A sign in the grass reads "overnight camping in park areas surrounding Lake Merritt is prohibited." Behind the sign, a yellow tent sits in the grass.
New “overnight camping in park” signs have been erected throughout lakeside park. (Alastair Boone)

The City of Oakland has started enforcing a zero-tolerance camping ban around Lake Merritt. 

On February 14, employees of the Oakland Department of Public Works (DPW) arrived at Lakeside Park to evict the homeless people who have been living there—the first step in enforcing the ban. It was pouring rain when they arrived. The grass quickly turned to sludge as DPW employees drove garbage trucks around the park, carving trench-like divots in the ground that quickly filled with rainwater. At one point, a garbage truck got stuck in the mud and had to be towed by a larger vehicle. 

Starting around 9:00 a.m., the unhoused people who were living in the park rushed to pack their belongings. The city offered them one of three options for shelter: A place in the Lake Merritt Tuff Sheds, a room in the Holland—a new rapid re-housing center on West Grand Avenue—or a bed at St. Vincent De Paul, a homeless shelter on San Pablo Avenue.

According to a representative from Operation Dignity—a non-profit that contracts with the city to provide homeless services—21 people moved into one of the three shelters on offer: 13 moved into the Tuff sheds, 8 moved into the Holland, and 0 took a shelter bed at St. Vincent. City officials do not know how many people declined the shelter they were offered. 

Curtis Hamilton and his wife had been living in Lakeside Park for about four months. They were willing to move into whatever shelter was offered to them. “I’m not going to break no law. If you say get up and move, Im going to get up and move,” he said. But they were skeptical of the city’s offers. “They tell you one thing and they do another. So we’re just going to play it by ear.” (Alastair Boone)

By the time the rain stopped in the afternoon, people were still organizing their belongings and waiting to find out which of the three shelter options remained available. While they waited, I spoke to a man named Curtis Hamilton. He and his wife were hoping to move into one of the Tuff Sheds. “It’s all a bunch of bologna. They tell you one thing and then they do another,” he told me. “Wherever I can lay my head, that’s where I’m going to go.” (Hamilton and his wife did end up in the Tuff Sheds.)

The city plans to enforce the ban using the usual method: if a new encampment is built, they will quickly post an eviction notice, and within 72 hours, the police and the Department of Public Works will arrive to evict people. Individual tents and encampments that pop up around the lake will take priority in the city’s encampment clearing schedule. 

However, the city also has a special contract with the Uptown/Downtown Oakland Business Improvement District (BID)—a group of business owners that pay to maintain the area—to patrol the Lakeside Park area. Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries calls this a pilot program: for the next month, the BID’s private security guards will walk around the lake every morning, taking photos of new tents and sending reports to the City Administrator’s office. Then the city will decide how to move forward with removing the encampments. 

“What we’ll be doing aggressively over the next month is that when a tent pops up, ambassadors will remind [campers] that the city has made this a closure zone,” DeVries said. “We are trying to find a way to put eyes on the park and have soft communication without it feeling like heavy-handed law enforcement.”

Joe Capella has childhood memories of watching puppet shows at Fairy Land, and going to Fentons for ice cream with his mom. Since being evicted from the lake on the 14th, he has moved into a friend’s tent elsewhere in Oakland. (Alastair Boone)

But many feel that the city’s strategy of forcibly removing encampments is already too heavy-handed. Homeless advocate Talya Husband-Hankin says that the city is not adhering to the legal requirements determined by Martin v. Boise, which states that cities cannot cite people for sleeping outside if adequate shelter is not available. “What we believe is that the shelter the City of Oakland is offering is not adequate,” she said. 

There are several reasons why the shelter offered by the city did not work for everyone who was living around the lake. While city officials are unsure of how many people declined shelter, I spoke with 12 individuals who chose to stay on the street after being evicted from the parks around Lake Merritt. 

One woman who did not wish to share her name turned down a bed at the Tuff Sheds because she is a survivor of sexual assault. The thought of sharing a small room with a stranger made her feel panicked. She said she would rather stay on the street, where, to an extent, she could control her surroundings.

