As Oakland’s homelessness crisis worsens, city council to vote on shelter ordinance

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Last week, a group of Oaklanders sat in the city council chamber with concerned looks on their faces as the councilmembers voted on the topic that had brought them all together: an ordinance that would declare a shelter crisis in Oakland. Even though members of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group (HAWG) had walked up to the microphone to support the emergency ordinance, it did not gain a sixth vote. Instead, it was scheduled to have a second reading on October 3, tonight.

Jonah Strauss, executive director of Oakland Warehouse Coalition and volunteer for HAWG, picked up his bag and rushed out of the council chamber in disappointment. “It was really heartening to see that five out of six council members that were there at the time were in support of the urgency finding to pass the shelter crisis ordinance that night. That gave me a good heads up for what we can expect on October 3, and possibly in the future, with these councilmembers,” Strauss said in an interview after the meeting. “What they need to do is step out of their place of privilege. They need to start really taking the concerns of the extremely low-income folks in Oakland.”

The ordinance presented by Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio would declare a two-year emergency shelter crisis as a response to the high number of Oakland residents who are unable to obtain shelter. According to Alameda County’s 2017 homeless count, there are over 2,761 people who are homeless. Of those 1,902 people are unable to obtain shelter. Yet there are only 350 emergency shelter beds available overnight, and during the winter only 110 additional beds are added. The population of people who are homeless has increased by 570 people since 2015, according to the county’s report.

According to its text, the ordinance would “authorize the city administrator to suspend provisions of state or local regulatory statutes, regulations, and ordinance prescribing standards of housing, health, or safety for additional shelter facilities if needed.” The ordinance would enable a more flexible set of building, land use and other related requirements so a shelter project can proceed in a more cost-effective and quick manner.

In 2015, Oakland’s councilmembers also passed an ordinance declaring a shelter crisis. Yet, during the one-year ordinance period, specific public facilities could not be secured. “We have a budget to do something now. We didn’t have budget two years ago,” Cappio said during a phone interview after the meeting.

Earlier in January, community members and activist groups such as We The People formed a group called “The Village” on 36th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The Village members built up to three houses made out of plywood for homeless residents of Oakland. Later in February, The Village was demolished by the city due to its violation of 18 health, safety and fire codes, leaving all of its community members homeless once again.

According to Patricia A. Carter from Oakland’s Public Works Agency, organizations such as Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful Division and the Oakland Public Works Department have spent a total of $7,195.14 on homeless encampment closures for 2016 and 2017.

At last week’s meeting, HAWG members reminded the councilmembers that the city had destroyed The Village and urged the council to take action. “This ordinance is a turning point in the city’s approach to its unsheltered community,” Strauss said. “Allow temporary intentional communities to establish themselves and flourish on public land and private under the ordinance. We ask for the city, business owners, and renters to remember that a tent on a public or a privately owned parcel is more humane and more sanitary than a tent on a sidewalk or underneath the freeway. They want a safe place to sleep.”

“What we keep on hearing is that there just isn’t enough money. And what we keep on saying is that we don’t need the money, just give us the land,” said Needa Bee, a member of HAWG and We The People.

In February, Oakland provided a temporarily-sanctioned homeless encampment on 35th Street and Magnolia Street that was a part of a city’s six-month program to provide fundamental public services. The encampment closed in the spring. According to Cappio, out of the 40 residents that lived in it, 24 found permanent housing. Cappio said that the temporarily sanctioned taught them what practices worked and what did not.

Encampments in Oakland have become common due to the rising population of people who are homeless. Fred, age 61, who declined to state his last name, lives in an encampment on 6th Street and Webster Street underneath the freeway, where seven tents lie on a cold dirt floor. Most of the tents have towels lying on top of them. There are a couple of mattresses on the ground, as well as office chairs and foldable chairs dispersed throughout the camp. On the freeway’s cement wall, someone had written a message with yellow chalk: “good night!”

It was early in the morning, but all of the encampment members were up. Amid the loud noise of rigs and cars driving above them, Fred and two other men drank their morning coffee peacefully. According to Fred, most of them are “older guys that have been professional people.” Fred has been an Oakland resident for 25 years but said he became homeless about two and a half years ago. He said he used to be a security guard and later became a landscaper.

“I’ve always had a job and I’ve always had a place to live, but I got priced out of the market,” Fred said. “You have people losing their jobs, you have rent in the Bay that is crazy-ass high, and all those things are contributing to the homelessness. These people drive by and hate on us, but, you know, we are mad about homelessness, too. They are not the only ones. We are mad, too. We don’t want to be homeless. Give us a place we can afford to live in.”

On September 1, City Administrator Sabrina B. Landreth released a memorandum that stated that the city’s Homeless Action Team would immediately begin taking action to help the homelessness crisis and that their major focus was “adding safety and sanitation services at up to five encampments this fiscal year, developing and operating at least one outdoor safe haven site and acquiring and developing a second ‘Henry Robinson like’ facility for interim housing leading to permanent housing.” The Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center provides rapid housing programs for people who are homeless.

