Shelter Options Remain Unclear as City Passes New Homeless Policy

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Residents of the homeless community 37MLK, Rome (center) and Chrise (right), stand outside of Rome’s tiny home which community volunteers built. The community exists in a high sensitivity area, so could be under threat due to the passage of the new Encampment Management Policy. Photo by Zack Haber on October 25.

Late on October 20, Oakland City Council unanimously passed an Encampment Management Policy that codifies where people experiencing homelessness are and are not allowed to live, but firm plans for what shelter options people will be offered if cleared from a prohibited area have not been set.

The policy defines any space within 50 feet of a residence, business, protected waterway, public park, or sports court, and within 100 feet of a school, as a “high sensitivity area” and further states that “encampments located within a high sensitivity area that are not approved by City Council will be subject to closure intervention.”

“This means they’re going to evict encampments across the entire city,” said Talya Husbands-Hankin of the Oakland homeless rights advocacy group Love and Justice in The Streets. Calling the policy “cruel and racist,” Husbands-Hankin echoed concerns of public speakers at the Oct 20 City Council meeting, where over 175 people spoke, the vast majority of whom were critical of the EMP.

Well over 100 other people took their concerns to the streets during the meeting, as protestors, many of whom were associated with The United Front Against Displacement, House The Bay, and TANC Bay Area, hosted anti-EMP noise demonstrations outside of City Hall and Council Members Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb’s homes. As Kalb discussed amendments to the EMP policy, protestors chanting “fuck the EMP” could be heard to those watching the meeting online.

Those critical of the EMP expressed that the policy leaves homeless people with no safe place to go as high sensitive areas encompass most of the city. But Daryel Dunston, Oakland’s Homelessness Administrator who presented the policy to City Council, said that the policy “leads with services, compassion and empathy” and that services and offers of alternative shelter would be given before a clearance. He repeatedly claimed that the policy does not seek to criminalize homelessness and that no one would be arrested just for sleeping outside.

At the meeting, Dunston referred to a recent operation at Pine and 11th Streets in West Oakland as an example of the City’s process of providing alternative shelter before clearing an encampment. But Needa Bee, of the homeless advocacy group, The Village, said an elderly homeless Black resident, Michael Simpson, got displaced during this operation. Since I have not been able to track down Simpson, I have chosen to change his name for this article.

“They threw away Michael’s belongings and then offered him a few nights in The Travel INN,” said Bee.

I received a copy of a “Temporary Placement Agreement” between Simpson and Operation Dignity, a non-profit that the City of Oakland works with that helps to connect homeless people with shelter services. The agreement confirmed he was offered four days of hotel shelter but then would have to pay to remain in the room. It shows he was offered space in the City’s Community Cabins program, but Bee said he refused due to negative experiences living in them in the past. Accepting the space would also mean sharing a space with a roommate Simpson could not choose.

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A partially redacted copy of the Temporary Placement Agreement between “Michael Simpson” and Operation Dignity.

Sara Bedford, of the City of Oakland’s Human Services, disputed Bee’s claim in an email sent on Oct 26, writing “We cannot share any specific information but can confirm the individual is no longer unsheltered.”

City programs to shelter homeless people in Oakland are limited. Homeless shelters are usually full and some do not offer extended stays. Oakland Community Housing Services Manager Lara Tannenbaum claimed in an email the City has 218 Community Cabin beds, 108 Safe RV spaces, and 128 trailer beds. Oakland’s point in time count claims there are 4,000 homeless people in Oakland and the Homeless Advocacy Working Group’s count claims around 10,000 people.

In a newsletter sent on Oct 23 where he referred to the City Administration who would enforce the EMP, Council Member Kalb wrote “They have assured us that no encampment would be fully closed, or individuals asked to move without multiple offers of services and shelter, due process, and proper noticing.”

There is not yet an agreed upon definition between the City Administration and the Council defining what shelter would be offered. In her own newsletter, also sent on Oct 23, Council President Rebecca Kaplan wrote “there is a need to ensure a shared understanding of what is required in terms of the provision of adequate shelter,” then she claimed that issue would be addressed in a December 1st meeting.

“What really disturbs me and makes me upset is that Oakland, unlike San Francisco, has the amazing resource of 50 plus acres of vacant public land,” said Margaretta Lin, Executive Director of Just Cities, a non-profit that works towards racial justice, housing for all, and police transformation in Oakland. She was critical of the EMP as there currently are not long term spaces that have been made available for most of Oakland’s homeless people to live in if they are cleared from their current locations.

Lin wants to use the vacant land for mobile homes, trailers and tiny homes that would provide shelter for three to five years, claiming that if this were a natural disaster, like an earthquake, which affected middle to high income residents, public land would already be used for such purposes. She also pointed to recent funds from taxes like Measures W and Q, that could be used to arrange and construct such shelters.

Just Cities has arranged an 11 page document listing vacant public lands and Lin said they briefed Mayor Libby Schaaf about their plan in a meeting two years ago.

“Her response was this is a great plan and we’re doing it” said Lin. “But I don’t think they’re really doing it.”

Neither Mayor Schaaf or her media team have responded to questions about the meeting and whether or how she is currently implementing Just Cities’s plan.

In the meantime, some Oakland residents are building tiny homes of their own. 37MLK, a community of homeless long term Bay Area residents who live on private land that has long been left vacant, have started moving into tiny homes that are built and funded by volunteer community members. While several units are already built and lived in, volunteers are ramping up efforts and plan to have seven units built by November 7th. The 8 X 8 and 8 X 10 foot units have locking doors and solar lights. By the winter, they hope to install insulation. They are funding the project though instagram.

“I think that the city should let us have unused property or land that’s just going to waste,” said Rome, who is 53, grew up in the Bay Area, has been homeless for 9 years, and currently lives in a tiny home at 37MLK. The community sits in a high sensitivity area.

Rome talked of how having a roof over her head has made it possible for her to reduce the risk of infection, which may allow her to get a long needed hip replacement surgery if she can be assured of stability. A bad hip leaves her in constant pain that fluctuates in intensity and limits her ability to move.

Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, who helped found the 37MLK community and has lived in Oakland since 2010, thinks what is happening at 37MLK could happen on a much larger and more effective scale if the city made use of public lands and funding.

“I think all of us are a set of broke millennials with no real money ourselves and no construction skills until we were trained,” she said. “Imagine what we could do with real resources on public land.”

Notes: A similar version of this story will appear in print in The Oakland Post on Friday, and another similar version will appear on the Post News Group’s website soon.

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