Robert Harris was offered a place in the Tuff Sheds, but his girlfriend was not. “The thing is, if I go in to sheds, she is out here by herself. I’m not just going to leave her like that,” he said. 

Joe Capella also declined to take the shelter he was offered. After living at the lake for three months, he was intrigued by the prospect of living at the Holland. But by the time he packed up his belongings, that shelter was full. The only options left were the Tuff Sheds and St. Vincent. 

Robert Harris poses for a photo outside his self-made structure covered in a blue tarp.
Robert Harris lived in Lakeside Park for two months. Before that, he spent six months camping the other side of the lake. “One day I came back and everything was gone. My tools, my ID, everything,” he said. “I keep trying to find work, but then this happens.” Harris and his girlfriend are now camping elsewhere in Oakland. (Alastair Boone)

“I don’t want to move into the Tuff Sheds,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything good about them.” 

The Tuff Sheds have been criticized by members of the community for lacking personal space: two residents share each 15 by 8 foot shed, typically with a stranger, and there is limited room to store personal belongings. And while St. Vincent can offer refuge for the night, guests have to leave by 8:00 in the morning and are not allowed to leave their belongings during the day. This makes it a difficult choice for people who work, go to school, or have other appointments. 

But advocates—housed and unhoused Oakland residents who provide support for their homeless neighbors as volunteers—say that the problem is bigger than the shelters on offer: It is also about a system that fails homeless people across the board with inadequate outreach, ambiguous messaging, and mismanagement of the city’s resources. 

The Lake Merritt evictions are dragging on, which has caused confusion for the people who are still living there. One woman who wished to remain unnamed said that she and her boyfriend had been waiting for Operation Dignity to move them into the Tuff Sheds for a week. Unsure of when they are actually going to be moved, they pack up their camp every morning and set up again every night. “We don’t know what’s going on. Every morning we move our stuff out and just wait,” she said.

According to the city, outreach workers from Operation Dignity and Housing Consortium of the East Bay have been checking in with the individuals living around the lake for over a month and making them aware of the opportunities for shelter. DeVries says that city workers have been moving the unhoused people around the lake into the Tuff Sheds since early December. 

However, on several occasions, homeless individuals told me they had no idea what their options were before advocates stepped in.

Mike Mackey poses outside his red tent.
Mike Mackey has been in California for five years, and been homeless on and off throughout that time. After being evicted from the lake, he decided to move into the Tuff Sheds. “I‘m going to go check em out, see what’s up,” he told me. “If it doesn’t work I can always go back to the street. (Alastair Boone)

Joe Capella says that Husbands-Hankin was the first person to talk to him about his options for shelter. As his tent disappeared into a garbage truck early on the morning of the 14th, she pulled him aside to tell him what his options were, and ask where he would like to land if he could have his pick. 

The camping ban went into effect on February 14, and with it, the threat of criminalization has created fear in the homeless community. New signs declare: “Overnight camping in park areas around Lake Merritt is prohibited,” and then, in smaller lettering, “California Penal Code 647(e) will be enforced.” 

California Penal Code 647(e) is a vagrancy law that says if you sleep on public or private property without the permission of the property owner, you are guilty of disorderly conduct and may be subject to a misdemeanor. City officials insist they do not plan to use citations to remove people from the parks around the lake, but homeless residents fear arrests and criminal charges are the natural next step in Oakland’s crackdown on camping. 

“We’re going to try our best to avoid using criminal sanctions. 99 times out of 100, people move voluntarily,” DeVries said. But what if somebody refuses to move voluntarily? “I’m not sure. We haven’t had to cross that bridge yet.” 

As the lake and other parts of the city become increasingly hostile to unhoused people, some fear this latest ban will lead Oakland’s homeless residents to move out of the city altogether. 

“This isn’t just a Lake Merritt thing, it’s part of larger systemic plan to evict people and close all these areas, so there’s really nowhere to go. And that just pushes people farther out of Oakland,” Husbands-Hankin said. “Sure, in the best-case scenario it wouldn’t be appropriate people to be living in a park, but we’re not living in a best case scenario. We’re living in an emergency.”

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.