By Needa Bee
On the crisp and sunny Sunday morning of November 24th, unhoused leaders & activists, and housed allies and advocates created a protest camp in front of City’s Hall in the historic protest plaza known as Frank Ogawa or Oscar Grant, or as famed author Jack London once called it – The Commons.
The protest camp was set up to demonstrate against The City’s inhumane and cruel treatment of Oakland’s unsheltered communities. The activists agreed to leave once their 9 demands were implemented into City policy and enforced.
Rather than meeting with the protest camp to discuss their concerns and answer burning questions like “How did you spend $30 million towards homeless prevention and solutions from 2017 – 19? And how did homelessness double during that same time?”, the Mayor decided to destroy the encampment, and arrest and jail 22 housed and unhoused protestors. Arrestees were given citations for camping in a public park past 10 pm. In addition, they were arrested on various criminal charges including resisting arrest, obstructing an officer and obstructing justice. Bystanders who were not part of the direct action were also swept up in the arrests and spent the night in Santa Rita Jail.
Homelessness is not a crime. But the bureaucrats and their system are criminal. While protestors assembled, Oakland’s Czar of Homelessness Joe De Vries submitted a proposal to increase criminalization of curbside dwellers. Amongst other things, his pilot program would give Oakland Police Department the authority to cite our people for sleeping on the sidewalks and parks.
While the Mayor and her agent push for the escalation of their already cruel and unusual torture and murder of the unhoused with inceased criminalization of sleeping curbside, ther is no plan to build deeply afforable housing in site.
In this crisis of homelessness we face, there are many fronts to fight. Not just to alleviate the lack of access to the basic human right of housing, but to eradicate the very existence of homelessness from our society.
One front is the legal and policy battles we need to engage in to stop making homelessness a crime. And rather than question the people fallen victim to a society that allows homelessness to exist, we should be questioning the criminal nature of such a society. And change bad laws that uphold that society.
One such way we go about doing this is getting rid of anti-homeless laws that criminalize people who are surviving in a system designed for a few to succeed while the many suffer.
Modern anti-homeless laws are the cousins of Jim Crow laws, created to control and punish the people who exist on the edge of society. When we consider nearly 80% of Oakland’s unhoused are Black, this comparison is even clearer. These anti- homeless ordinances include “sitting or lying in the streets,” “obstructing pedestrians,” “sleeping on benches”, “using an open flame.” They are specifically designed to target anyone who has no option but to live outside. They are ineffective, costly, inhumane, and — according to a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling and a Supreme Court response — unconstitutional to enforce if the city does not provide adequate shelter.
Unless the city shifts its focus toward long-term solutions and away from criminalization, Oaklanders like me will continue to be punished for trying to survive when there are no other viable options available. And if you wonder about how limited my choices are, let me paint you a picture:
On any given night in Oakland there are more than two thousand (Alameda County 2017 point in count), six thousand (Feed The People 2016 intake data), or nine thousand (Alameda County Health Care For The Homeless 2015 report) people in need of shelter. But only 350 emergency shelter beds available. For women like me, there are even fewer options. Many of the places that provide beds do not accept children, pets, families and will not allow occupants to leave at night even if you work a graveyard shift.
Gordon Walker, director of Utah’s Division of Community and Housing estimated that criminalizing Utah’s unsheltered cost about $20,000 per person in state services, jail time and police costs. By adopting the Housing First program, where the priority is to place people in permanent housing instead of locking them up or sweeping them away, Utah saved millions and dramatically improved the number of unsheltered people in the state.
But it will take years for Oakland to shift away from its current money-driven development. City officials can start heading in the right direction right now by repealing the city’s “anti-homeless” laws while building permanent housing.