The city of Oakland, California is considering setting guidelines on where homeless encampments will be allowed—and not allowed—to set up, and what health or safety requirements they would have to follow. But homeless residents and advocates say that any homeless camp enforcement violates a court ruling that prohibits the criminalization of people for sleeping outside, if they have no other options.
A city official, Joe DeVries, introduced the proposal during a City Council meeting on February 25. DeVries claimed the new policy would prevent indiscriminate police sweeps of homeless camps, which are currently assessed on case-by-case basis. He also said the new rules would more strictly enforce issues of trash, sanitation and violence in encampments. He suggested reconsidering homeless camp regulations for areas including parks, schools, businesses and waterways.
In response, homeless people and housing advocates, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, are urging the mayor and city lawmakers to stop all camp crackdowns and repeal 10 different ordinances—including those that criminalize people for soliciting on the street and sleeping on benches.
They cite an April 2019 federal appellate court ruling, Martin v. Boise, which determined that homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping outside if they have no alternative. The city’s overall homeless and unhoused population is now over 4,000, having grown by nearly 50 percent in the last two years.
Homelessness is a particularly contentious issue in Oakland and the Bay Area. On February 20, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) was ordered by a Superior Court judge to pay $5.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of homeless people in Alameda County—including Oakland—who were targeted for camp sweeps from 2014-2019.
Caltrans must now award damages to people whose tents and belongings were seized and thrown away. In many cases, people lost invaluable items including family photographs, identification cards and even a cat. Each person who was targeted will receive up to $5,500, and the state has been ordered to revise its policies towards camps.
“It has been forever that the property of homeless people has been considered garbage,” said a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs. “The people are considered garbage and their property has been considered garbage, and that’s not OK. This says they have the same constitutional protections as anyone else.”
Oakland is increasingly the center of a housing rights movement that extends far beyond the city limits. In November, two homeless Oakland women and their children peacefully occupied a vacant home on Magnolia Street. Calling themselves “Moms 4 Housing,” they sparked a months-long demonstration protesting the lack of affordable housing in the city. They and other advocates have highlighted the fact there are more vacant homes than homeless people in the city.
A judge ruled in January that the women were illegally squatting. The women were ordered out, and forcefully removed at gunpoint by the sheriff’s department days later. But in a later development, the real estate company that owns the home announced that it would sell it to the Oakland Community Land Trust. That purchase would allow the women to remain in the home.
Oakland and Alameda County may soon have more designated homeless shelter areas, under a new plan by California Governor Gavin Newsom (D). Newsom announced in his February 19 State of the State address that he is directing state agencies to identify unused state-owned land that could be given to local governments for use as temporary shelters. Of the 286 relevant properties, 36 are in Alameda County. The sites include vacant lots, fairgrounds and armories.
It has become impossible for Californian officials to continue ignoring the state’s homeless population, which after surging to over 151,000 people, roughly equals the entire population of Kansas City, KS.
But tweaking rules and policies around enforcement of homeless encampments is only a tiny step towards addressing the massive, complex problem of unaffordable housing. Lawmakers will have to look beyond shelters and camps and figure out how to create lasting solutions to homelessness: homes.
Image of homeless encampment in West Oakland by Thomas Hawk via Flicker/Creative Commons 2.0