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Oakland residents oppose enforcement of highly contested encampment management policy

on November 10, 2020

In late October, the Alameda County Sheriff was sent to the popular Wood Street community encampment on a Thursday afternoon to distribute eviction notices. Protesters quickly organized and gathered around the encampment at 20th and Wood Street and defended the encampment until police and city officials left the scene.

The attempted eviction came just a week after the Oakland City Council passed a controversial new policy regarding homeless encampments. 

At a public meeting on Oct. 20, Oakland City Council members unanimously voted to enact a new encampment management policy that would restrict homeless residents from residing in areas near homes, businesses, schools, public parks, waterways and homeless shelters—and would for the first time establish government regulation within the city’s many densely-packed homeless encampments. Critics argue this policy will outlaw virtually all encampments from Oakland, but city officials assert that encampments will not be removed so long as they abide by the policy’s imposed rules.

“We have some encampments that are doing just fine on their own,” said Oakland Homelessness Administrator Daryel Dunston. “This policy is for those encampments that, for whatever reason, need more assistance with maintaining a basic standard of living.”

Oakland’s housing and homeless crises have made the city the Bay Area’s go-to example of a community facing serious encampment issues. EveryOne Home’s biennial homeless count in 2019 reported a 43% increase in the Alameda County homeless population over the past two years. Of the 8,022 homeless people who were counted in the county, over half of them identified as Oakland residents. 

Oakland has increasingly seen large congregations of tent communities on sidewalks, vacant areas and public parks— city officials most recently counted 142 different encampments, according to Dunston. Many homeowners, business owners and city staff have expressed concern about the safety and health impacts of having large, unmanaged and unregulated homeless encampments overtaking private and public spaces. Meanwhile, homeless advocates see the removal of encampments as a cruel and unethical retraction of one of the few remaining ways homeless individuals can legally exist in the city. 

The 10-and-a half hour Zoom meeting covered several highly contentious topics. At a typical bi-weekly City Council meeting, between five and 10 citizens will call in for public comment, the portion at the beginning of the meeting when Oakland citizens can queue up to speak freely for two minutes each. 

But at this meeting, over 170 citizens called in to speak at the public forum, an overwhelming majority of whom pleaded with the council to vote against the new policy, which many equated with the criminalization of homelessness in Oakland. 

Among the many callers were several employees from the Bay Area Legal Aid group, who referenced a letter they had submitted to the council concerning the policy. Among other things, they argued that, based on a court ruling in Boise, Idaho, displacing homeless populations from the streets without providing an alternative housing option is against the law. 

The letter was endorsed by the Homeless Advocacy Working Group, The Village, Shelter Oak, Just Cities, Homeless Action Center and East Bay Community Law.

“There are so many procedural problems with this policy. It’s based on data that overrepresents homeowners and real estate interests. It lies in the face of state and national health guidelines. It’s likely illegal as you already have heard,” said Elliott Williams, a volunteer with ACCE Oakland. “Our homeless neighbors are not being consulted and are not even aware that you are voting whether they may be displaced today.”

Daryel Dunston, who began his role as Oakland’s Homelessness Administrator in June, presented the new Encampment Management Policy, which he formulated with the City Administrator.

“I did not always have stable housing growing up, so I know what it feels like to go to bed hungry,” Dunston shared during his introduction. “I also know what it means to have secure housing, and through my wife, the different challenges small business owners face.”

Dunston emphasized heavily throughout his presentation that the policy would not criminalize encampments and that encampments will not be targeted and removed until there is a confirmed alternative.

“We are not suggesting that we will schedule a relocation or a closure without the provision of alternative shelter,” Dunston said. “As the person that’s charged with implementing this policy, I can assure everyone that I will make sure we are always leading with services. We’re always leading with compassion. That we’re not conducting closures without lining up alternative options for folks to take advantage of, and that there is a ramp up to closure so that we’re just not springing closures on everyone.”

Each council member thanked Dunston for his work and commitment. During District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb’s commentary, protestors were heard loudly shouting from outside of Kalb’s house “Fuck the EMP [encampment management policy].”

Despite the hours of public comments urging the city council to reject it, every council member voted to enact the encampment management policy. Council Member Kalb tweeted a statement addressing public comment in the days following the vote, as did traditionally progressive Council Member Nikki Fortunato Bas.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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