“We’re ready. You guys aren’t coming in here today,” said Matt Long, a former resident of the encampment at Union Point Park. He was speaking to Oakland Homelessness Administrator Daryel Dunston on February 9, the deadline the City of Oakland had been given to clear the harborside encampment, or else face major fines by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), who had been pressuring the city to remove the encampment for years.After the 15 or so encampment residents and activists spent the morning protesting the impending eviction, Oakland officials backed down, symbolizing an ongoing struggle between encampment residents, who wanted to remain at the park, and city officials, who have been trying to remove them for years. But a month later, city officials returned and swept the encampment.
In the midst of the closure, however, encampment residents and city officials struck a deal: Move inside temporarily while the two parties worked together to create Oakland’s first sanctioned encampment. However, now that Union Point Park has been closed and its prior inhabitants are living in temporary housing, talks about the co-governed, sanctioned community appear to have gone cold. While residents are still eager to move forward with those plans, much work remains to be done.
State Agency Targets Union Point Park
City officials estimate there are as many as 140 homeless encampments in Oakland. During the pandemic, the city has largely stopped evicting encampment residents, per CDC guidelines. But Union Point Park is different: its location along the estuary makes it subject to the authority of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency charged with, among other things, regulating development along the San Francisco Bay coastline.
Between early 2018 and early 2020, the BCDC repeatedly warned the City of Oakland it was in violation of its 2003 permit to operate and maintain Union Point Park. In November 2019, the BCDC directed the city to close the encampment and restore the park. In February 2020, the City of Oakland reported having cleared part of the park, restricting homeless residents to a wedge of land on its north side. Then the pandemic hit. The resulting state-of-emergency declaration put plans to remove the remaining residents on an indefinite hold.
But complaints from marina residents and local businesses about trash, illegal dumping, parking violations and water theft continued, increasing pressure on the BCDC to take action. On October 15, 2020, the BCDC voted to pass a Cease and Desist Order (CDO) requiring Oakland to close the encampment, or be liable for up to $6,000 in daily fines. According to city staff, the City Council voted in closed session to refrain from appealing the order.
Encampment Residents Push Back
Residents of Union Point Park, some of whom had lived at the park for over a decade, were determined to resist, and they told city officials so. With the support of activists from the anti-gentrification group United Front Against Displacement, they held regular planning meetings, brainstormed protest slogans, and built barricades at the encampment’s entry points. Hoping to head off conflict, resident Matt Long met with city officials but said he was unsuccessful in finding a compromise that might buy them more time.
Resident Deanna Riley complained, “They’re trying to put us out with nowhere else to go. No reprieve zone, nothing.” While the city had in fact offered each resident a bed in a transitional housing program—most commonly the tuff sheds or at a hotel, many residents did not consider these offers viable. Long, for example, was offered a place in the city’s tuff shed program, but insisted his current living space was much better. Like Long, other residents turned down the tuff sheds because they felt the sheds came with unreasonable restrictions, such as curfews and prohibitions on hosting guests. Some said that their own well-being required them to live outdoors. Either way, the encampment’s fifteen or so residents were determined to stand their ground.
On February 9, Homelessness Administrator Dunston arrived with a single garbage truck, ostensibly to carry out the eviction. As residents, UFAD protestors, and press watched, he and Long sat on a couch forming one of the barriers and quietly talked for about fifteen minutes before shaking hands and walking away. Dunston told the sanitation crew they could leave. The plan, it seemed, was for Dunston to work with the residents to find a new place where they could live outside in partnership with the city and a non-profit partner—Oakland’s first co-governed encampment.
Working to Create a New Model
Over the coming days, Dunston would meet repeatedly with residents and UFAD organizers to explore options that might avoid a forcible eviction. Together, they landed on trying some-thing new: a city-sanctioned homeless encampment. The Oakland City Council has been talking about building a select number of co-governed encampments for years, and the city’s new Encampment Management Policy states that “the city shall launch at least one co-governed encampment pilot on public land within the next four months, working collaboratively with the unhoused community to design the program.”
Union Point Park residents were enthusiastic about the idea. Some talked about creating small businesses to sustain themselves, such as a bike repair station or the sale of handmade crafts. Dunston appeared supportive, but warned residents that their biggest challenge would be keeping out people who might not respect community rules, or who might attract violence or drugs. To buy additional time, residents request-ed and were granted a month’s extension from the BCDC. Richelle, a member of UFAD, said they recognized the best they could do would be to buy residents more time to negotiate for solutions better tailored to their needs.
