Oakland's Sanctioned Homeless Camp Project Ends on 'Sad' Note

A formerly sanctioned homeless encampment at 35th and Peralta streets that was cleared in 2017 after a fire broke out. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Updated Tuesday, 12:00 p.m.

The underpass that Oakland officials dedicated as a sanctioned homeless encampment was cleared on Friday after a fire broke out earlier in the week, bringing a sour end to the project at a time when cities around the Bay Area have struggled to deal with homelessness.

More than a dozen residents stood by while homeless advocates, police, a council member and city representative discussed next steps -- clearing the site at 35th and Peralta streets near the Emeryville border.

“We’ve spent two Christmases out here. That’s two years accumulating things like clothes and a lot of stuff," said Mario Clemente. “We all respect one another. No fights or violence. We just want community.”

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of fighting homelessness, the Bay Area is struggling to find ways to build programs that work. The same month San Francisco received $100 million to reduce chronic homelessness -- its largest ever private donation for the cause -- this city-sanctioned encampment in Oakland was cleared out, bringing attention to the ever-present long-term problem that remains: no permanent housing.

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Oakland began piloting the six-month $130,000 project last October. A small section of street was blocked off to create the tent community. The city and county partnered to bring health services like portable bathrooms and garbage pickup, while trying to find around 40 people housing through case management. But more people kept showing up, said Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator.

“We made it very clear to the individuals that had moved in that we didn’t have housing for them, we didn’t have intensive case management services for them,” he said.

Of the original residents, around 30 of them are currently in housing thanks to the city, according to Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents District 1, where the sanctioned camp is located. Some of the remaining residents will receive temporary shelter.

The camp wasn't intended to be a permanent solution. But McElhaney said the failure to replicate the model elsewhere, the inability to manage extra residents moving in, and two recent fires that caused the city to close the camp is a "sad" ending.

“This is not an elegant ending. This is a crisis ending,” she said.

Sonny Dawkins has been living at the encampment at 35th and Peralta streets since July 2006. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Sonny Dawkins has been living in the camp since last July. He doesn't feel like he should have to move and calls himself a resident of that particular camp.

“If you go somewhere else, to another campsite, you might not be welcome there,” he said.

Council members have expressed interest in additional funding for homeless services now that budget talks have begun. Oakland also has tens of thousands of dollars to invest in homeless services, which will be discussed later this month in a city council committee, said DeVries.

“The way to solve this problem is through more housing and we don’t have it. And that’s a reality that the entire Bay Area, in fact the entire West Coast region is facing.”

This post has been updated.