Oakland Begins Helping Some Homeless Encampments While Closing Others

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Tysonia Tyson was forced to move her tent across the street on Grand Avenue to another homeless encampment as the city cleared her side of the street. Oakland provided bathrooms and wash stations nearby, which she says is helpful. But she's concerned there's not enough space at the encampment for everyone who needs it. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Tysonia Tyson was forced to move her tent from Grand Avenue in West Oakland on Thursday.

She was among a number of homeless people living in several encampments cleared by city crews. Oakland officials want to move them across the street to San Pablo Avenue where garbage cans, wash stations and portable toilets were installed that morning.

Tyson said the bathrooms will be helpful.

"We have buckets inside our tent and then we come and pour it out in the drain," she said.

But when Tyson looks across the street -- under a freeway overpass -- where the new services are located, tents have already begun to appear. She said she's concerned there won't be enough room for everyone.

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"All of us can't pile over there," she said. "Don't just throw us over there and bunch us up."

The city is expected to provide similar sanitation services at four more homeless encampments by the end of the year.

But, with some tents blocking public sidewalks and city residents complaining, city officials are also closing some encampments.

Tyson worries her new site will be next.

Homelessness in Oakland grew by more than 25 percent over the last two years, while the city experienced a 600 percent increase in complaints about homelessness between 2011 and 2016. In response, the City Council allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars in the budget for improving conditions at homeless encampments.

The city chose to provide sanitation services on San Pablo Avenue, hoping to move people and tents away from the Veterans Affairs building nearby, according to Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator.

“What we're hoping to do is clear the areas that most impact the staff and patients,” DeVries said in an interview.

The VA is also providing a case manager to serve some of the unsheltered people around the clinic and help them find housing, said DeVries.

The city of Oakland has installed bathrooms, garbage bins and wash stations at the homeless encampment on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

While homeless advocates have been pushing the city to provide sanitation services for encampments, some are now upset that Oakland is simultaneously clearing encampments that have existed for a while.

“It was never our intention or our suggestion that in order for encampments to have these basic services, [it] would mean the shutting down of larger encampments," said Anita De Asis, a homeless advocate who is better known as "Needa Bee."

The area where the city hopes to send homeless people is known to have rats living in ivy bushes leading to the freeway, said De Asis.

“These rats are the size of possums,” she said. “It’s devastating and it’s inhumane," she said.

The city has cleared some of the ivy. DeVries said rat traps and poison have been laid down with follow-up inspections. But that hasn't calmed any nerves.

Oakland Is Starting to Close Some Encampments

DeVries said the city closed three encampments last month. Two of the sites were in West Oakland on 29th and 30th streets near Martin Luther King Jr. Way, one of which was profiled by KQED. The other encampment was located in East Oakland on 84th Avenue and International Boulevard.

Rosella Renee-Flemings stands with a shopping cart of her belongings. She was forced to move from her homeless encampment near 84th Avenue and International Boulevard on Aug. 2, 2017.

Rosella Renee-Flemings lived at the East Oakland encampment. While standing by a shopping cart filled with her belongings, she said the encampment looked "junky," which was part of the reason why so many people complained. Don't just blame the people who were living in the encampment for that, she said. Illegal dumping also took place.

"When they see a pile of trash, they come and add their trash to it," said Renee-Flemings.

DeVries can't remember the last time the city permanently closed an encampment, noting that closures are different from an abatement where a site is cleared and cleaned -- after which people often move back in. Police are tasked with enforcing closures by blocking the homeless from returning, DeVries said.

“We’re going to do this sparingly, but we’re going to do it where we feel that it has to be done," said DeVries.

Decisions on which sites to close are based on a number of factors, including pedestrian access, traffic concerns, calls for service and proximity to schools, according to DeVries.

He said the city reached out to the encampments at 29th and 30th streets 15 times in the last few weeks, offering to help people sign up for social services they might be eligible for.

"Most of them actually declined service,” he said.

The main problem is that the city lacks affordable housing -- especially for those with the lowest incomes. While creating new affordable housing could take years, Oakland has a couple of other projects in the works.

The City Council allocated $14 million from a bond measure passed by voters last fall to purchase at least one building to provide transitional housing for more than 100 people at a time.

It also allocated $450,000 to create a Safe Haven site, which will provide temporary shelter on a vacant lot while helping people find more permanent housing.

When asked whether there are locations or a timeline for either of these projects, DeVries said, "We're working on it."