The program, which is run by Bay Area Community Services, gets involved when people are at risk of losing their home because of anything from being unable to pay rent, to fighting with a family member who lives with them. Keep Oakland House offers emergency financial assistance, legal assistance, and one-off problem-solving in an effort to stop homelessness before it starts.
Everything changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the program was inundated with a flood of people who needed help — but also received federal support and state funding to help meet the growing demand.
Now that that money is running out, new CEO Logan McDonnell has been tasked with building a new post-pandemic home, Keep Oakland Condo. He and his team reimagine everything from who qualifies for help, to how they reach non-English speakers and people without an internet connection, to how they can continue to help their clients in the long term.
McDonnell sat down with this news organization to discuss the importance and future of homelessness prevention. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
s: In a world where the focus is often on helping someone once they become homeless, why is it important to focus on prevention as well?
a: Once someone is homeless, the likelihood that they will be homeless again increases exponentially. So in order to truly intervene, we must ethically not allow anyone to become homeless in the first place. And just from a cost-benefit analysis, prevention is a fraction of the amount we would have to pay if we let them get to the point where they lose their housing.
s: why is that?
a: Prevention is always cheaper than cure.
When you talk about what homelessness response typically looks like, you’re talking about emergency response, participation in criminal justice, and emergency room use. You’re talking about many different systems that homelessness overburdens, versus just keeping someone in housing.
s: Is the blocking model popular in other jurisdictions?
a: I hope that. I think it’s a lot easier to focus on what’s visible, and what some might find annoying – like the tents on the street. And it’s a lot easier to be a spectator when you don’t have to see it. You don’t see it when someone can’t pay their mortgage. This was something that happened in my family. I had some in my family, including my dad, who couldn’t keep up with the mortgage. What usually happens is that they sell their home for less, it resells for more, and then they move away from their community. And the lasting effects of that can be everything from loneliness to trauma to crime, because you don’t have the means to survive. So instead of letting all that happen, why not come along and offer support that isn’t usually given?
s: And how has the pandemic changed the need for this kind of work?
a: Three years ago, it took about $4,000 to prevent someone from being displaced, on average. When the pandemic hit, we saw people owed up to 18 months of rent in arrears. So with federal and state funding, we’ve been able to make it complete. The owners communicated with us a lot. And we were able to make it complete, so that they don’t have to go without it during the eviction moratorium.
People have prioritized, for example, having to do distance learning and virtual learning. How many times has someone had to pay a fee for their kid to get a computer they probably didn’t have, and they prioritize their kids’ education over that month’s rent? It all snowballs. Many people end up in worse situations than they were three years ago.
I think the lasting effects are still being debated. I think the dust is still settling.
s: How successful is this program in Auckland?
a: We have served more than 7,200 families so far. We have spent more than 30 million dollars. And it’s a success when they don’t come back. We don’t have any duplicates yet.
s: Why is Keep Oakland Housed getting its first CEO now, four years after its launch?
a: I think the need is great. Even with the work that has been done in the past, we unfortunately still see the number of homeless people rising over the years. I think it’s time for us to become more insistent than we’ve ever been, and just offer interventions that we may not have done in the past.We need to double down on this and more investment, and really, we need a call to action to get a commitment from every company, every financier, and every member of society who is grieving about what they’ve seen as systemic injustice, gentrification, and long, long-term harm to society.
s: With demand so high, what percentage of applicants can you serve with the resources you have?
a: There are currently two buckets under the canopy of Keep Oakland House. For the COVID emergency fund, even with all the money, there just wasn’t enough. We’ve already run out of federal funding. We are now drawing on state funds, and we expect them to run out by mid-November. We expect there are still a few thousand people remaining.
We’re also looking at how many of those people are we going to be able to serve with private funding, which is the other bucket. I think in order to really meet the current needs that we’re seeing, we’re going to need more fundraising. But we will definitely make an impact.
Previous job: Assistant Director at Bay Area Community Services for a year before being hired to lead Keep Oakland Housed. Prior to that, he was Senior Director of Development for the Downtown Streets team.
Home: Pleasanton for now, but plans to return to Oakland next year
Birthplace: Westchester County, New York
School: Florida A&M University
Five facts about Logan McDonnell
- He loves to play his Playstation 5.
- He sits on the boards of directors of Community Forward and Success Centers, and volunteers at the OK Program.
- He is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
- He once defended himself in court and won. That was nearly 15 years ago, in New York at the height of the “stop and frisk” police policy. McDonnell says he was standing in front of his house talking to a friend when a police officer approached him and began questioning him. The situation escalated after McDonnell, trying to defend himself and asking why he was being questioned, was arrested and fined. It was too expensive to hire a lawyer, so McDonnell defended himself in court and ended up forgoing the fine. That experience made him want to start a career advocating for other people in need.
- He loves to travel. Recently, he went to a family reunion in England.