According to the memorandum, the Homeless Action Team is responsible for coordinating clean-ups of camps and facilitating closures necessary for the health and safety of camps’ occupants as well as the public. As team leader Christine Daniel, the Assistant City Administrator, is responsible for coordinating with several agencies including the Humane Services Department, Oakland Fire Department, Oakland Police Department, and Oakland Public Works and providing regular reports to the city council.

During a city Life Enrichment Committee meeting on September 26, Daniel specified that the city’s safe haven site would have a site management staff, security, portable toilets, garbage services and laundry services. She also stated that the location that they were looking for must be flat, paved and be close to transportation and existing encampments so that people can live together.

Daniels presented four possible locations in Oakland: 34th Street and Mandela Parkway, noting that the city had tried negotiating a lease with Cal Trans but failed; 3831 Martin Luther King Way, which is a 10,000 square foot city-owned lot; East 12th Street and 23rd Avenue, a 64,000 square foot property that belongs to the city; and 6th and 7th and Brush Street and Castro Street.No location has been chosen yet.

At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan asked Daniel to provide more sites for the following meeting. “Even if the administration feels uncertain or uncomfortable with sites, present that choice to us,” Kaplan said. She also suggested considering Alameda County and Oakland Unified School District sites in Oakland.

Oakland resident Angela Alford, 60, attended the meeting and shared her story with the committee. Alford said she became homeless two years ago when she could no longer pay her rent, and that she can no longer work because of her poor health.  She told the committee that she sleeps outside, encounters huge rats on a regular basis, and has no running water, no portable restrooms, and no trash dispensaries. Alford said she wakes up every morning and sweeps the street that she lives on because she cannot stand the trash. “I just do not believe that God intended us to live like this because this world is too big and there is too much land out there that nobody is using or doing anything out there with,” she said.

“I just want to pick myself up, get some help and get some help for all of my people that are out there sleeping in bus stops. It’s really sad. We shouldn’t have to live like that,” Alford continued. “It might not be today or it might not be tomorrow, but I’m going to get off these streets because I’m really too old to be in the streets. Oakland is too big to not give us some kind of help.”

Meanwhile, Bay Area nonprofits and community programs continue to provide resources to the homeless. The Homeless Action Center, a nonprofit with offices in Oakland and Berkeley, has provided services for about 1,500 homeless people per year, such as providing free legal representation for people who are applying for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration.

“The ordinance will affect the city in a positive way, but only if it actually leads to the creation of more emergency shelters, transitional housing, and permanent affordable housing,” said Heather Freinkel, managing attorney at the center. “Further, the alternative minimum health and safety standards must also be designed to ensure that the facilities created are of acceptable quality and safety.”

Freinkel believes that creating more shelter capacity is a short-term solution. A better solution would be for the city to develop more permanent affordable housing units as well as putting a stop to clearing encampments, she said.

“The least expensive and most urgent thing the city could do right now to address the shelter crisis would be to stop clearing encampments. Those who live in encampments are residents of the City of Oakland, too, and should be seen as constituents. Encampments are already a last resort for people. Encampment residents are incredibly resourceful in the face of dire lack of access to resources,” Freinkel said. “At encampments, residents provide a marginal level of shelter, safety and community support for themselves and each other. Breaking up encampments deprives these residents even of the option of helping themselves meet their own basic needs.”

Cityteam Oakland provides shelter, a dining hall, life transformation programs and a “Learning and Career” center. This program allows program members to increase their employability by providing them with individualized learning plans so they can master writing, math, reading and computer literacy.

“You need to address the emotional, physical and spiritual help of the people,” said Carol Patterson, vice president of communication for Cityteam. “Just putting them in a house is not going to help. You need to give them the tools to transition their lives. That’s what Cityteam is doing. It’s about so much more than housing.”

The program provides 300 meals per day for people who are homeless and 35 beds for their shelter. The shelter is run on a first come, first served basis, and people pay a $5 charge. According to Cityteam director Angela Teixeira, the charge is a deterrent to prevent people from making the shelter a permanent home. Cityteam provides all of the people that spend the night with pajamas, showers, and dinner.

“What Cityteam does is they show everyone respect and courtesy. No matter what your situation is, no one is looking down on you,” said Robert Park, 38, who has stayed at the Cityteam shelter for the past two weeks. “That’s an amazing thing because when I first came here I had not slept in a day and a half so I was kind of delirious. I was not in a great place.”

Park said he became homeless a month ago due to a disagreement that ended his partnership in a fine art business. “Overnight. I used to make a good living, in between $7,500 [and] $15,000 a month, and everything was gone. It’s almost unbelievable and depressing, in a sense. But I have to figure it out,” Park said.

After unsuccessfully looking for shelter in Berkeley and San Francisco and sleeping in the streets for three days, Park found Cityteam in Oakland. He said he was able to find employment in Oakland while living at the shelter. “I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” Park said. “Being homeless and seeing it, it’s more acute now. I’m more aware of it because I’m one of them.”

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