A rendering of a homeless encampment that reads, Too Big to Ignore.
A rendering of a homeless encampment. (Macey Keung)

Sanctioning self-governed encampments. Providing storage options for unsheltered residents. Prohibiting evictions during extreme weather. These are just some of the changes that Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas is suggesting to the City of Oakland’s Encampment Management Policy.

“I’m bringing [this] forward because I am really concerned about whether what we’re doing as a city matches the crisis in front of us,” Councilmember Bas said as she presented her concerns to the Life Enrichment Committee—a group of Oakland city council members who meet twice a month to discuss quality of life issues.

If implemented, the changes Councilmember Bas outlined in a report first made public at a Life Enrichment Committee meeting in mid-May could drastically change the way the city manages homeless encampments.

She’s asking Oakland to make a number of changes, such as to provide basic services like porta potties to encampments, track how many police officers are present at each eviction and provide a written justification for the police resources used, and increase transparency and accountability by making the city’s list of public and surplus lands accessible to the public.

Some of the recommendations are simple, such as posting eviction notices in multiple languages, while others—such as providing employment for unsheltered residents—would require greater bureaucratic changes. In order for her suggestions to take effect, they would need to pass a vote by the full Oakland City Council.

These suggestions Councilmember Bas is recommending for Oakland are based on a little-known but highly influential policy that the city has been using to guide its engagement with the homeless community for years: the Encampment Management Policy.

Bas requested an informational report about the policy in early May, which was presented at the Life Enrichment Committee meeting on May 14.

Oakland’s Encampment Management Policy was drafted in 2017 by a group that evolved into the Encampment Management Team—city employees from different departments who focus on homeless issues full time. By forming this group, the city intended to move away from an “encampment closure model”—which had previously been the norm—to an “encampment management model” intended to resolve issues at encampments before evicting residents.

“Some of this sounds good,” said homeless activist Needa Bee said of the Encampment Management Policy, “But it’s not happening.”

The meeting on May 14 was packed. Homeless residents outlined the areas in which they feel the policy does not line up with their lived experience. Needa Bee read numerous statements she collected from homeless individuals who were unable to attend.

Some talked about how the “bag and tag” policy is not working as intended. The current guidelines require Public Works employees to put belongings in bags and take them to storage after an eviction. Homeless residents at the meeting said that instead, Public Works often gives them little time to pack what they can before throwing away the rest of their possessions.

“I have been evicted three times in two years,” wrote Elbert James Ow- ens, African American senior citizen, who is homeless in West Oakland. Owens said during evictions, he is unable to move quickly enough to pack up the belongings he wants to keep. “Today they threw away my laptop, my radio, my bicycle, two generators, medication for my heart, and family photos.”

The testimonies Needa Bee read at the meeting also expressed frustration that people are not given adequate notice before an encampment is closed.

“In total, the city has towed three of my cars that I’ve lived in,” wrote Dorothy Smith, who has been living in a vehicle in Oakland for six years. “The second car, when I returned from paying for my car’s registration [at the DMV], I found out it had been towed.”

Some city officials felt that these accusations were unfair.

“I am not going to speak to the veracity of the statements that [Needa Bee] provided,” Joe DeVries, who is the lead for the Encampment Manage- ment Team, told Street Spirit. “After talking to our staff who do the work, they were extraordinarily upset.”

Despite feeling that the city has failed to adhere to past policy, homeless Oaklanders have embraced Councilmember Bas’ suggestions. At another Life Enrichment Committee meeting on May 28, homeless speakers lined up once more to talk about how her recommendations would change their lives, if implemented. Homeless activist Mavin Griffin talked about Bas’s suggestion to add homeless people to city commissions. Another homeless activist, Kaleeo Acatar, said that transparency and accountability are crucial to the well being of her community.

“Up until today I didn’t know how to access the resources that are out there to help us because nobody tells us,” said a woman named Sheryl who has been homeless in Oakland for two years.

Councilmember Bas’ supplemental report will be discussed again at the Life Enrichment Committee meeting on June 11.

“What you see before you today is a step towards rectifying the disparities [between what is happening on the streets and what you see in city reports],” Needa Bee said in late May. “It would save lives.”

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.