A policy up for review Tuesday would spell out when the city would clean, service, or shut down homeless encampments. Credit: Nina Riggio

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On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council is set to consider a controversial new policy determining where and when homeless encampments can be established.

The proposal from city staff divides Oakland into “high-sensitivity” areas where camps can exist only if the City Council explicitly permits them, and “low-sensitivity” areas where they’re allowed to set up without city permission as long as they comply with several rules, such as staying on one side of the street. The new policy also spells out when the city and police would provide sanitation facilities to encampments, when they’d clean the camps, and when they’d shut them down.

If the council approves the policy, staff would begin handing out 60-day clear-out notices to camps in high-sensitivity areas in November, according to the proposed implementation plan. The plan lists several camps in each district that would either be prioritized for closure or outreach, or left alone.

how to watch and participate in the city council meeting

There are several ways to watch and participate in the City Council meeting, which begins at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tune in via Zoom, online stream, on TV on KTOP Channel 10 (Comcast) or ATT Channel 99, or by calling in at 669-900-6833.

Public comments on all items are taken toward the beginning of the meeting. To make a comment, watch the meeting over Zoom and click the “Raise Your Hand” button when directed. If you call in by phone, press *9 to do the same (unmute yourself by pressing *6). 

See the meeting agenda for more details on how to participate.

City staffers say the policy will encourage safer and cleaner conditions for both homeless residents and their housed neighbors. Daryel Dunston, the city’s homelessness administrator, said the city will conduct the thorough outreach spelled out in the proposal—providing handwashing stations, cleaning up trash—before even considering closing an encampment in low-sensitivity zones. If a camp is eventually flagged for closure, the city will have to provide 72-hour notice, and residents will be offered temporary shelter. The policy says nobody will ever be arrested or cited for simply camping in public spaces without breaking other laws.

Dunston, who said he’s experienced housing insecurity himself, has called the proposal a “good faith” effort to juggle conflicting wants and needs against the backdrop of Oakland’s homelessness crisis. On Monday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sent out an email urging residents to support the policy, which she called a “transparent, compassionate and more effective” alternative to the current approach.

But many unhoused people and their advocates say the proposal goes too far, forcing camps to comply with unreasonable rules and unnecessarily involving police in camp management. A number of groups have taken particular issue with draft maps of high- and low-sensitivity sites, noting that the city’s proposal to keep encampments 50 feet away from any residential property or business appears to wall off nearly the entire city to homeless residents.

“These ‘high sensitivity areas’ are designed to keep unhoused individuals out of predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods where critical supports and services are more readily available and accessible,” wrote lawyers from Bay Area Legal Aid in a letter calling on the council to delay or reject the new policy. “By pushing unhoused persons into isolated areas of the City, individuals will lose contact with much needed services and community connections which are crucial for people to find and maintain stability.”

Read more about what’s in the encampment proposal.

There’s a question of legality, too. A 2019 court decision, Martin v. Boise, has put cities on alert, saying governments can’t punish homeless people for camping outside if that’s their only option. At a meeting of the Oakland City Council’s Life Enrichment Committee last month, council president Rebecca Kaplan, who represents the entire city as the “at-large” seatholder, told staff that councilmembers couldn’t consider the new policy before a legal analysis ensured that it complies with existing laws. Staffers agreed to come back with that information, but said they’re confident the proposal is legally sound, noting that Oakland’s been unsuccessfully sued multiple times over Martin

Bay Area Legal Aid has also questioned whether a proposed rule requiring unhoused people in low-sensitivity areas to contain their belongings within a 12-foot by 12-foot area could result in unconstitutional seizures of property. 

A legal analysis was just one of many items the Life Enrichment Committee has asked staff to compile. While members of the committee—Kaplan, Loren Taylor (District 6), Dan Kalb (District 1), and Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3)—voted unanimously to send the policy on to the full council for review, they raised several questions to be addressed at what’s likely to be a lively meeting. 

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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 grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.