By Needa Bee
Like all U.S. cities, the CIty of Oakland’s approach to homelessness and the unhoused is rooted in the false belief that encampment evictions are inevitable. At best, governments have the audacity to promise a kinder, gentler method of evicting unhoused people from the encampment communities where they live.
Why pay attention to us now? In the City of Oakland, elected officials have passed a punitive new policy for “managing” curbside communities, and they are starting to put this policy to use. That means there are more encampment evictions—and thus more curbside human rights and civil rights violations—happening than ever before. The only real guard against this abuse of rights is public pressure. We must shift all eyes onto these inhumane policies in order to protect our unhoused family and enact widespread policy change.
The City of Oakland’s skippy doo da day friendly eviction approach looks like this: the city promises to give people adequate notice of evictions, outreach for services and support, placement in adequate shelter, and bagging, tagging, and storage of any personal property that they cannot store once their curbside home is evicted. The reality is that this happens once in a blue moon—when an eviction is highly publicized and there are media, lawyers, legal observers, homeless advocates, and community members present. Basically when they are forced to be held accountable to what they say they do. But most evictions fly under the public’s radar. What usually happens is the exact opposite of what the city has publicly promised.
For years, the Oakland mayor and her administration, and her agents in the Department of Public Works and Oakland Police Department do whatever they feel like doing, while saying their approach is led with compassion and dignity. Hundreds of testimonies collected from unhoused folks for civil rights lawsuits tell stories of lives that have been brutalized, and civil and human rights violated by the city’s practices. And the recent audit on the City of Oakland’s Encampment Management Team showed that not only does the mayor and her administration not have any sort of comprehensive plan or budget for their approach to this growing crisis, but millions have been mismanaged or are simply unaccounted for.
And now we have this new Encampment Management Policy that was voted into place in November 2020. This policy solidifies, justifies, and institutionalizes the premise that unhoused people are criminal, unwanted, and to be shuffled around. It is framed so that evictions of curbside communities are inevitable. It outright bans unhoused folks from living in certain parts of Oakland. It also claims that adequate notice will happen, that no unhoused person will be evicted from their curbside residence until adequate shelter is provided, and that property will be bagged and tagged—that is, that the city will store an unhoused person’s possessions in a municipal facility for 90 days where folks can come to pick them up.
This new policy also makes it illegal for unhoused communities to exist on parcels of Oakland public land. After a month of studying the maps released by the city, I realized that none of the “low sensitivity” areas, aka the areas where folks are allowed to live, are on land that is “owned” by the city. The Encampment Management Policy map Oakland City Council unanimously voted on last fall only “allows” unhoused settlements to exist on federal, state, or private land. This move literally washes the City of Oakland’s hands clean of dealing with unhoused communities and relegates the act of eviction to CalTrans, the Federal Government or the Alameda County Courthouse and Sheriff’s Department.
Due to public pressure by advocates, unhoused leaders, public health workers, legal professionals, and the city auditor, the new Encampment Management Policy was sent back to a city council committee to make amendments to it. Until those amendments were made, the council said that the policy would not be enforced.
But that didn’t stop the mayor, her administration, and her agents from executing their new policy. This new policy began to be enforced at the beginning of 2021, removing communities off Oakland’s public land in the midst of a pandemic that has not ended, while the CDC’s moratorium on evictions of curbside communities is still in place. To date, there have been more evictions of unhoused settlements in the past seven months than there were during the same timeframe of any previous year, according to the “homeless encampment cleanup schedule” that is posted every two weeks on the city’s website. And there is only one known settlement that received all the harm reduction promises from the city – Union Point in March 2020. This was a highly publicized eviction for a community that had faced eviction and the threat of eviction for more than a year. And the only reason they received all the amenities the city has proclaimed is its standard operating practice is because that community united, stood as an organized body, and demanded the city make good on its promises. We of the Village in Oakland have been urging curbside communities to come together like a fist when the city or state comes with evictions. Union Point understood the power in unity.
Moving forward, it’s gonna take curbside communities uniting against their oppressors to make the government follow its own policies. It’s gonna take increased organizing and defense led by unhoused folks, supported by advocates and housed community members, backed up by more lawsuits. It’s gonna take the Oakland CIty Council to stand up to Mayor Libby Schaff and her administration to enforce compassion.
If the city of Oakland really was compassionate, dignified, and humane in their approach to curbside communities, they would not use evictions. They would allow people to shelter in place through the pandemic of homelessness, and make sure our people had adequate sanitation services, access to food and clean drinking water, and other support services on site. If the City of Oakland really cared about the people who are being displaced by its agenda of gentrification, it would not have mismanaged, wasted or disappeared hundreds of millions of dollars as the audit showed. They instead would have spent this money building permanent housing rather than the arsenal of temporary transitional shelters that hundreds of unhoused Oaklanders have cycled in and out of for the past four years. If the City of Oakland really wanted to end homelessness, it would put a moratorium on the agenda of gentrification and use public resources to ensure there is permanent adequate housing for all. Enough of the condos and outdoor dining parklets and luxury apartments for the rich. We need housing now. And if the city had the political will to be public servants that walked the talk of equity, we would have it now.