A homeless encampment with a colorful arrangement of tents and tall palm trees in the background.
An Oakland encampment on E12th street, above Lake Merritt, in 2019. (Alastair Boone)

A recent audit of the City of Oakland’s encampment management activities proved to be an indictment of the city’s approach to the homeless crisis, revealing heavy spending and meager results. While advocates say the report fell short of studying the depth of Oakland’s homeless response, it uncovers new information about the city’s spending and strategy, and provides new data about the state of the city’s encampment communities. Ayat Jalal, homeless advocate and co-founder of The Village Oakland, says that while disappointing, the audit’s findings are no surprise for people living on the street.

“It proves what we already know in the street,” Jalal continued, “that you can never improve someone else’s situation unless you’re in their shoes—in the same situation as them—or if you’re shoulder to shoulder with them, working alongside them. There is no trickle down. There’s money that’s asked for at the top and it stays at the top.”

The audit was requested in 2019 by City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas and homeless advocates, and covers fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Its main focus is Oakland’s Encampment Management Team, or “EMT,” a cross-departmental group consisting of staff from city departments as well as members of the police and fire departments. The EMT was established in 2017 as the number of encampments in the city was on the rise, with the goal of coordinating Oakland’s response to the crisis. However, in her report, Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby found that the EMT was “overwhelmed” by closing and cleaning encampments, and overall is “not adequately prepared to shoulder such a massive project.”

The audit revealed that the city spent $12.6 million dollars on 2,100 interventions in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. These interventions included 53 encampment closures, 128 re-closures, and 298 cleanings—amounting to about $1,500 per hour on camp closures and cleanings. According to the audit, unhoused residents were not given sufficient notice of closures, and their items were not properly stored according to the rules of the city’s bag-and-tag process.

The fact that the city performed more than twice as many re-closures than closures is particularly telling: it shows that more often than not, closures are ineffective at controlling the whereabouts of encampment communities, as residents simply move back to the location from which they were evicted.

While high, these numbers provide a skewed picture of Oakland’s encampment intervention strategy: In March 2020, the city enacted a pause on encampment evictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, in accordance with CDC guidelines. 

This spending also does not reflect the costs of Tuff Shed or transitional housing programs—a point that has caused many to criticize the audit for not digging deeply enough into the whole of Oakland’s homeless response.

Public works employees in neon vests pull apart a self-built structure while police watch.
Public works employees deconstruct a self-built structure during an encampment sweep on San Leandro Boulevard in 2019. (Alastair Boone)

Responses from city staff and advocates were split about the spending analyzed in the report— a dynamic that only underscores the ideological divides that plague the city’s homeless response.

“If you want something to be successful, you have to fund it,” former Oakland City Administrator Daryel Dunston told The Oaklandside. “The EMT wasn’t stood up with funding or clear objectives, so you had a situation where staff at that time were building a plane as they were flying it. It’s a microcosm of the larger issue of the lack of funding in general for housing and homelessness.”

Others disagree.

“The bigger issue isn’t that they need more money. They took money and misused it,” said unhoused activist Needa Bee, who pushed the city to perform this audit. “We need to revamp the whole policy,” she continued, noting that the amount of spending revealed by the report is “outlandish” considering its narrow scope.City Council President and District 2 Representative Nikki Fortunato Bas gave a similar reflection. “The audit highlights a lack of good management in our city administration,” she told The Oaklandside. “We are spending millions of dollars on homelessness and housing but we don’t have a clear plan that outlines the outcomes we’re working towards. As we head into our two-year budget, I don’t think the answer is throwing more money at the problem.”

The audit also found that Oakland police did a poor job of responding to emergencies at encampments. Police took an average of 4 hours to respond to 572 calls to encampments in 2018-19, and 6 hours in 2019-20 to respond to 416 calls. Almost all of the calls made to police were priority 2 calls, which the audit notes should be responded to in 10-15 minutes. The audit notes that there were 19 murders at Oakland encampments in 2020, which represents 18 percent of all Oakland murders that year.

When it comes to police spending, the audit records OPD using about $3.1 million in costs associated with homeless communities. However, that $3.1 million does not accurately reflect the amount of overtime pay that is typically spent on encampment interventions, because OPD started recording overtime pay related to homeless communities in February 2020, just before the frequency of interventions declined dramatically due to the pause in encampment closures.

By contrast, the fire department responded to 90 percent of their 7,884 calls to encampment in 2018-20 in under 8 minutes. They responded to a total of 988 fires in homeless communities in 2018–19 and 2019–20, which is over one a day. 

Costs related to the fire department’s engagement with the homeless community accounted for an estimated $1.8 million during the studied period. OFD costs related to homeless communities rose over 40 percent from 2018–2020, while the number of fires at encampments increased about 17 percent during this period.

The audit concludes by offering recommendations for the city’s future encampment interventions—particularly as they start enforcing the new Encampment Management Policy (EMP). The auditors recommend that the EMT create a clear organizational structure and decision making process, schedule and document interventions, and create a system for tracking encampment activities. They also recommend that the city create clear criteria by which encampments receive services like trash collection and portable toilets, create a strategy for outreach and budgeting before interventions, and ensure that staff follow city procedures around the bag-and-tag process. Finally, they recommend evaluating the ways other cities inform encampments of upcoming interventions, and developing a plan for transportation or residents following a closure or re-closure.

Advocates, however, are wary of the proposed recommendations.

“They don’t need recommendations,” Bee continued, “they need to be accountable. What kind of consequences will there be for the misuse of money? How will there be transparency and accountability moving forward?”

Hannah Trumbull is a community organizer and writer who lives in a co-op in Piedmont, CA. She mobilizes the Jewish community for social action at Repair the World (@bayarea_repair on Instagram), and is a member of Foodz Mutual Aid (@food4oakland).