A photo of a homeless encampment surrounded by buildings in Downtown Oakland in the background.
An encampment by Lake Merritt in Oakland. (Sabrina Kharrazi)

On November 10, the Oakland City Council voted to confirm Mayor Libby Schaaf’s nine selections for the City’s new Homeless Commission. The long-anticipated commission comes two years after the passing of Measure W, the vacant parcel tax which was supposed to raise $10,000,000 per year to address homelessness and illegal dumping, and nine months after the passing of Measure Q, which levies a $148 parcel tax for single family parcels, which would raise $21,000,000 for homeless support services, trash removal, and several other public services.The commission’s duties include advising and overseeing the allocation of the funds from Measure W and Measure Q, the controversial Encampment Management Policy, and the Permanent Access to Housing plan or PATH, which is the five-year framework for addressing homelessness that the city presented last year. 

The establishing ordinance for the commission required that all nine members be residents of Oakland, and that at least half be from neighborhoods heavily impacted by homelessness. The ordinance also mandates that there be no fewer than two members who are currently or formerly homeless, three members with professional experience who work with unhoused communities, and one member with financial expertise. 

“The nine commissioners that have been appointed are a diverse group—there are five females and there are six people of color,” said Oakland Homelessness Administrator Daryel Dunston at the council meeting on November 10. “In addition to having experience being unsheltered and working their way through permanent housing, the financial expertise that many of these commissioners bring, as well as the medical expertise that one of these commissioners brings, I believe is the right approach to tackling this horrible crisis that we’ve been facing.”

The commission will stagger the rotation of its members so that all members won’t be replaced at the same time. Janny Castillo, Tomiquia Moss, and Trent Rhorer are designated to serve three years, while Candice Elder, Alexis Lozano, and Joey Harrison will each serve two. Beth Stokes, Mark Walker, and James Mittleberger will each serve one year. 

Castillo is an active member of the homeless advocacy working group and also is the director of outreach and community services at St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit that supports at-risk, housing-insecure seniors and preschoolers in Oakland.

“I was homeless for nine of my years as a young mother,” said Castillo. “It took me years to get back on my feet, but eventually I started working for the nonprofit that helped me. I learned how to work with our unhoused neighbors and how to organize people to speak up for themselves.”

Castillo hopes to concentrate on creating new avenues to permanent housing that work for the individual and feature personalized services that actively work to remove different barriers that unique individuals may face. 

Also serving three-year roles are Moss and Rhorer. Moss is the founder and CEO of All Home, a nonprofit that addresses homelessness via several varying avenues including policy solutions. Moss worked as Mayor Schaaf’s chief of staff from 2015 to 2017.

Rhorer served as the executive director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency for 20 years and was instrumental in the implementation of the JobsNOW! Initiative, the Care Not Cash initiative, and the Affordable Care Act. Rhorer enrolled nearly one in four San Franciscans into the ACA. 

“It is critical to include curbside community leaders in policy and decision making that directly impacts their lives”

Elder, who will be on the commission for two years, is a lifetime Oakland resident and the founder and executive director of the East Oakland Collective, a member-based community organizing group working toward racial and economic equity in deep East Oakland.

Lorenzo, who works for EveryOne Home doing data analysis related to the unhoused population, and Harrison, who supports the unhoused population through his nonprofit and homeless shelter, Village of Love, will also serve two-year terms. Harrison is also the second commission member that has had personal experience with homelessness.

Beth Stokes serves as the director of Episocopal Community Services, Mark Walker is a director at Swords to Plowshares, and James Mittelberger is the chief medical officer of Center for Elders’ Independence. All three are nonprofits that support unhoused families, veterans, and seniors respectively. Each of these commissioners will serve one-year terms. 

Although unhoused advocates are generally optimistic about the selections for the commission and their strong ties to community advocacy, many raised concerns about the lack of currently unhoused Oaklanders on the commission.

“It is critical to include curbside community leaders in policy and decision making that directly impacts their lives,” said Homeless Advocacy Working Group member Talya Husbands-Hankin during public comment on November 10. “I encourage the newly appointed commission to act swiftly to create meaningful involvement from currently unhoused leaders.”

Mayor Schaaf explained in a letter that she had decided not to include any unhoused community members on the commission because she did not want to appoint them to an unpaid commission. Instead she recommended that the commission establish a separate Advisory Committee made entirely of unhoused Oaklanders who would be able to receive a quarterly stipend for their time.

“I think it’s a very considerate decision,” said Candice Elder. “However, I do think that should have been up to each individual unhoused person that would have been picked to serve on the commission. Let them actually say whether they would like to volunteer their time and be on the commission or be paid as a person on the advisory council.” 

Elder asserted that she is confident the advisory council will be diligently formed and that there are enough people on the commission that will advocate to bring those voices to the forefront of the commission’s decision making.

Markaya Spikes is a currently unhoused Oakland resident and advocate for the homeless community who works to connect her encampment community to food and medical resources. She has also started a Christmas program for the unhoused, and often works actively with City Hall as well as the East Oakland Collective.

“Because we do have advocates on the homeless commission, I’m not really too worried about being heard and understood,” said Spikes. “But I feel like can’t nobody tell our story better than somebody that’s in our situation—we’re the only people that can help us.”

Like a handful of other unhoused community members, Spikes applied to the commission but never received a response.

“Yes, they might have the financial capital for it, but we’re the only ones that can tell somebody really what program will work for us,” Spikes said. “That was my whole goal to being in the homeless commission, was to let them see, stop putting everybody in one category, and understand that we are a diverse group [and] in each group you have to work with people individually.”

The commission has yet to meet but their orientation is set to start on December 1. They are expected to begin making progress on the development of the advisory council immediately. Councilmember Bas motioned to schedule an update about the formation of the advisory committee at the city council meeting on December 15. 

Sabrina Armaghan Kharrazi is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and a former staff member of the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center in Berkeley.