The Oakland City Council unanimously approved a controversial policy Tuesday that restricts homeless people living in encampments from sleeping in parks and near homes, businesses and schools but allows them to set up camp elsewhere.
Under the policy, city staff will not cite or arrest anyone for camping and will instead help with making sure people follow the rules.
Mayor Libby Schaaf applauded the City Council for passing the legislation and thanked city staff for “crafting a compassionate response to an unacceptable condition.”
“I’m grateful to the City Council who voted unanimously for a new encampment policy that will help us improve the well-being of all our residents, housed and unhoused,” she said in a statement. “Ending homelessness is a moral imperative.”
Oakland’s homeless population has increased by 47% from 2017 to 2019. The number of unsheltered people, during that same time period, increased by 68%. Oakland has about 140 encampments of tents and RVs.
Passing the legislation allows the staff to designate the city into “high-sensitivity” and “low sensitivity” areas.
High-sensitivity areas include playgrounds, parks, soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, places of worship, schools, residences or businesses. The proposal prohibits unsheltered people from setting up camp within at least 50 feet of these places. Tents will have to be 150 feet away from a middle school, preschool or child care center and 100 feet away from high schools.
City Council members can allow encampments to form in high-sensitivity areas, but only if they are managed by nonprofit, faith-based or advocacy organizations.
Encampments are allowed in low-sensitivity areas but are limited to one side of the street and prohibited from blocking bike lanes and pedestrian traffic. Advocates for homeless people have complained that the city’s low sensitivity zones only push encampments to the port and near the airport. City staff provided a map of the city that highlights the high-sensitivity areas, but acknowledged that it doesn’t show a full picture of where people can camp because it doesn’t accurately highlight high sensitivity areas near residences.
“This policy is focused on improving the health and safety on the street,” said Daryel Dunston, the city’s homeless administrator.
The policy passed with numerous amendments. Councilman Dan Kalb and Councilwoman Sheng Thao authored amendments that added places of worship to the list of areas that prohibit encampments from coming within 50 feet, and added more space between encampments and schools.
Kalb and Thao also required the city to report on implementation every four months and mandated the city’s new homeless advisory commission to review the policy and its implementation. The city has not yet appointed members to the homeless advisory commission.
Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas added amendments that require the city to launch at least one co-governed encampment within four months. A co-governed encampment is one that is permitted by the city and operated by homeless people with support from the city and nonprofits or advocacy groups.
And Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney added an amendment that calls on city staff to identify space for co-governed encampments in each council district. Another amendment by Gibson McElhaney calls for a partial closure of an encampment on Martin Luther King Jr. Way near Grand Avenue.
“Thank you everyone for moving this and making it that much better,” said Councilman Loren Taylor, who spearheaded the effort to come up with the policy,
If encampments are shut down, people will be offered a temporary shelter bed. The policy did not specify what options cities would provide people if they rejected the shelter bed. The city will give homeless residents 72 hours notice before an encampment is removed.
Enforcement will begin in January.
The policy has garnered criticism from homeless people, advocates and residents. During the meeting, people gathered outside the homes of Councilmen Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb to protest the policy and urge the two council members, who are up for re-election, to vote against the policy. A sign outside Kalb’s home read, “Evicting encampments is murder.”
Advocates and homeless people have said the policy criminalizes them and pushes them out of sight without providing opportunities for permanent or transitional housing.
Nearly 150 people spoke during public comment — mostly opposing the policy. Many people spoke in opposition of the policy calling on council members to send the policy back to committee to include more input from the homeless.
Taylor said he devised the plan after surveying residents and holding town halls. Only 14% of the survey’s 850 respondents were people who were living in an encampment or RV in Oakland, Taylor said. A majority favored setting restrictions on where encampments are allowed and reasonable rules.
“Rules and guidelines for encampments are long overdue, but the current proposed (encampment management policy) must not be passed in its current form,” said Candice Elder, the executive director of East Oakland Collective, a community organization that serves the surrounding area.
Elder urged the council to include more unsheltered people in developing the policy and put forth “real working solutions” rather than to just “herd and corral folks.”
Her comments were echoed by Mavin Carter-Griffin, a 55-year-old homeless woman who has lived at an encampment at Wood Street in West Oakland. Carter-Griffin spoke during public comment and said it’s hard to be part of the process as a homeless person when she doesn’t have access to internet access or other resources.
“We need to come together as a community,” she said. “What I’m looking for is a voice.”
City staff agreed to engage advocacy groups before enforcement begins next year.
Several Oakland residents and business owners spoke in support of the policy. Barbara Leslie, the CEO of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,000 businesses, called the plan “the right step” in dealing with the soaring homeless crisis in the city.
“I think we can all agree that the status quo is not working for anyone,” she said.
Savlan Hauser, the executive director of the Jack London Improvement District, said the legislation is “crucial” to Oakland’s businesses.
“Current conditions are urgent to address and unsafe for everyone,” Hauser said.