A sign says 'Housing Is a Human Right' at the Cob on Wood Project at the Wood Street encampment in West Oakland on July 19, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
A new report by Oakland's top watchdog shows the city isn't effectively tracking outcomes from the millions of dollars it has allocated toward services for unhoused people over the past few years.
Findings in the report issued this week by City Auditor Courtney Ruby cover a three-year period ending in 2021, a span in which Oakland spent nearly $70 million on programs aimed at helping unhoused people ultimately transition into permanent housing.
Homelessness in Oakland has nearly doubled over the past five years; the city accounts for roughly half the estimated 10,000 unhoused people currently in Alameda County. The city's response has involved contracting primarily with third-party service providers to run its housing programs, which, according to Ruby's report, served a total of 8,683 participants during the three fiscal years audited.
But Ruby says a lack of data makes it impossible to understand whether that response — which includes operating emergency shelters, placing residents in longer-term housing as well as supporting residents' ability to stay in that housing — has been successful.
"We don't know what our capacity is," Ruby told KQED. "How many people can Oakland truly serve in these different programs? How many of these people could we place in permanent housing? And then we have to have the data to know how long they're staying in permanent housing. Is it a day? Is it a year?"
The report also emphasizes the lack of a strategic plan, and outlines recommendations for adopting one.
"What does success look like?" asked Ruby. "A strategic plan provides that answer ... and then it provides the goals, objectives, the work plans, and then the annual reporting out to hold the city accountable."
Needa Bee, a longtime advocate for unhoused people in Oakland, says the inadequacies are frustrating, but the report didn't surprise her.
"We knew that there was mismanagement, that what was being done was insufficient to remove people off the streets permanently and to end homelessness in Oakland," said Bee, executive director of The Village in Oakland and a member of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group. "I hope [Oakland's Human Services Department] uses this report as a blueprint to do better, to really serve the people of Oakland and properly use those public funds to do what they're getting paid to do."
In a statement, Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas responded to the report by saying she is committed to gathering “baseline information” to “develop an impactful strategic plan to address the homelessness crisis.”
Dan Kalb, who also serves on Oakland's City Council, says additional data is only useful if it changes the city’s approach, and that the larger problem lies with a lack of funds.
"Whatever resources we have, we should use them more efficiently and have better oversight so we can maximize the value of those resources. I agree with that," said Kalb. "But doing that is not going to address the homeless challenge for virtually all the homeless people in Oakland. We're still short on dollars that we need."
The report, however, positions the creation of a strategic plan as an urgent first step that could be taken without significant additional funding — and suggests that the City Council consider delegating the initial development and monitoring of that plan to Oakland's Commission on Homelessness, with a goal of increasing accountability and transparency.
"That needs to happen in a public forum on a regular basis if we are going to drive the critical results that we need," said Ruby.
"We're in one of the most significant crises in Oakland's history," she said. "And the fact that we don't have a strategic plan means we don't have a road map."
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