Tents in Oakland
A photo of South Berkeley’s “Here There” encampment in early 2017. (Kelly Sullivan/Berkeleyside)
 Unhoused residents are not surprised.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Oakland jumped a staggering 47 percent between 2017 and 2019, according to the latest Point-In-Time (PIT) homeless count. 

There were 2,761 people experiencing homelessness in Oakland according to the 2017 count, compared to 4,071 in 2019. That accounts for a full half of the unhoused people in Alameda County. Nearly all of this growth came from unsheltered Oakland residents: the count recorded just two additional “sheltered” homeless Oaklanders over the last two years—that is, those living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs.

An on-and-off homeless resident of Oakland named Will has witnessed this spike first-hand. “I’ve noticed the rate’s gone up ridiculously,” he said while waiting to use the shower facilities at the Ghost Town Lava Mae pop-up. “There’s more camps, more people on the curb.”

“They’re taking all of the old warehouses downtown, and pushing out all the homeless and minorities, and remaking them all into yuppy lofts,” his wife Kali added. 

The count also included data on where are all these unsheltered people are living. It reports that 34 percent of homeless people in the county live in tents, 23 percent live in RVs or vans, 22 percent in cars, 20 percent in the street or outside, and 1 percent in abandoned buildings. 

The proliferation of tents has been particularly striking to another homeless man, who declined to give his name. “When I first came out here in 2013, it wasn’t like this. You would see two or three tents, but not like a little community,” he said. 

78 percent of the people surveyed were housed in Alameda County before becoming homeless.

As for how individuals fell into homelessness, the top responses, in order, were: lost job, mental health issues, substance use issues, eviction/ foreclosure, rent increase, and incarceration. As for what might have prevented homelessness, the top responses, in order, were rental assistance, increased benefits/income, employment assistance, and mental health services. 

This bodes with what Street Spirit vendor, Arthur Roper, has observed. “There ain’t no jobs. When I came here three years ago, there used to be all kinds of jobs,” he said. Roper worked at the Berkeley Drop in Center for 30 years before retiring. Now, he has noticed a surge of both young and old people on the street in South Berkeley, where he sells the paper. He says that many of them struggle to find and keep work.

“The city is not sufficiently invested in prevention”

Another statistic that sticks out of the 2019 PIT report: African Americans are at a much higher risk of homelessness in Alameda County than any other racial group. Nearly half (47 percent) of homeless residents in Alameda County are African American, despite making up just 11 percent of the county’s population. Latinx/Hispanic, white, and Asian residents, in particular, are proportionally under-represented among the homeless population, compared to their representation in the county as a whole. 

“It’s heartbreaking, but not surprising for those of us who work in this field,” said Margaretta Lin—executive director of Just Cities, a social justice organization based in Oakland—about the results of the 2019 count. Lin also added that while the PIT count provides valuable year-over-year comparisons for homelessness trends, it is known to undercount the number of people experiencing homelessness. A more accurate picture of the extent of homelessness comes from Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless, which estimates that 23,000 people in the county experience homelessness over the course of a year. 

As the number of people on the street in Oakland has grown exponentially, so too have certain homeless services.

“They’ve got shower trucks now,” Kali said, referring to the Lava Mae pop-up where we spoke, “port-o-potties, hand wash stations… When I was homeless out here four years ago, they didn’t have the shower things or anything like that. I couldn’t even find a port-o-potty.” 

Will and Kali have also witnessed several people transition out of homelessness through the City of Oakland’s Tuff Shed program. 

“I’ve seen a lot of people in the Tuff Sheds that are now in apartments,” Will said. 

While these services may improve quality of life on the street to some extent, experts say that Bay Area cities have a long way to go to actually get—and keep—a greater number of people off the street. As for what needs to change going forward, Lin said, “The city has not sufficiently invested in prevention.” Rental assistance, legal assistance for those facing eviction, and more deeply affordable housing are necessary to keep people from falling into homelessness. 

Additionally, Lin would like to see the city invest in alternative, low-cost, immediate housing models, like tiny homes, container homes, and mobile homes. Oakland has enough publicly owned land for “several thousand units” of these temporary, relatively cheap housing types, Lin said. But right now, Oakland and Alameda County aren’t doing enough on either of these fronts: “The city hasn’t responded to the crisis like it was a crisis.”

Unhoused people in the Bay Area, of course, are all too aware that this is a crisis.

“I don’t know anything about that,” a 70-year-old homeless man in Berkeley named Mike said about the count. “But if you really know what’s going on on the street, you’re not surprised. There’s gonna be more homeless people.”

Benjamin Schneider is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.