What Oakland’s homeless audit says about evictions, policing, and fire

A tent in Oakland that serves as a home for a resident. Photo by Zack Haber on October 2, 2019.

On April 14, Oakland’s City Auditor Courtney Ruby released an audit of the city’s homeless encampment management interventions and activities for the fiscal years 2018–19 and 2019–2020. The 95 page report includes data and estimations about interventions, populations, costs, and availability of services related to homeless people and their communities. Claiming that the city “lacked an effective strategy…and did not provide sufficient policy direction or adequate funding,” Ruby also included recommendations for better addressing homeless communities. Although the audit was vast in its analysis, this guide attempts to outline key points from the audit related only to evictions and hygiene services, police response and costs, and fire department response and costs.

Evictions and hygiene services

The audit’s data on evictions and hygiene services is limited to the 2018–19 fiscal year and the first 8 months of the 2019–20 fiscal year, when the city suspended most homeless evictions and cleaning interventions due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. During this timeframe, the city evicted 181 homeless communities. 123 of these evictions, about 2/3rds of the total, were classified as “re-closures,” which the report defined as occurring “when homeless individuals return to a previously closed [homeless community].” In the fiscal year 2018–19, about 60% of evictions were re-closures. From July 2019 through February 2020, this ratio increased, and about 77% of evictions were re-closures.

The audit reports 1,599 interventions classified as “hygiene and garbage services,” and defines such interventions as “providing portable toilets, hand washing stations, regular garbage service, and/or traffic barriers.” For each of these services performed per homeless community, the audit counts one intervention. These interventions are lumped together and lack individual data, meaning that the audit did not report precise data on how often the city provided trash pick up to homeless communities.

The audit reports that the city increased its hygiene and garbage interventions. From 2018–19, the city provided 797 such interventions, or about 66 per month. During the first 8 months of 2019–2020, the city performed 802 such interventions, or about 100 per month. After March 2020, in response to COVID-19, the audit claims the city increased the number of homeless communities that receive hygiene interventions from 20 to 40, but the vast majority of homeless communities in Oakland still do not get hygiene and/or trash services with any regularity. The audit estimates that there are at least 140 homeless communities in Oakland, but acknowledges “that this estimate may be conservative.”

Police response and costs

Data recorded in the audit shows police response to 911 calls in homeless communities was not timely. While over 99% of 911 calls were classified as “Priority 2,” which the audit claims “ideally should be responded to in 10 to 15 minutes,” data provided by OPD showed the median police response time to Priority 2 calls was two hours in 2018–19, while the mean response time was four hours. In the 2019–20, response time slowed by about 50%, with the median response time being about three hours, while the mean response time was about six hours. Data OPD listed related to response time range show the department took over two days to respond to at least one 911 call in 2018–19 and over six days to respond to at least one other 911 call in 2019–20. Although OPD recorded 1,458 calls to homeless communities during the two years of the audit, the audit only analyzed 988 of these calls, claiming that “response data was incomplete” for 470 calls.

The audit records OPD using about $3.1 million in costs associated with homeless communities. But that $3.1 million does not include an accurate account of overtime pay. OPD only started recording overtime pay related to homeless communities in Feb 2020, just before the frequency of interventions, notably evictions, declined dramatically.

About $1.7 million, a slim majority OPD’s recorded costs related to homeless communities, are recorded as labor costs that went to the three members of The Homeless Outreach Team. The Homeless Outreach Team consists of one sergeant and two officers who dedicate 100% of their time to homeless community work. The Abandoned Auto Unit incurred over $800,000 in labor costs to provide support at moderate to large homeless community evictions. They were responsible for “traffic control and tagging and towing vehicles at [homeless communities] when necessary.” $600,000 went to labor costs incurred by Patrol staff responding to 911 calls.

Fire Department response and costs

The audit reports that The Oakland Fire Department responded to 988 fires in homeless communities in 2018–19 and 2019–20, which is over one a day. The data recorded shows that the OFD response times for such fires were timely, arriving in just over seven minutes and 50 seconds to over 90% of calls. Such responses were slightly faster than responses to non-homeless community related calls, which, in 90% of cases, OFD responded to in about 8 minutes and ten seconds. OFD has recorded no injuries to firefighters fighting fires at homeless communities. One homeless resident died in 2020 as a direct result of a fire. The audit did not record fire related injuries to homeless people or their lost possessions.

The Oakland Fire Department responds to a fire at a homeless community on Wood Street on West Oakland. Photo on March 19 by Zack Haber.

OFD related costs accounted for an estimated $1.8 in funds related to homeless communities in 2018–19 and 2019–2020. About $676,000 went to “fire prevention labor,” which includes labor costs associated with fire hazard inspections, investigations related to fires, and removal of hazardous waste. Over one million dollars went to both labor and equipment costs related to “fire suppression.” Fire suppression costs include costs related to fighting fires and rescue activities. OFD costs related to homeless communities rose over 40% from 2018–19 to 2019–20 while total fires at homeless communities increased about 17% over these years.

Notes: In two cases I have used different wording than the audit does that I feel is more accurate. I have replaced the word “encampment” with “homeless community.” I have replaced the word “closure” with “eviction.”

A similar version of this story will appear on The Post News Group’s website soon. A shorter version will appear in print in The Oakland Post on Friday.