City staff have proposed new rules spelling out where homeless encampments are allowed and when they can be closed down. Credit: Pete Rosos

Nearly everyone agrees that the city of Oakland should come up with more predictable rules and expectations around its treatment of homeless encampments.

But dozens of members of the public made it clear Monday that they disagree passionately on what those rules should be.

At a meeting of the City Council’s Life Enrichment Committee, city staff presented a draft “encampment management policy” spelling out where people can set up tents in Oakland and when the city will service, clean, or close those camps. The committee—composed of councilmembers Loren Taylor (District 6), Rebecca Kaplan (At-large), Dan Kalb (District 1), and Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3)—scheduled the policy to be reviewed by the full council on Oct. 20, but asked staff to bring more analysis of the policy’s potential impacts to that meeting.

For now, the proposal divides the city into “high-sensitivity” and “low-sensitivity” areas. High-sensitivity spots are located in traffic or bike lanes, within 150 feet of a school, or within 50 feet of a residential building, business, or sports field. Staffers recommend keeping camps away from all of these areas, but say the City Council could decide to permit some camping in these locations, ideally enlisting an organization or group to help manage the camp.

All other locations are considered “low-sensitivity.” Camps would be allowed there, but would have to comply with rules including staying on one side of a street, not blocking traffic, taking up no more than 144 square feet per person, and not storing propane tanks and generators. The policy considers even a single tent to be an “encampment,” city staff said at Monday’s meeting.

The proposal gives “encampment management teams,” made up of city staffers and police, a number of options when they see health and safety issues. In a “health and hygiene intervention,” the city would provide wash stations and toilets, and in a “deep clean” intervention, the city could temporarily move campers while crews scour the site, as long as they store any belongings residents leave behind. The policy also permits full or partial closures of encampments, as long as residents are offered temporary shelter beds.

“We have some encampments that are doing just fine on their own,” said Daryel Dunston, the city’s homelessness administrator. “This policy is for those encampments that, for whatever reason, need more assistance with maintaining a basic standard of living.”

Dunston emphasized that the city wouldn’t shut down encampments without first attempting to clean them, offer sanitation services, and provide other outreach. The proposed policy would also require 72-hour notice for any city interventions, except in serious emergencies. The written proposal indicates that high-sensitivity camps could be given 72 hours to move out without those previous interventions, though. At low-sensitivity sites, a closure could happen only after other attempts to address safety issues.

Kalb, who’s often pushed for more cleaning and upkeep at encampments, said hygiene help and deep cleaning will be welcomed by housed and unhoused residents alike. 

“Nobody really wants to live in squalor,” he said. “The rub is sometimes when we go in to do deep cleaning, some of the property of homeless residents gets confused with garbage. It’s not easy to distinguish sometimes, but it’s important that we make an effort.”

A number of councilmembers had questions about the implications of the policy, and the process behind the proposal.

Kaplan was adamant that the committee should have been provided a legal analysis of the proposed encampment management policy before discussing it. In 2019, an appeals court ruled that cities can’t punish homeless people—including by closing down camps—if they fail to offer alternative shelter. Oakland has to be absolutely sure that policies like this one comply with that ruling, Kaplan said.

“It’s a little unfair to us and the public. It’s a matter of great legal significance,” Kaplan said.

“It’s not uncommon to debate in committee without a full analysis,” McElhaney responded.

Dunston said the policy has been analyzed by lawyers, but given that it’s still subject to change by the City Council, staff didn’t include a legal report.

The proposal also says nobody could be cited or arrested solely for camping in Oakland, even if they refuse shelter offers.

While the Life Enrichment Committee ultimately voted to refer the policy to the full City Council, members requested the legal analysis and many other items, including a map of high- and low-sensitivity locations, clarification on the role of city staffers, more clarity on the implementation plan, status updates on other homelessness programs, a request to Alameda County for a list of vacant parcels where RVs could park, and more.

Would strict standards keep camps clean or lead to a harmful crackdown on residents?

Many unhoused people, and advocates who work with homeless people, called into Monday’s meeting to say the proposal does little to provide camp residents with the tools they need to be safer and healthier. Instead, they said, the policy as it’s currently drafted would give the city the ability to unfairly crack down on homeless people who can’t meet its high standards.

“It’s impossible to talk about managing camps without talking about what makes them unmanageable,” said Britt R., who was unhoused for a couple years until recently. “Can you imagine: You haven’t showered for weeks, the bucket where you go to the bathroom is full and you have nowhere to dump it, you’re thirsty and you have no water, you’re cold…and then you’re expected to be able to maintain your mental health and anger management skills.”

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the advocacy group ShelterOak wrote city officials a long letter criticizing the proposal. The authors said it places “impossible standards” on unhoused people, making discriminatory assumptions and faulting them for living in unsafe conditions. Given that the city’s encampment management team includes police officers, they said, the proposal flies in the face of loud, ongoing calls to “defund” the department. 

ShelterOak said clarity on the city’s process for intervening in homeless camps is welcome, but the group urged staff to include more input from unhoused residents, and to conduct a racial analysis of the policy’s impacts on a disproportionately Black homeless population.

Many residents who support the new rules—or think they don’t go far enough in closing down camps—spoke Monday too. They said safety issues connected to camps are overwhelming many neighborhoods, making it difficult for housed residents to protect their health during a pandemic.

“Our neighborhood has been cut off,” said a caller identified as Grant. People have to walk far out of their way to avoid exposure to feces and violence, he said: “Long-term neighbors don’t want their kids to witness this.”

Oakland police and city staff close down a homeless encampment in 2018. The policy on the table proposed controversial standards for where and when that can happen. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Brock de Lappe, Alameda Marina harbormaster, said conditions at a Union Point Park encampment have become “deplorable,” with rats and violence posing “imminent threats to safety.”

Dunston, the city’s homeless administrator, said that encampment is one where “we’d look to the City Council for guidance,” as shelter offers and outreach have been unsuccessful and homicides have happened there in the past.

“There has to come a point where the decision is made that these circumstances are so egregious that a closure is warranted,” Dunston said. But, he said, “we’re not suggesting we just go out and close every encampment in the city. Rather, is there a way we can work with folks to manage these encampments?”

Dunston bristled at some callers’ accusations that the policy empowers housed residents who are bothered by homeless people. 

“I’ve heard overwhelmingly from people in encampments that they are fearful for their safety. This recommendation is a good-faith effort to balance competing interests,” he said. “To anyone who questions my sincerity, this is very near and dear to my heart. I did not always have stable housing.”

One caller, Finn Black, said the city shouldn’t give equal weight to polarized responses.

“There’s no moral equivalency between housed people being uncomfortable seeing people suffer and die, versus the immediate survival needs of people who are suffering,” they said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.