by Kheven LaGrone
In response to complaints from some of its more affluent citizens, the City of Oakland has forced many of its most vulnerable citizens from several homeless encampments.
Misfortune can unexpectedly hit anyone at any time, making any one of us vulnerable. If the government does not protect its most vulnerable citizens, who will? If we can’t trust the government, who can we trust to protect us when we are at our most vulnerable?
City of Oakland e-mails prove that all of Oakland suffers when its most vulnerable citizens are treated as if they were less than human and forced from homeless encampments.
For example, on Dec. 23, 2015, Thang Nguyen, of the City of Oakland’s Real Estate Services, complained to Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries about “some sort of buying and selling activity” (code for drug dealing) at the Adeline Street encampment. Nguyen asked DeVries to have the encampment cleared so the City could lease the space to Magnolia Wellness, a marijuana dispensary, for employee and customer parking.
In response, DeVries sent an e-mail to coordinate the removal of the encampment. On Jan. 26, 2016, he arranged for the Oakland Police Department to be there for the encampment clearing.
The City of Oakland objected to drug dealing in the encampment; yet, they forced out these homeless people just to make parking spaces for a marijuana dispensary. They even brought in the police to remove the citizens. Did the dispensary see the City’s hypocrisy?
During the time of this encampment clearing, City officials were declaring a shelter crisis in Oakland. The officials had reports of the severe lack of available beds in homeless shelters, and they knew these displaced people had nowhere to go.
Yet, as part of his coordination of the Adeline Street encampment clearing, DeVries wrote to the outreach team on Jan. 4, 2016, “This is not a routine clean-up but a new use for the lot so the persons occupying it should not try to return.”
Based on my conversations with previously displaced citizens, the “outreach team” only tells them when they have to leave; the “outreach team” does not tell them where to go or where to find housing.
Soon after the Oakland City Council declared a shelter crisis in the city, City Councilmember Noel Gallo sent the following e-mail on Feb. 19, 2016, to DeVries:
“We received an urgent call from Pete, owner of Pete’s Marble (1044 44th Ave) complaining about the homeless encampment at 44th Avenue and San Leandro Blvd (under the BART tracks). As you know, this has been an on-going problem and you have been very helpful in taking care of it. Can we please coordinate another encampment clearing?”
To which DeVries very promptly responded three hours later, “Jeff [Van Eck of the City] and Crystal [Raine of BART], once you get it scheduled, let me know and I will request OPD to be present as well.” Rather than assist Oakland’s most vulnerable citizens, government agencies came together to force them out.
In a Feb. 10, 2016, e-mail, Karen Powell complained that:
“I must express my extreme frustration and conviction that if there was human waste on the sidewalk and a marked increase in crime in say Piedmont, those tents would have been removed by the city within 24 hours. As previously stated, although we live in West Oakland not Piedmont, we pay exorbitant fees to the city and have every right to expect the same level of service, responsiveness and enforcements.”
Is Ms. Powell vilifying her homeless neighbors in order to justify her demand that the City cold-heartedly force out people less fortunate than her? Contrary to her e-mail, the people living in encampments want a clean, safe place to live too.
When I visit, I always see at least one person sweeping. When we bring them garbage bags, they clean up the encampment as well as the junk dumped near them. When Wanda Sabir asked a woman living in an encampment what she wanted us to bring her, she asked us to bring her bleach to keep the area clean. Like anyone else, people in the encampments take pride in their living spaces. I’ve been inside a few; they were clean. I’ve even seen potted plants outside living spaces. They want a place to call home.
Powell’s e-mail demands that the City treat people unequally and unfairly. If she can demand equal treatment with people in Piedmont, shouldn’t the people in the encampment expect equal treatment as well? (Note: The City of Piedmont is not part of the City of Oakland; I assume she meant Piedmont Avenue.)
Because she claimed to pay “exorbitant fees,” she demanded the City violate citizens who cannot afford to pay those fees. How does a City determine the monetary value of a citizen?
In her Feb. 9, 2016, e-mail, Nancy Bocanegra of CalTrans placed a dollar value on a group of Oakland citizens in another encampment. She wrote:
“CalTrans is losing $4,800 in rent per month plus the costs of maintenance forces cleaning the lot twice a month, the City is losing 18.5% in parking taxes and the County of Alameda is losing a possessory interest tax by the homeless encampments residing within and adjacent to the lot.”