“Some folks want money for an RV. Some folks want to be put in motels until they’re placed in more permanent housing. Some folks want to be offered a reprieve zone where they can continue to live outside in a place where they won’t be dis-placed in another week or two or or two months,” she said.
As residents worked to flesh out the details of the arrangement and crafted a list of demands—things they argued must happen before they agreed to leave Union Point Park, such as a written agreement with the city—Dunston abruptly resigned on February 27, leaving the future of the co-governed encampment unclear. As residents geared up for their new closure date, a city official came by on March 9 and told residents that the City of Oakland had contracted with Operation Dignity to provide temporary housing in hotels. Operation Dignity also delivered a 40-foot storage container to the park, into which residents could load their belongings. They would have until March 11 to prepare to leave.
Lucy Brum, who lived at Union Point Park for nearly a decade, expressed frustration at the vagueness of the housing offers. They would have to sign an agreement to abide by certain rules and acknowledge that the support was temporary, but no dates were given for how long they could remain housed at the hotels, or when the sanctioned site might open up. She and other residents worried that accepting the city’s vague housing offer and leaving the site, they would be giving up what little leverage they had. Many worried that once their time at the hotels ran out, they would be back on the street with no clear place to go.
In part, this worry stems from Oakland’s controversial new Encampment Management Policy, which prohibits unsheltered people from living in large swaths of the city, including, among other places, in parks or within 50 feet of water-ways. And with this new Policy soon to take effect, the number of locations where unsheltered people can put down roots will shrink, leaving the former residents of Union Point Park with few options for where to relocate if the co-governed site falls through and they end up back on the street. “There’s gonna be a whole string of evictions happening all across the city of Oakland,” Adam, an organizer with UFAD, said.
City officials follow through on closure; for residents, future remains unclear
On March 11, public works crews, escorted by nearly a dozen police officers, began sectioning off parts of the remaining encampment with police tape. Using compact utility loaders with sharp jaws, they loaded structures, property and debris into a continuous succession of trucks. Despite the warning, residents appeared caught off guard. Some had spent the last couple of days getting settled in their hotel rooms or transition-al housing programs, and rushed back to collect their remaining belongings. Others insisted they had no idea the storage container in the parking lot had been available to them for the last two days. On the morning of March 11, protestors and residents worked together to pry it open.
By late afternoon, most of the encampment was gone. Most residents wound up accepting temporary housing offers at Oakland hotels. One resident declined the city’s offer and was last seen sitting on a pile of belongings on the sidewalk. Two others did not initially receive placement into hotels but have since been granted rooms.
Of the sweep, Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons said, “I’m very pleased that the action was completed with respect and dignity and the contributions of everyone present, including the residents and advocates. This important work must continue with this same spirit of cooperation, purpose, and diligence.”
At a BCDC meeting which took place concurrently with the eviction, commissioners congratulated the City of Oakland but were concerned about how to prevent people from returning to the park. For residents, however, the feelings about the sweep are mixed. For many, the outlook will be determined by what happens to their plans for a co-governed space. Two weeks after the eviction, it appeared that talks were stalled, and cynicism amongst residents was growing. Matt Long and Lucy Brum confirmed they were no longer involved in any negotiations about a co-governed encampment.
“In the two-ish weeks since the eviction was finalized, the residents have heard nothing about the plan for the co-governed encampment,” said Adam of UFAD. He confirmed residents were still on board with the idea of moving to a sanctioned site, but noted that they have not been invited to participate in any further discussions about how it would be set up and run, leaving them skeptical about whether or not it will happen at all.
Assistant Administrator LaTonda Simmons, however, told Street Spirit that the city is continuing to work on the plans. “The City is continuing review and processing of the application for the co-governed encampment. It is moving forward,” she said.
Meanwhile, it appears the city has begun enforcing its new Encampment Management Policy: Two curbside communities were closed on March 25 and a third on March 30.
Alastair Boone contributed reporting.
Thomas Brouns is a documentary filmmaker and student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has served four overseas tours as an American diplomat and is a retired U.S. Army officer.