After a heated ten hour Council meeting and widespread protest, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed a new Encampment Management Policy (EMP) on October 20. The controversial policy defines where homeless people are and are not allowed to live, barring camping in the majority of the city.
Starting in November, the city will hand out 60-day eviction notices to homeless people in many of the 70+ Oakland encampments that are now located in areas that are off limits. The policy says that the city must offer alternative housing or shelter before evicting encampment residents, but it is unclear what housing and shelter options will be available to the thousands who live on Oakland streets.
“If people don’t have safe places to sleep or meet their needs or shoot up or whatever, they’re more likely to be doing that out on the street…[this] just exacerbates the problem,” said an unhoused person who was protesting the policy and wished to remain nameless. “Being able to call your homie at the other end of the camp and be like ‘Hey shit’s going down over here I need backup’ just makes life so much easier and safer,” they said.
The policy aims to curb homelessness by dividing the city into “high sensitivity” and “low sensitivity” areas. “High sensitivity” areas are defined as near schools, houses, businesses, playgrounds, and traffic lanes, including bike paths, unless the Council chooses to make an exception for a person or group. In these areas, camping is prohibited by the new policy.
“Low sensitivity” areas make up the remainder of the city. Within these zones, people can sleep in tents if they follow a set of rules, such congregating on one side of a given street, and not storing propane tanks or generators. The policy states that if the City discovers a health or safety issue at an encampment in these areas, city employees will either add sanitation services and clean up the camp, or shut it down.
“Moving people to the edges of the city, places they’re not familiar with, places where there are no other segments of society other than people in crisis who have been pushed together, would be catastrophic,” said Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, co-founder of the 37 MLK encampment in West Oakland. “[It] makes all of our communities less safe.”
It is not entirely clear which areas of the city will be off limits to unsheltered individuals. City staff have released an interactive map that shows which areas will be blocked off and which remain open based on their “sensitivity” status. Users can click to see various layers of buffers, around schools, parks, and businesses. Once all these buffers are turned on, almost the entire city appears to be “high sensitivity.” However, during the Council meeting on October 20, Oakland homeless administrator Daryel Dunston said that the map is misleading because it blocks off entire residential zones instead of only displaying the actual 50-foot barrier around houses. Because of this, many will not know whether they are in a high or low sensitivity area until they receive their 60 day eviction notice.
This is a daunting outcome for many, particularly because of the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC has cautioned cities to cease encampment evictions for their potential to spread the virus.
The city says that over the next two months, they will be doing extensive outreach to alert encampment residents of the new policy and tell them what their options are—either offering services, or giving them the opportunity to move to a low-sensitivity area.
During the heated five hour public-comment session, community members spoke passionately against the new policy. Speakers criticized the policy because it is not fully formed: Despite requiring the city to provide the options for shelter before evicting encampments, it does not spell what type of shelter will be available—short term or long term, congregate shelters or low income housing, hotels, tuff sheds, and who will qualify for the various options available. It also does not specify clear pathways into housing. Many questioned whether the current services offered by the city would be sufficient to meet the demands of the new policy—including city staff. “I have to acknowledge my somewhat skepticism as to whether we’ll be able to do as much as we know we need to,” Councilmember Kalb said during the meeting.
The policy states that the city will not criminalize the “status” of being homeless. However, the EMP contains nothing about what enforcement will look like, leaving many anxious about their uncertain future.
A number of Oakland residents spoke in favor of the EMP during the heated public-comment period. These individuals said the encampments near their homes posed public health and fire risks.
During the council meeting, protestors gathered outside Councilmember Kalb’s house, in District 1, and Councilmember Gallo’s house, in District 5. They used pots and pans as percussion instruments, played loud dance music, and chanted into megaphones. As hours went by, the protests developed a block party-esque feel, with music playing and protestors dancing and chanting.
“HOW DO YOU SPELL MURDER? EMP! HOW DO YOU SPELL RACIST? EMP! HOW DO YOU SPELL FASCIST? EMP!,” they chanted.
Tuning into the Council meeting on Zoom, protesters could be heard chanting outside of Kalb’s home. “Sorry…there’s a lot of noise outside my house,” the Councilmember said at one point.
Both during the Council meeting and the protests, organizers spoke about what a better policy would look like. Many said it didn’t make sense to pass the policy before the new Homeless Advisory Commission was seated in the next couple of months. The commission will be tasked with overseeing the Oakland vacant property tax and Measure Q homelessness funds, as well as making recommendations to the City Council for strategies to remedy homelessness.
Others said the policy needed to be revised based on feedback from unhoused individuals. Many talked about the fact that the policy describes where people cannot sleep, but does not do enough to address where people can sleep.
A number of protestors suggested that Oakland should be focusing its efforts on housing people in the many vacant units in the city, using the state of the emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic to immediately put people in permanent housing. (Just Cities—an Oakland non-profit that works toward housing for all—has created an 11 page document listing the vacant public lands in Oakland).
Many also called into question whether the new policy violates Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that says cities can’t punish homeless people for sleeping outside if there’s no alternative shelter available.
“It’s illegal,” said Ari, an organizer with House the Bay—a San Francisco based advocacy group. “But more importantly it’s fuckin’ inhumane.”
Oakland officials say the EMP does not violate the Martin decision because officials plan to offer some kind of shelter to everybody who receives an eviction notice. Officials also stress that nobody will be arrested or cited if they continue living outside after they are offered shelter. However, city staff has also said that it is not yet clear how Martin would apply if somebody is offered shelter but chooses not to take it, The Oaklandside reports.
During the ten hour meeting, a handful of councilmembers added amendments to the new policy before voting.
District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas added an amendment that will require the city to launch its first co-governed encampment in the next four months—a program the Councilmember has been working on since she was elected in 2018. This type of camp would be governed in partnership with an outside organization with input from the unhoused residents.
Oakland has already set aside $600,000 for co-governed encampments, though it has yet to make meaningful progress on starting the program.
District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney amended the EMP to include a stipulation that staff will set up city-run camps in each Council district, including the former army base in West Oakland. The idea is that this is one place that people displaced from “high-sensitivity” sites can relocate.
District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb and District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao wrote an amendment that requires city staff to prioritize closing encampments in parks with children’s playgrounds, and says that camps in other kinds of parks—such as those with athletic courts—should be deprioritized.
Though the EMP was passed unanimously on October 20, it was a contentious vote for the Oakland City Council.
Gallo, who had previously told advocates he would not vote to pass the policy, ended up voting in favor. During the meeting, he said more input from unhoused people was needed, in addition to more clean-up and services provided at encampments.
“The reality is we have a government that’s not functioning,” he said. “All we do is shift people from one end to another.”
The morning after the vote, Councilmember Fortunato Bas posted a statement on Twitter describing her reasons for voting in favor of the policy.
“I struggled with my vote. With reality that policy would pass, I decided voting yes would enable me to work with City Admin to shape implementation & finally create co-governed encampments,” she wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Mayor Libby Schaaf sent out an email after the vote praising the unanimous passage of the EMP. “Thank you to all residents who encouraged our Councilmembers last week to support the new Encampment Management Policy, which was unanimously approved by the City Council with an 8-0 vote.”
Advocates are gearing up for a winter of encampment evictions. If you want to get involved, text HOMESNOW TO 797979 to receive encampment defense alerts. You can also join House the Bay’s housing defense text blast by downloading the encrypted messaging app Signal and texting HELLO to +12058507329.
Noah Barney contributed reporting.
Alastair Boone is the Co-Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.