Neighbors have sent the city of Oakland many complaints about a homeless encampment underneath the freeway on 29th Street in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood. The city has struggled to serve its homeless population, which grew about 26 percent between 2015 and 2017. (Devin Katayama/KQED )
When Hilary Nevis bought her house last year on 29th Street in Oakland's Hoover-Foster neighborhood, she remembers a single person sleeping under the freeway overpass a few dozen yards from her front door.
“It was a really small footprint. He didn't bother anyone. He very much felt like my neighbor,” Nevis said.
Now the homeless encampment has grown to about a dozen tents -- a sight familiar to many Oaklanders. Nevis feels like the city has become too lenient about responding to homelessness, and she’s not alone. Complaints about homelessness grew 600 percent between 2011 and 2016. The city is planning to roll out relief for some tent encampments, but isn't planning to help them all.
We're Not in This Together
Oakland’s unsheltered homeless population grew 37 percent over a two-year period and has become the city’s most visible problem. Those with and without homes feel like the city hasn’t done nearly enough to solve the crisis.
After Nevis moved into her house last year, she would come home and find people sitting on her porch and using her outside electrical outlets to charge cellphones and other electronics. She decided to let this go.
“That always just kind of made me feel uncomfortable and I know some of my neighbors agree with that,” Nevis said.
Then, on a recent spring night, someone pounded on her door looking for a stolen phone, she said. Nevis can’t confirm who the person was, but it flipped an emotional switch. She began trading stories with her neighbors about how bold homeless people in her neighborhood had become. Nevis went from believing she could live together with her homeless neighbors to feeling threatened by them.
“We were like, oh hey, we can be a community, like work together. And then one of those people tried to break into my house. I'm like, no, we're not in this together,” said Nevis, who has aired her concerns on SeeClickFix, Oakland's citizen complaint website.
Nevis started calling Oakland’s public works department and she eventually got Joe DeVries, an assistant city administrator who has overseen a lot of the city’s homeless initiatives. DeVries discussed ways Nevis could better protect her home, and he requested that Oakland's police department enforce the “No Blocking Sidewalk/No Loitering” signs and asked police to “direct the encamped to leave.”
Nevis also tried to superglue her outside outlets shut, but on a recent morning she found the plugs had been pried off. Since the incident, Nevis says she has become overly sensitive to the encampment; she wants to feel safe in her home, she said.
“I feel like the lines have not been drawn very clearly for the people who live under there,” Nevis said.
Helping Some Encampments, Closing Others
Among those who feel Oakland has been slow to respond to its emerging homeless crisis are some at City Hall.
“Our response is slower than we'd like it to be and it's not as thorough as we would like it to be,” DeVries said. “Hopefully with the new budget, that'll change. But it's not going to change as quickly as anyone would like.”
The Oakland City Council got a lot of pressure from activists to allocate an additional $3 million a year for homelessness, but the adopted budget fell well short of that. The budget does include extra money for wash stations, portable toilets and garbage pickup at some encampments, but DeVries guesses only between 10 to 15 encampments will be served.
An encampment management team made up of staff from the public works, fire and police departments has been meeting to discuss which encampments will get the extra help, DeVries said. The decisions will be based on a number of factors, such as encampment size, ability to manage and location, he said. When asked whether a high number of neighbor complaints would play a role, DeVries said not necessarily.
“We have a responsibility to go out and evaluate each encampment compared to other encampments and then prioritize our work based on that evaluation, not based on 50 people complained and they used really colorful language or they jammed up my email,” he said.
The city also allocated $450,000 to develop a “safe haven” site, where people could live in temporary structures while they get help finding housing. DeVries said that would likely be in West Oakland, where a concentration of encampments exists.
Along with efforts to keep some encampments operating in place, the city could also decide to close some encampments, DeVries said, adding that the encampment near Nevis’ home would likely be considered.
“That particular encampment is so close to residential property and close to a school corridor where a lot of children walk. Those would be the ones that I personally think we need to evaluate for closure,” he said.
Getting Neighborhood Buy-In Is Important
Closing a camp doesn’t do much to solve homelessness unless there’s a long-term plan for where people can go. A lot of attention will likely be paid to how Oakland works with sheltered and unsheltered residents to address encampments in neighborhoods; and the city isn’t starting off with a great track record.
Activists protested in February when the city dismantled an encampment at 36th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way known as “The Village.” Some neighbors in West Oakland were upset after the city promised to end a pilot project serving a homeless encampment earlier this year, only to have more people move into the space after the city’s services stopped.
“I believe that this failure has damaged the city's credibility to the extent that they will have to demonstrate one or two successful sanctioned encampments before most neighborhoods would be willing to discuss supporting a proximate sanctioned encampment,” said Ray Kidd, a member of the West Oakland Neighbors group.
Other neighborhood groups are asking the city for whatever services it can provide now. The Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland hosted a number of city and county officials this month to discuss a response to an encampment nearby known as the “Living Room.” The city promised to provide bathrooms and washing stations as well as health services by Aug. 22, according to a church spokeswoman.
Under the freeway overpass on 29th Street, a man who calls himself “Akie” is sitting on a twin mattress reading a newspaper. Akie believes some encampments will probably be shut down, but he doesn’t believe this one -- on Hilary Nevis’ street -- should be on the list.
“[I] think this is one of the safest and one of the quietest and peaceful-est encampments around, and this one should not be shut down,” he said.
Akie said what the encampment needs is clean water, bathrooms and garbage pickup. But that doesn’t look like it’s in the cards for this space.
Akie feels like people who live in this encampment would be responsive if homeowners approached them and talked about how to live together, but that hasn’t happened. For now, everyone is talking through the city, which doesn’t have a good response yet.