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Homeless advocates express questions, concerns about new family shelter

on September 30, 2019

Tuesday night’s Life Enrichment Committee meeting, at which members were scheduled to discuss a resolution to allocate $1.8 million towards family shelter services, got off to a contentious start. As soon as Lara Tannenbaum, manager of homeless programs for the city’s Department of Human Services, stepped up to the mic to present the resolution, a handful of advocates from the grassroots homeless advocacy organization The Village began to offer audible criticisms.

Under the resolution, $800,000 would go towards funding existing beds at two family shelters, East Oakland Community Project and Building Futures with Women and Children. The remaining $1 million would go towards the creation of a new family shelter, located temporarily at a former recreation center in Emeryville. The shelter, possibly open by November, would contain 60 beds and house approximately 20 to 25 families at one time.

The first point of contention was accessibility, and the specific process by which homeless families could actually be granted beds. City Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan wanted to make sure the entry system wasn’t geography-based, as was the case for the city’s Tuff Shed sites, under which homeless people had to camp within a certain geographic zone in order to be invited to move into one of the sheds.

According to Tannenbaum, upon arrival at the new shelter, parents and children would be assessed according to a countywide standard set by a program known as Family Front Door. Like at all other Oakland shelters, Family Front Door operates as a triage desk would at an emergency room, directing families to the correct service. Those directed to emergency temporary housing are put on a list and matched to beds as they become available. 

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato-Bas cited problems in the management of the city’s Tuff Shed program as cause for concern. She recalled recently walking down East 12th Street and meeting two homeless people who had just timed out of their sheds—the city only allows participants to stay for six months. They told her that they weren’t in regular contact with a case manager. “I want to make sure we are being incredibly diligent in following up with following up with people,” Bas said.

Nino Parker, a homeless advocate who lives in an encampment in Oakland, stepped up to the mic to bring up the underrepresentation of black people in managerial roles within city’s homeless programs. “It’s like we can’t hire black people to do anything,” Parker said.

The next point of conflict was the location of the new shelter. Why had it been so easy for Emeryville’s leadership to vote to convert a vacant public building into a shelter, Oakland resident Oscar Fuentes asked, while Oakland’s council has refused to act with alacrity?

Kaplan echoed Fuentes concerns, stating that it had been a year and a half since the city council passed a resolution to ask Alameda County and the Oakland Unified School District to provide a full list of available vacant properties. “Lets make sure it’s done,” Kaplan told Tannenbaum. 

Right as District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor, the committee chairperson, called for the members to vote to on whether to move the resolution to the full city council as a “consent” item, with full approval, or “non-consent,” activist Needa Bee from The Village organization stormed up to the microphone, accompanied by an elderly homeless woman named Dolores Eely.

Bee had escorted Eely from her encampment to the meeting, and asked the councilmembers to let her speak, despite the city clerk having closed the public forum session. “Have some compassion,” Bee said. Taylor acceded.

“I’ve been homeless for four years. And it’s killing me,” Eely said, pointing to a bump on her head. “I’ve been hit with a bat, my car’s been stolen, I have nothing left. No help is coming to us.”  She too questioned the apparent surplus of abandoned buildings. “It’s like, what are they doing with all these buildings?” Eely asked.

When Eely had finished, and Taylor once more called for the council to vote on the resolution, Bee yelled for them to halt the resolution and mark it as a non-consent item.

“If you’re going to fund something, fund something that people want to go to. Fund something that doesn’t harm people,” Bee said. “The shelter system is broken, I’ve heard councilmembers say this. So why keep funding it? Learn the mistakes from the Tuff Sheds, you’ve rushed into it and harmed hundreds of people, because you rushed into something you knew nothing about.”

Taylor agreed to move the resolution as non-consent item. It will be discussed in depth at the city council meeting on Tuesday, October 1st.  

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