Oakland Homeless Encampments: Too Big to Ignore

Jeffrey Hill's tent burned down in an encampment fire in late May 2017. The cause of the fire is not known. Hill calls his encampment at Fifth and Brush streets a 'family,' but also says it has become harder to maintain order as the encampment has grown in size. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Tootsie Tages was shaken. Her tent, tucked in an encampment near Fifth and Brush streets in West Oakland, burned to the ground in late May. The fire allegedly happened because of a “miscommunication” over a cellphone, she said. The tent next to hers was the target. But Tages lost most of her belongings -- including a TV and refrigerator -- and two puppies died.

“I went from all that to just this,” an emotional Tages said, pointing to a small basket of things.

Several fires at tent encampments in Oakland have raised the already high profile of homelessness in a city that has experienced a 37 percent increase in the unsheltered population over the last two years. Even though Oakland is planning to invest tens of millions of dollars more in short- and long-term solutions, local leaders and advocates say it won’t be nearly enough to make a sizable dent in the city’s homeless crisis.

“I think it’s just the beginning,” said Michele Byrd, Oakland’s housing and community development director. “Everything's on the table.”

Balancing Immediate and Short-Term Solutions

One estimate by homeless outreach provider Operation Dignity puts the number of Oakland homeless encampments as high as 200. Some encampments block sidewalks and spill into streets. The number of complaints the city has received about encampments grew by about 600 percent between 2011 and 2016.

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Encampment residents like Jeffrey Hill, who said his tent was the target of the fire that also destroyed Tages’, thinks the city has been “fair” to his encampment in West Oakland, occasionally providing trash collection.

“They haven’t been bothering us as much,” he said.

But encampments like this one need more help than occasional trash removal. If the city provided bathrooms and places to clean up -- like it has in other parts of the city -- “it would save a lot of lives,” said Hill.

“A lot of us are getting sick out here,” he said. “It’s hard to go out here in the streets and go to the bathroom. You’re disrespecting other people, but that’s sometimes how it has to go because we don’t have a bathroom. This is our home.”

Some suspect that as the city gentrifies, development is pushing people from once unused and invisible spaces out into the open. Local leaders say they want to find compassionate solutions for homelessness, but critics say the city isn’t working fast enough. City officials have also taken heat for clearing encampments and moving people from sidewalks only for them to move back days later. These abatements are costly and ineffective, according to a UC Berkeley report.

Jeffrey Hill lives in a tent encampment near Fifth and Brush streets in West Oakland. He says he knows other people living on the streets who have died from infection. Hill wants the city to provide bathrooms and sanitary stations to his encampment. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

The City Council is scheduled to pass a budget Thursday that is likely to include several short-term responses that deal specifically with homeless encampments. Among those responses: providing health and hygiene services at some encampments; creating an on-site navigation center where counseling and housing services can help find people permanent homes.

Homeless and housing advocates - including East Bay Housing Organizations - support some level of immediate spending on keeping encampments safe and clean. But Oakland officials need to strike a balance between short- and long-term solutions, they say.

"Absolutely, I think we need some resources set aside for making sure the encampments are compassionate," said Gloria Bruce, executive director of EBHO, the top local affordable housing advocate. “We’re just really concerned that it’s shortsighted for the City Council to say we’re going to show that we’re addressing homelessness by putting money into these short-term services because affordable housing is the solution to homelessness,” said

Complaints to Oakland About Homeless Encampments


Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED
Zoom in to see more granular details of the heat map.

Data from complaints about homeless encampments submitted to Oakland's Department of Public Works, including by phone calls, emails, the city website and SeeClickFix from July 2009 through May 2017.

Two Bond Measures Aren’t Enough

If housing is the solution, Oakland is in a hole. State and federal governments have been cutting funds that cities were using for affordable housing over the years. Alameda County has lost about 74 percent of its state and federal affordable housing funding since 2008, according to the California Housing Partnership Corp.

Voters in Alameda County passed a $580 million affordable housing bond measure last fall, while Oakland voters also passed a measure that included $100 million for affordable housing. At least 20 percent of both bonds have to go to housing for extremely low-income households. These are the dollars that will serve the homeless population.

“They are not enough, but they are an excellent start,” said Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home, which manages Alameda County’s homeless care system.

The amount of housing the bonds will generate is difficult to estimate, depending on land prices and project negotiations. But in general, lower-income housing costs more to build and often requires subsidies like government vouchers.

Housing experts estimate the county bond could create hundreds of units, maybe more than a thousand, for homeless residents. But the need is likely more than 10 times that amount, said de Coligny.

“It is shocking and disheartening -- but not unbelievable -- that after 20-plus years of spending increasingly less on housing, we are that far behind,” she said.

Oakland also needs to create more affordable housing where residents also receive social service supports. Permanent supportive housing is often touted by advocates as being the answer to solving homelessness, but it's expensive. It costs thousands of dollars per person annually to maintain, although there are cost savings from fewer emergency room visits and reduced incarceration that more than make up those costs.

Lataisha Cork, who uses a wheelchair to get around her encampment underneath Interstate 580 in West Oakland, said she needs these kinds of supports and was getting them in a rehab program she was in for a couple of years.

"Your medications come on time, you eat there, you’ve got different friends, you go on trips, outings," she said. "I miss it so much. I regret it. I left because I thought I could make it on my own."

Oakland’s First Priority Is to Get People Off Streets, Temporarily

The Oakland City Council has committed $14 million to purchase at least one building to create a temporary residence for about 300 people annually who will receive counseling and housing services to get them into permanent homes.

A similar "navigation center" program exists in Oakland. It's run by Bay Area Community Services through the downtown Henry Robinson facility and had more than an 80 percent success rate at finding housing solutions for those it served last year. In many cases, people didn’t have housing vouchers or program subsidies to help them pay rent, said Daniel Cooperman, program director.

“It’s about finding unique solutions,” he said. “A lot of it is a single room in a single-family residence, or matching people up with roommates,” he said.

Cooperman said if BACS was able to operate a second Henry Robinson facility he’s confident the program would be just as successful. But he acknowledges that finding people permanent homes is more difficult when more people are searching.

How Encampments Are Trying to Survive

In the meantime, tension around encampments is growing. In data provided to KQED, the Oakland Fire Department reports there were 58 fires related to homeless encampments in 2016. Through mid-June 2017, there have already been 50 incidents.

Oakland city crews asked residents at the sanctioned homeless encampment at 35th and Peralta streets to clear their belongings on May 5, 2017, after a fire broke out on the evening of May 1. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Most of these incidents aren’t burning tents -- rather, firefighters could be responding to an open flame or a trashcan fire, a fire spokesman said. The data show about three dozen fires have been flagged as possible arson, without any details about who might have started the flame.

The Red Cross says it has begun a yearlong partnership with Oakland and will respond to certain emergencies, like the fire last month that claimed the tents of Tages, Hill and one of their neighbors.

Hill doesn’t give many details about the incident that led to the fire. He has lived here for a few years, watching the encampment grow from a few tents to a few dozen.

He said there is still stealing and drug use, and fighting goes on, too. Respecting people's personal space has gotten harder.

“Too many people living too close together,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who are new to the way we run things. The stumble, they trip and they fall. If they're good people, if they're worthy enough, we try to save them. If not, we kick them to the curb."

In a study from EveryOne Home, 98 percent of respondents said they would take housing if it existed. But Hill said he hasn’t tried to get off the streets -- rents are way too high and his chances don’t look good.

He's been on the streets so long that he has earned some respect out here.  But that doesn't mean he's living a comfortable life.

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