in April of 2018, the City of Oakland launched “OAK 311”—an app and web service that was built to make it easy for residents to “report problems and request infrastructure maintenance.” Unsurprisingly, it has become a public forum where users dehumanize homeless people.
The complaints leave no room for unhoused people to defend themselves. Many people demand that the city mistreat unhoused people and disregard their rights. Users have the option to complain anonymously so they do not have to take any responsibility for their posts. OAK 311 does not give the same respect to the privacy of the homeless. The platform asks you to provide the exact address of your complaint on a map, and also allows you to post a photo.
This has the effect of putting a homeless person in danger of being found and harassed. It also gives uninformed users a platform to spread inaccurate information. Take this person’s complaint, for example:
“This illegal homeless situation is a menace to society. It’s contributing to the spread of disease, fire and a lower quality of life for children and taxpayers. People dumping harmful debris and halting civilian foot traffic. Children and animals at risk. This Has to Stop. It’s illegal! I’ve watched homeless painting their sheds and cutting down trees in an entitled effort. This is public space and should be respected as such. When a homeless person can fly an American flag they are capable of filling out a job application and moving on with their life.”
This complaint was based on hate and ignorance, not facts. He assumed the person was homeless because he wasn’t looking for a job. The homeless person might have a job, but he can’t afford to rent in Oakland. He could have been flying the flag because he was a homeless disabled veteran who couldn’t work. He may not receive enough disability or government assistance to rent an apartment.
The person who led the complaint, like many members of the public, wrongly assumed that shelter was readily available to all homeless people. They believed that the city has offered every homeless person shelter and that many turned down shelter in order to sleep in their tents. This is incorrect. While it is true that some unhoused people choose not to sleep in shelters because they cannot accommodate their situations, Oakland declared a shelter crisis because of the lack of available shelter. There are waiting lists for shelter in Oakland.
The complainer is also ignorant of homeless rights. While dumping is illegal, being homeless is not. Camping in a public space is not illegal if one has nowhere else to go. Thus, legally, the city can either clean up the encampment and let people be, or nd them shelter. The city cannot cite somebody simply for existing in public space. Another complaint to OAK 311 unfairly stereotypes homeless people. With no proof, another user ignorantly assumed the homeless were drug addicts. He wrote:
“There seems to be no end to the number of illegal campers. How many millions of tax dollars have been wasted on all hand outs, enabling, pandering and diaper service. All for a bunch of people who really only want there next fix.“
This stereotype was incorrect. According to an Alameda County’s 2017 Point in Time count, 22 per- cent people who were surveyed became homeless after losing a job, and 56 percent reported that they could not obtain housing because they were unable to afford rent. Only 15 percent reported becoming homeless due to a drug problem. Such complaints to OAK 311 spread the ignorance and hatred of homeless people. This could endanger the lives and safety of people living in encampments. The City of Oakland has a responsibility to protect all its citizens, including those living in encampments, from harassment and physical risks. City officials did not respond to Street Spirit’s requests for comment.
In his essay titled “What You Should Know Before Becoming Homeless” (Street Spirit, April 2018) formerly homeless writer Andy Pope recounted being constantly humiliated and dehumanized because he was homeless. People felt entitled to vilify and criminalize him. He wrote:
The worst thing about being homeless has nothing to do with hygiene, sleeplessness, malnutrition, weather conditions, diffculty focusing on anything other than day-to-day survival, or any of the other things that make homelessness miserable for most people.
According to Pope, the worst thing about being homeless is the way he was mistreated—as are many of the people who are complained about on OAK 311.
Ironically, the complaints to OAK 311 also have the potential to backfire on the city. The complainers often make demands that the city cannot satisfy. For example, they demand that the city compromise homeless rights. Because the city has to protect the rights of even its homeless citizens, many have gone on to complain that the city is unresponsive or ineffectual. In this way, their anger and frustration has only added unnecessary friction to Oakland’s shelter crisis.
Kheven LaGrone is a writer and activist who lives in Oakland.