Targeting Homeless Encampments 

The City of Oakland is partnering with nonprofits to eliminate homeless encampments and steer people into emergency housing. But will it work?


At a community meeting last fall, West Oakland residents expressed frustration, resentment, and anger at the growing number of homeless encampments in their neighborhoods. There was garbage in the streets, needles on the sidewalks, and evidence of public defecation, the residents said. In response, a city staffer told attendees that a new attempt at blight abatement along the Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor had had some initial success: Weeks after clearing homeless encampments at 29th, 30th, and 42nd streets, the city had been able to prevent them from reappearing.

The removal of encampments in Oakland is part of a citywide effort that also includes attempts to steer homeless people into emergency and transitional housing. City staffer Joe DeVries, who is spearheading the project, also noted that homeless encampments tend to attract illegal dumping as well — so they're a blight issue for the city. Tomika Perkins, operations director of Operation Dignity, a nonprofit that is partnering with the city, agreed. "People use the existence of homeless encampments to their own advantage," she said of illegal dumpers. "Mattresses, couches, and televisions are dumped, and, yes, if that stuff is there, [homeless people] might utilize it, but they're not the ones who put it there."

However, some longtime advocates for the homeless are skeptical about the city's new efforts, and are concerned that, without more affordable housing, homeless people are just being moved around Oakland. "We're not going to end homelessness [this way]," said Alex McElree, executive director of Operation Dignity. "Until there is more affordable housing and more resources, where do you expect poor people to live?"

According to a report compiled by EveryOneHome, a countywide effort to end homelessness, there were 4,264 homeless people living in Alameda County as of January 2013. But there's been a significant reduction in the last few years in the number of homeless families with children — so much so that shelters formerly dedicated to housing homeless families are being remodeled to serve the single-adult population. But the report also found that, although programs are helping move nearly 2,000 people into permanent housing annually, there are just as many people who become homeless each year.

"Sadly, in Alameda County, we have about 2,000 people living outdoors at any point in time," said Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOneHome. "We don't have that many permanent housing resources. In the interim, some actions may need to be taken around encampments. The result being, people are moved along, which is clearly not ideal."

Susan Shelton, a manager in Oakland's department of human services, said that the city has been doing outreach with the homeless for the past decade and a half. Increased federal funding has led to the substantial decrease in family homelessness over the past eight years, but single-adult homelessness persists. "Mostly, that is who you'll find in encampments," Shelton said of homeless single adults.

Over the past decade, homeless encampments have become commonplace along the Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor, extending from 23rd Street to 42nd Street. Shelton said that, over the years, the city has taken a number of different steps to combat the growth of homeless encampments, like posting signs and doing cleanups. But without enforcement, encampments often simply re-emerge in the same place, on a new corner down the street, or in a different neighborhood — which, then, in turn, prompts more complaints from local residents. "We're trying to figure out, what will stop the cycle? How can we fix things on a more permanent basis?" Shelton said. "Well, the answer is, you break the cycle of homelessness with housing. But unless and until we have housing that is affordable to this population and resources to support and stabilize them. ... We have to find out ways to have that intervention in tandem with outreach efforts on tackling blight. Increasing concern and upset about blight has us using other interventions."

Under Oakland's program, the city gives occupants of an encampment 72 hours notice before dismantling it. Representatives from Operation Dignity do outreach and inform people at the encampment about opportunities to move inside. Along the MLK corridor, the city and its nonprofit partners employed several strategies: They made transitional beds available to those displaced; Public Works cleaned up the area and installed additional fencing and no loitering signs; and the Oakland Police Department conducted daily monitoring.

What is making the difference along the MLK corridor, so far, is police enforcement. Shelton said. "We didn't find that the postings or cleanups were breaking the cycle, so we've added enforcement. Not arrests — enforcement," she said, referring to the visits made by OPD to tell people who have returned to move along — a tactic that DeVries said has not resulted in any citations thus far.

"It has made a difference," Shelton added. "It is not illegal to be poor or homeless, but in a city and economy like ours, we have to be creative about thinking of ways that address all citizens. This is our latest experiment; we're trying to see if it works."

According to DeVries, for several weeks after the city cleared the West Oakland encampments, OPD visited the area every morning to monitor the sites and make sure they remained clear, threatening to cite anyone that had returned. Before, DeVries said, OPD wasn't following up with enforcement (for a number of reasons, but largely a lack of resources). He's seen a change in the last six months: Things are starting to work better.

"The police are concerned, they don't want to harass people, and they don't want to criminalize homelessness," DeVries said.

Police Lieutenant Chris Bolton, whose beat includes the former sites of the homeless encampments, said that he recently attended a meeting that included representatives from different city departments, at which graffiti, vandalism, and illegal dumping were discussed. "I would bet bottom-dollar those types of meetings weren't happening five to ten years ago at that level — hopefully that's evidence that we're becoming more effective at working as a group," Bolton said.

Beyond successfully clearing a neighborhood of blight, Perkins of Operation Dignity said that enforcement encourages homeless to consider moving inside. "It's a collaborative effort," she said. "Enforcement is a sensitive issue, but it's needed."

Of the fifteen to twenty homeless people that DeVries estimated were living in encampments at 29th, 30th, and 42nd streets, a few have taken advantage of a temporary winter shelter at Henry Robinson Multi-Services Center in downtown. Others have moved on to a different block or park. "We know we're displacing some people, and that's not solving the problem," he said. "What we're solving is the specific encampment, which is in and of itself is a good thing, because if people know they can't keep establishing encampments, they will accept services."

But McElree is less optimistic that the city's new efforts will ultimately be successful. "We make dents — four block areas ... [but] the police department doesn't have manpower to maintain strict enough enforcement," he said. "What it all boils down to is money and resources."

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