These dollar amounts are not the value per person, but the collective dollar value of the whole faceless and nameless group of citizens living in the encampment. Bocanegra even specified the different monetary values it cost different government agencies to allow homeless people to go on living on the asphalt and dirt.
The City and CalTrans schedule encampment clearings at monthly meetings. If Powell’s value is not high enough, the City, CalTrans and developers could also be planning her displacement. The meetings are closed to the public. She would have no way of knowing about this plan. Based on my personal experience with requesting public records from both the City and CalTrans, she should not assume they will be transparent and open.
In a Feb. 29, 2016, e-mail, Tyler Henthorne demanded the City displace the homeless:
“The encampment, the garbage it is producing and the lack of Alliance cleaning up their share is out of control … I know that the City is cleaning up as best they can, but this area has become a serious magnet for dumping as well. It is time to move these folks along.”
Henthorne’s encampment neighbors don’t want to live with that trash either, but they have no control over it. When we’ve brought garbage bags to the encampments, people have been thankful to bag the trash. Henthorne’s e-mail was demanding that the City make their bad situation even worse.
Thus, he demanded the City be unsympathetic and unreasonable. Demanding that the City treat the homeless residents like trash is hurtful. It adds to the shame and other problems of being homeless. Such lack of compassion can push some homeless people to snap and explode.
In the past, homeless citizens have fought back and won in court. DeVries wrote in an e-mail on Oct. 15, 2015:
“In regard to the personal belongings that have accumulated, our crew do their best to remove junk and debris but, based on recent court cases, if we are overly aggressive in removing and destroying what someone considers a personal belonging, we will be subject to lawsuits. Both the Cities of Los Angeles and Fresno have had to pay out million dollar claims for removing and destroying people’s property when clearing homeless encampments which is why Oakland is especially careful in dealing with the accumulation of material.”
The people who wrote those e-mails believed they had power, through the City, to force people out of their neighborhoods. However, they may be upset when they find out that neither they, nor the City of Oakland, have that power. They cannot simply make the homeless people disappear. Without anywhere else to go and no other options, a homeless person has nothing to lose by coming back or breaking laws.
On Feb. 8, 2016, Randy Fenton of Sundance Landscape Service wrote about an encampment in East Oakland, “Since this encampment began, I’ve only witnessed one attempted abatement and no clear path to resolution … Are all city properties fair game for encampments or are there exceptions, if so, who makes the determinations?”
Oakland’s Assistant City Administrator responded on February 09, 2016:
“Regarding your question about different types of City property, the police have limited tools to address these depending on the location. For example, if an encampment is in a City park, the people are not breaking any law until the sun sets at which point our park curfew kicks in. Violating the curfew is a mere infraction, basically one gets a ticket for it. OPD cannot spend extensive resources ticketing already impoverished people because it takes a lot of time and the courts throw it out anyway. If the homeless encampment is blocking a sidewalk then OPD can order the sidewalk cleared under the OMC code that request pedestrian access — again this is just a ticket. If an encampment is within an area posted No Trespassing, then the violation is a state law and a little more hefty fine but the same problem exists that those being ticketed can’t and won’t pay. Arresting them is not at option as the jails won’t take them and the officers will be accused of criminalizing homelessness.”
These e-mail complaints demanded that Oakland become a hostile, distrustful place for everyone — not just their neighbors living in the encampments. They demanded a government that violated, not served and protected, its most vulnerable citizens. In contrast, long-term strategies to alleviate the statewide housing crisis would benefit everyone.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Alameda, San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties will have measures on their ballots asking for more money to build more housing for the homeless. All voters, including those living in the encampments, should read up on the measures and support sincere government efforts to provide more housing for today’s homeless people — but not more “affordable” housing that homeless people cannot afford.
The mayor should go on television and ask voters to help get more money to house the homeless. This will help renew trust in our government and make our cities better for everyone.
Author’s note: All e-mails used in this essay were public documents retrieved online from the City of Oakland’s RecordTrac.