”
With the Kaiser investment so newly announced, Schaaf said they have not yet pinned down the builder and contractors, but expect to have more information in the next few weeks.
Schaaf calls the homelessness issue an “all-hands-on-deck crisis,” and lauds Kaiser for stepping up. “Government can’t do it alone. The community can’t do it alone. Developers can’t do it alone.”
The only solution she sees to the homelessness crisis is “more housing at all levels.”
Jordan Rosenfeld is a Bay Area freelance reporter