RVs line the street near the Home Depot in Oakland's Fruitvale Neighborhood.

Oakland City Council committee checks progress on solutions for homelessness

on March 6, 2019

City of Oakland staffers are working to open up to six RV sites for the homeless and providing portable restrooms to at least nine more encampments. These were among the highlights of a report presented to the Oakland City Council’s Life and Enrichment committee late Tuesday afternoon. The report updated members on the progress staff are making to address the city’s growing homeless population, but a crowd of critics told city staff the long list in their report is not enough. 

“These solutions are not to scale for the 9,000 homeless in our city,” said Talya Husband-Hankin of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group. 

According to the Alameda County point-in-time count done in 2017—the latest finished survey—there are 5,629 homeless people living in Alameda County, half of whom live in Oakland. That number is expected to rise when surveyors release the results of a count done in late January. 

Public speakers lined the aisles of the small committee room hearing as the city administrator in charge of addressing the homeless situation, Joe DeVries, outlined solutions currently in the works. The report highlighted six viable locations for “managed RV sites” where people living in camper vans could safely park their homes. Of the six sites, two are in West Oakland, two are in East Oakland, one is near Lake Merritt and another possible location is near the Oakland International Airport. The city will also offer sanitation and security services at the sites.  

One of the East Oakland locations—a city-owned plot across from the Coliseum BART— is already under development, set to open in April. It will have space for 30 RVs. 

As for the other sites, DeVries explained that the challenge is finding an organization to manage services at each. Right now, city staff have no volunteers.  “Once we have that, opening the site is not difficult,” said DeVries to the council. 

Later in the meeting, Council President Rebecca Kaplan (At Large) made a public plea for non-profits that could manage an RV site to step up. “That is really important, because that is really a viable solution that’s not super expensive and could help a lot of people,” she told those homeless advocates in the hearing room and those watching via the livestream on the city’s website. 

In addition to the sites identified by the city, the Interfaith Council of Alameda County (ICAC) is working to open “safe parking” sites in church parking lots where people could stay in their cars. According to the report, the ICAC has identified three sites that could hold 15 vehicles each. 

DeVries also noted that the city is working with other non-profit and faith-based organizations that want to provide housing for the homeless, but it’s a challenge; the report notes that nuanced state and local regulations make good intentions difficult to execute. 

Despite the complications, DeVries said that some efforts are succeeding. The report highlighted two privately-run housing projects currently in the works. One is a conversion of the former Rodeway Inn into a “veterans village” that will provide housing and services to homeless veterans. Another— the “Phoenix” project—is asking to secure funding to use “pre-fabricated modular units” to provide permanent supportive housing for at least 50 people. 

DeVries also told the council that city staff are working to provide sanitation services to nine more encampments. Currently, the city offers portable toilets, wash stations and garbage service to 13 encampments and the three community cabin sites, also known as Tuff Shed sites.

Husband-Hankin of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group scolded DeVries, telling him that sanitation services to 22 encampments is not enough. By her organization’s unofficial count, there are 70 encampments in the city of Oakland that all need portable toilets. 

“We know there are more encampments,” said DeVries in response. He said that city staff desire to provide the service, but are limited by funding and the number of city staff who can oversee implementation.

Other speakers demanded transparency and asked the city why it has not yet created a commission on homelessness. The group—which would be comprised of advocates, city staff and other stakeholders—would publicly discuss decisions about how to deal with the homelessness crisis. Right now, decisions are made “behind closed doors,” according to Husbands-Hankin, who was referring to decisions made by DeVries and others in the city administrator’s office. 

Voters approved the creation of such a commission in November as part of the vacant property tax measure W. The tax—which took effect in January—applies to most privately-owned properties in the city. If a parcel is not in use for more than 50 days, landowners must pay a $6,000 annual tax on empty homes or lots, or $3,000 for empty duplex units or ground-floor commercial space. The funds generated by the tax would fund a variety of services for homeless people including a commission. 

A regular meeting attendee and consummate Oakland city government critic Gene Hazard told the committee, “You’ve been sleeping at the wheel on this emergency,” demanding the council create the commision as soon as possible. 

Committee Chair and newly elected councilmember Loren Taylor (District 6) told DeVries he wants the commission created sooner rather than later. 

The committee voted to forward the report onto the full council. Kaplan vowed to bring DeVries back to the committee soon to update the council on other solutions including a report on how the city might use of public—state or city—owned land to house the homeless. 

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