Oakland’s City Council passed a far-reaching new policy for engaging homeless encampments last night in a unanimous vote. The decision followed hundreds of calls over three hours of public comment in the Zoom meeting—the vast majority opposed to the policy. Liz Suk of Oakland Rising echoed many when she said Oakland's most vulnerable would be "pushed to the edges and criminalized more," by the EMP.
The *policy promises to define “high-sensitivity” zones, areas where camping ostensibly will not be allowed unless specifically designated by City Council. Such areas include 50 ft exclusion areas around residences and businesses and protected waterways; 50 foot exclusion areas around certain playgrounds and parks; and 100-150 ft exclusion areas around schools. Recent exclusionary additions include High Fire Severity areas designated by state and city fire officials.
The policy also suggests encampments allowed in "high-sensitivity" areas by Council direction be limited to co-governed encampments, with either organizations or grassroots groups. The requirements for such encampments would be significant, according to documents provided by the City Administrator in the agenda packet, including liability insurance and fiscal reporting.
In reports and statements last night, Daryel Dunston, the City Administration’s Homelessness Administrator, said it would take several months to identify and engage encampments potentially in “high sensitivity” areas. The City Administration's plan envisions a ramp up that would involve the identification of high sensitivity area encampments, and engagement with their residents. According to Dunston, the process includes a 60 day notice to encampment resident before enforcement of the policy.
Dunston also claimed that rules regarding “low-sensitivity” areas, including separation distances between dwellings, sidewalk clearance and enforcement of laws not pertaining to being unhoused could start immediately, but through a gradual rubric of noticing and escalating interventions envisioned by the plan. Under the policy, the low-sensitivity areas will be monitored for adherence to the health and safety standards. When the standards aren’t being followed, Dunston stated, the City would engage with warnings, and then follow up with escalating engagement, from cleaning to closure, if the standards aren’t maintained thereafter.
The policy has had a long road in several iterations. Last year, when CM Nikki Fortunato Bas was in the Life Enrichment Committee, she began a process of accountability on homeless policy with the City. Bas asked for policy information, outcomes and finances for the City’s homelessness engagement. With support of several community organizations, Bas also instructed the City Administrator to come back with policies and data, and even required an audit of the finances behind homelessness engagement. When Bas left the Committee early this year, CM Loren Taylor took over the process. Taylor initiated a period of reports and community engagement, beginning with a review and revision of Oakland’s decades old “PATH” plan, which ostensibly is used to guide the City’s homelessness policy.
Through the Committee, Taylor proposed a series of town halls, which had to be held virtually due to Covid restrictions, carried out a survey and then engaged with the City Administrator on the policy. The survey was criticized for its low engagement of homeless residents. During public comment, East Oakland Collective Director Candice Elder noted that the survey's participants were "mainly homeowners. It did not include the voices of the un-housed community." Later in the meeting, Taylor argued that proportionally, the "14% of representation in the survey far outweighs the representation of homeless residents in the City."
The new EMP policy is the product of Taylor’s efforts, though led and articulated by Dunston who has been in the newly created Homelessness Administrator since Summer—Taylor called this Dunston "teeing-up" the policy. Before Dunston, the City’s former unofficial homelessness coordinator Joe Devries suggested the sensitivity exclusion zones, but he transitioned out of the role in July when the Homelessness Coordinator position was filled by Dunston .
Several speakers noted that the policy is vague about how the City will define high sensitivity areas. "I think its very telling that the map that we've seen shows where people cannot be, and there's not a map that shows where people can be," said Reisa Jaffe, an Oakland resident.
Previously, the City had touted a GIS map with layered functions that purportedly showed the exclusion areas. But in recent reports to Council, the City Administrator admitted that the map was all but useless in giving an accurate image of the high sensitivity areas around residences and businesses because its based on zoning, rather than individual parcels.
Without the map, however, its clear the City will have to canvass residential and commercial areas to find encampments that are within the zones, something Dunston admitted would take additional effort and staffing. Additional staffing, in fact, is a crucial component to the EMP. Dunston noted there are issues around additional staffing for both the Department of Public Works and the Human Services Department.
