Oakland politicians, community members discuss solutions to growing homelessness crisis

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Oakland Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan hosted a community meeting on homeless solutions Monday to address what she believes is the city’s number one concern: the number of unhoused people living on Oakland’s streets. According to Kaplan, the meeting was about honing in on all possible solutions to end the community’s ever-growing homelessness crisis. She believes there hasn’t been a response in line with the magnitude of the problem.

“It is my goal to implement solutions to the scale of the problem,” said Kaplan. “Not 20 more homes—3,000 more!”

Kaplan began by greeting the more than 80 people in attendance and thanking them for taking a first step to fight the city’s mounting problem. “Tonight, we are having a community conversation on real strategies,” she said. “The number of unhoused people has gone up dramatically in recent years.” In her memo to the city, which was publicly noticed by the City Clerk’s office on March 2, Kaplan stated that the number of homeless people has risen from 2,191 to 2,761 between 2015 and 2017.

The meeting, which was held in Oakland City Hall’s council chamber, featured a panel of local activists, faith-based leaders and leaders from other community groups including EveryOne Home and The Village, all of whom introduced different strategies.

Elaine De Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home, reminded attendees of the roots of the problem: Oakland’s rising inequalities in terms of wages, sky-rocketing rents and a severe dearth of housing units. Her organization’s solution is to focus on prevention; for example, they propose an increase in the availability of Alameda county’s flexible funds—funds created to alleviate homelessness—specifically for those at risk of homelessness, including couch surfers, people already dependent on permanent supportive housing and those who have been homeless before.

“We have to reduce the number of people becoming homeless in the first place,” she said. “It will require resources to keep people from falling into homelessness and policies to stabilize renters in their current homes.”

Anita de Asis, an activist, community educator and founder of Feed the People at The Village, partially agreed, but said she believes that solving the existing homeless crisis is just as important as preventing it from worsening. “What will prevent and solve homelessness are jobs,” she said. “We have a max influx of jobs in Oakland, but they are not jobs for the people who were born and raised in Oakland.”

Kaplan nodded her head and snapped her fingers in solidarity with de Asis’ words. Kaplan added, “Oakland is a city that talks about how we value refugees. Well, these are our refugees …  our economic refugees living on our streets.” Her memo stated that the vast majority—over 80 percent—of Oakland’s unhoused are from the city originally.

Pamela Davis, a 62-year-old Oakland resident who has lived in the city since she was 6, attended Monday’s meeting in hopes of understanding how to access low-income housing for seniors. She sat in the very front row, meticulously jotting down notes as each panelist spoke. “I am here so I can remain alert and stay involved,” she said.

“Plus, I need to learn about these issues because now I feel the pressure of personally being affected,” she added, breathing a heavy sigh.

Davis said she was glad that she attended Monday’s meeting, but expressed hesitancy regarding some of the laws that are discussed around homelessness. The city’s Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance, for example, protects renters from evictions in many circumstances, but Davis has begun noticing a negative trend. “I’m seeing that laws—federal to local—are there, but somehow the implementation—the real deal—is off,” she said. “The law could be in place, but it’s not happening in reality.”

De Asis was also adamant about reminding attendees of their duty to influence government policy, by encouraging the council to put an end to the criminalization of homelessness, to fund additional city-sanctioned homeless encampments, and to build new shelters for the homeless. “We hear from mayor that there is no money,” she said, raising her voice. “That is not true! There is plenty of money.”

She urged the city to use the land parcels it owns for the construction of affordable housing, rather than selling those spaces to private developers. The crowd cheered as she continued, “Can we please stop selling city lands? Can we please build low-income housing with what is left?” The clapping lingered well past her final questions.

Kaplan segued into the meeting’s conclusion by reminding attendees of her proposed resolution, which includes taxing the owners of vacant properties to pressure them to build housing instead of letting the land sit vacant and setting up housing units on land owned by faith-based organizations, including churches. She also is proposing a “dedicated funding stream” that will be generated from the special parcel tax on vacant properties.The tax will be reserved exclusively for solutions to homelessness issues, and it will be placed on the November ballot.

Kaplan called her plan not an economic proposal, but a moral proposal. “People who are buying properties and not putting them to use are undermining our society,” said Kaplan in regards to the vacant property tax. “There are more vacant properties than there are unsheltered residents. Think about that,” she said, before repeating herself for emphasis.

The council will likely vote on her proposal in April.

Reverend Ken Chambers of the West Side Missionary Baptist Church, who is also the president of the Interfaith Council of Alameda County, elaborated on the second part of Kaplan’s proposal. Chambers supports allowing faith-based communities to use their resources and land to help solve the city’s homelessness crisis. “Church properties are the most valuable and unused properties that can be used for the homeless,” he said. “Everyone has a right to have shelter—it’s not a privilege, it’s a human right.”

He continued: “We need all hands on deck. Everyone needs to come forward and do their part.”

Before dismissing the audience, Kaplan echoed the need for collaboration. She encouraged everyone to stay and network instead of leaving. “We really do need all of us,” she said before quoting a verse from the Bible: “God is not impressed with your fasting and wailing if you are not taking action in the world to help the people that are struggling.”

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