Protesters gathered outside Councilmember Noel Gallo's house during a meeting Tuesday, rallying against an encampment policy that was later approved unanimously. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The Oakland City Council unanimously passed a new homeless encampment policy Tuesday, more than 10 hours into a meeting where dozens of members of the public spoke passionately about the proposal and protesters rallied outside two councilmembers’ homes.

Starting next month, the city will hand out 60-day notices to homeless people to vacate some of the city’s numerous encampments in areas where they’re no longer allowed to pitch tents. Before the city closes those camps, staff will try to connect the residents with services and shelter. 

The newly adopted policy spells out where camping is not allowed in Oakland—near schools, houses, businesses, playgrounds, and in traffic lanes, including bike paths—unless the City Council makes an exception for a given group. Those areas are considered “high-sensitivity” because of safety risk. In the remaining “low-sensitivity” zones, people can sleep in tents if they follow rules like keeping on one side of the street and not storing propane tanks and generators.

If the city determines that there is a health or safety issue at an encampment in a “low-sensitivity” area, city workers will either install sanitation facilities or clean around the camps. If issues persist, the city may shut down a camp after offering residents at least temporary shelter. The policy says nobody who refuses to pack up and leave will be arrested or cited for simply sleeping on the street, however.

“This isn’t to criminalize folks,” said Daryel Dunston, Oakland’s homelessness administrator, at the meeting. “It’s to say, if you’re going to be here, let’s establish some basic standards. It absolutely leads with services, compassion, and empathy.”

District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor worked closely with staff to craft the policy. Mayor Libby Schaaf has been a vocal proponent, too, emailing residents Monday to urge support of the item.

Several councilmembers inserted amendments into the new package of homeless camp policies just before last night’s vote. District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney added an amendment that will have staff set up city-run camps on land in each City Council district, including the former army base in West Oakland, where people displaced from “high-sensitivity” sites can relocate. District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas added a requirement for the city to launch its first “co-governed” encampment in the next four months. Oakland previously set aside $600,000 for co-governed camps, which will be run in partnership with an outside organization, with input from the unhoused residents. 

District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb and District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao slightly rewrote the new rules around  “high-sensitivity” sites. Their amendment will have city staff prioritize closing camps in parks with children’s playgrounds while leaving camps on athletic courts alone. They also recommended that the new Homeless Advisory Commission regularly provide input on the new encampment management policy.

These last-minute changes didn’t appease the many community members, lawyers, and advocates who, over a five-hour public-comment period, demanded the city rework the policy before voting on it, or scrap it altogether. While the meeting was in session, protesters gathered outside the homes of Kalb and District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo and rallied. Each time Kalb spoke, activists’ screams were audible in the background. 

The critics say the policy walls off nearly the entire city to homeless people and forces unrealistic standards on the camps that remain. They view the rules as designed to virtually outlaw homelessness and give the city the justification to close most camps. The council adopted the policy in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, even though the Centers for Disease Control says local governments should let encampments remain in place during the coronavirus crisis, to slow the spread of the disease. 

“This is designed to keep unhoused residents from affluent neighborhoods,” said speaker Priya Patel. “Individuals will lose connections with services and community.”

“You can’t ban your way out of a humanitarian crisis,” Terra Thomas told officials. “It’s not like people are out here wanting to break the rules; they don’t have anywhere else to go. This is an appeasement to business owners.”  

Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas said she’s been working with unhoused residents at the Athol Plaza tennis courts by Lake Merritt to establish a “co-governed” camp that would be located elsewhere. Credit: Pete Rosos

It is still not completely clear how much of Oakland is now off-limits to encampments. The city released an interactive map showing which areas are “high-sensitivity” once you apply the policy’s rules (150-foot buffers around schools, 50-foot buffer zones from businesses, and more). The map indicates that almost all of the city is “high-sensitivity.” But Dunston said during Tuesday’s council meeting that the map is misleading because it blocks off entire residential zones instead of only displaying the actual 50-foot barrier around houses.

Many opponents of the new policy also said the perspectives of unhoused residents were missing from both yesterday’s council meeting and from the process of creating the policy. They said it didn’t make sense to pass the policy right before the city’s new Homeless Advisory Commission is set to launch. One of the commission’s responsibilities is providing feedback to city officials on the encampment rules.

Several Oakland residents spoke in favor of the encampment management policy Tuesday as well, saying sprawling homeless camps outside their homes pose health and fire risks. According to the city, there are now 70 encampments in Oakland with three or more residents.

“For the last six days, I’ve been cleaning up human feces and picking up other people’s garbage,” said Anand Patel, who said he owns a business and home, and lives next to a camp. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, the city has upped the number of camps receiving sanitation services to 40. (However, a staff report said some of the facilities are out of order and the servicer is falling behind on upkeep.)

At yesterday’s council meeting, a visibly frustrated Dunston defended the encampment policy, and said the concerns that Oakland is trying to criminalize the homeless or close down every camp are misguided. He said the policy was, in fact, based on requests he’s heard repeatedly from unhoused residents.

“Should this be adopted tonight, this doesn’t happen tomorrow,” he said. “No one will be awakened in the middle of the night or early in the morning and be required to vacate where they are. Service provisions will be offered before we move to close that encampment.” He pointed to a camp at 11th and Pine streets in West Oakland as a model of a site that the city only shut down once residents accepted shelter offers.

There’s an ongoing question, however, about what the city is legally obligated to do before closing a camp. The 2019 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision Martin v. Boise said cities can’t punish homeless people for camping if there’s no alternative shelter available. City staff said it’s unclear what the implications are if Oakland offers someone shelter but they decide not to go there. (The new encampment management policy says homeless people will have 72 hours to accept an invitation to a shelter). The policy says nobody will be arrested or cited if they continue camping outside. 

Toward the end of yesterday’s meeting, there was a tense moment between Dunston and Gallo, who initially indicated he’d vote against the policy.

Gallo said more input from unhoused residents and advocates was needed, as well as more investment in clean-up crews and services at encampments.

“The reality is we have a government that’s not functioning,” Gallo said. “All we do is shift people from one end to another.” Gallo personally cleans around homeless camps in Fruitvale every weekend, and he said other councilmembers and city staff have no idea how bad the conditions really are and they don’t follow through on promises to homeless and housed residents.

“You know how committed to this I am,” Dunston said in response. “I’ve been out there with you—you know I’m a man of my word.”

In the end, Gallo voted in favor.

The only other official who hedged before voting was Bas, who said she’d “ideally” hoped to hold off on adopting the policy until the Homeless Advisory Commission could review it.

“There’s a real lack of trust between the diverse residents of Oakland, housed and unhoused,” she said. “This debate is incredibly heated. Homeless people are often criminalized, and we heard that today in some of the hate speech that characterized them in general as criminals,” she said, referring to some members of the public who called in to comment. 

But, Bas said, she was “counting the votes,” and given the policy’s widespread support on the council, she decided to vote in favor in order to get her amendments passed.

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.