Dunston noted that there's only one DPW crew for garbage pick up and camp clean up and closure. In a recent closure, he noted, the crew was unable to carry out scheduled garbage pick-up. "Whatever was on the schedule for that day did not occur. And so it bumped those sites to to the following day and as you can imagine, there's a domino effect." The EMP would necessarily rely on an at least one additional DPW cleaning crew, according to Dunston, to handle expanded cleaning services and closures.
CM Dan Kalb also expressed some doubt about the capacity envisioned in the plan. "I have to acknowledge my somewhat skepticism as to whether we'll be able to do as much as we know we need to. Its going to be more money, and I think we need to commit that money to hire the crews to pick up the trash, keep those encampments clean." Kalb had earlier taken the City to task for claiming that wash stations and porta-potties are "serviced as often as we say they are."
Sara Bedford, the Director of the Human Services Department, claimed that at east two additional outreach staff specifically for the EMP had already been hired. An additional public works crew devoted to cleaning and dumping for encampments is also envisioned. Human Services and DPW both received additional funding resources in the mid-cycle budget amendments.
The legislation that council members voted for last night gives the City Administration the mandate to enact the policy, but is not the policy itself. Kalb and CM Sheng Thao co-authored amendments to both the legislation and policy. The Kalb/Thao legislative changes would require the City Administrator to present reports on outcomes to the Life Enrichment Committee and public within four months of implementation of the policy. The Kalb/Thao amendments also require the Homeless Advisory Commission to review and provide recommendations on the policy within four months as well.
The policy referred to by the legislative document was amended in the final deliberation—most substantively by Kalb/Thao and CM Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, Kalb/Thao de-prioritized the policing of encampments in parks unless they are parks with children’s play structures or areas, or have classes and programs for children. The Kalb/Thao amendments also lessened the area around high schools to 100 feet, from 150 feet.
McElhaney’s changes direct the City Administrator to “immediately work toward” establishing an auxiliary camping area on the unused portions of the Oakland Army Base for homeless residents displaced by enforcement of the high sensitivity areas. McElhaney’s amendments instruct the City Administrator to find similar sites in all 7 districts throughout the City. It should be noted that McElhaney’s amendments do not fund or create the Oakland Army Base encampment area or any other encampment zone.
McElhaney’s amendments also direct the City Administrator to prioritize the partial closure of an encampment on Martin Luther King, which lies in her district.
One of Kalb/Thao’s amendments lessened the area around commercial businesses that aren’t engaged in retail, but Kalb removed the amendment after an offline conversation with McElhaney, according to both council members. Bas added requirements to add the forthcoming homelessness financial audit to the City’s report-back to Life Enrichment and to have the EMP consider any changes suggested by the Re imagining Public Safety Taskforce.
CM Noel Gallo was the only council member who sounded concern about the EMP. In his comments, Gallo suggested that the item return to the Life Enrichment Committee for more input from community members, but he did not make a motion as such. Gallo's suggestion was met with a vocal response by Dunston, who couched his rebuttal in personal terms, an unusual response in City Council discussion between staff and Council. Dunston reminded Gallo, " [I'm] a person of my word, and about getting things done. You know that anything I've said I'm going to do, I have done."
According to recent Council rules changes, the substantive amendments to the legislation required an urgency finding with a vote of at least 6 council members in order to be added to the legislation. CM Taylor moved that applying the policy rules to “low sensitivity” encampments was currently an urgent matter and Gallo voted along with all seven other council members to declare the urgency. If the urgency finding vote had failed, the CMs would have been forced to either vote for the policy as it stood on introduction or delay their vote on the amended policy until the next Council meeting.
After Council passed the policy, some observers and advocates voiced surprise at the unanimity of the vote. "Kaplan, Fortunato Bas and Gallo walked into that meeting with a promise to the community that they would not vote on the policy but instead send it back to the Life Enrichment committee where it could be revised with meaningful input from unhoused folks. This is not that policy."
Council District 3 candidate Carrol Fife remarked on Twitter, "Homelessness is literally banned in Oakland, CA. This is not only a failure of government and our economic system, but a deep failure of our humanity."
*The policy submitted to Council can be read here, but it differs from the one passed last night because of amendments made during the meeting. Most, but not all, of the substantive amendments are listed in this article. The complete current policy will be posted here as an update when the City publishes the legislative documents.