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On Friday morning at East Oakland’s Union Point Park, the water sparkled under the winter sun, rowing boats passed by, and the residents of a large homeless camp sat outside their tents talking to each other and trying to corral several mischievous dogs.
The scene was a familiar one at the waterfront park where numerous people have lived in tents and structures for years. But nobody had been sure the camp would still be standing by Friday.
Since October, the city of Oakland has been under orders from the state’s San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the BCDC, to make sure nobody was still living at the park—or face a potential $6,000 daily fine starting Friday.
The city announced that it would close the camp between this Tuesday and Thursday, Feb. 9-11, culminating a years-long tussle between Oakland, the state, homeless residents, activists, and people who live on boats nearby. On a couple of occasions, clean-up crews showed up this week, and city workers visited daily to try to get residents to agree to move into transitional housing sites. But the Friday deadline arrived with several people still saying they had no intention or desire to move, and many tents and structures still standing.
The city has offered residents spots in the Community Cabins, which are small clusters of structures that can house one or two people each, and beds in transitional housing facilities. Previously, at least one resident who lived with kids at the park moved into a long-term family shelter.
Earlier this week, while visiting the park, Daryel Dunston, Oakland’s homelessness administrator, said the city would consider allowing residents to relocate their tents to another outdoor site instead. Some residents had identified a possibility, but it wasn’t city-owned. On Friday, activists who’ve gathered to defend the residents said a nearby plot of land in Jingletown is newly under discussion, but city offices are closed Friday so staff could not be reached for confirmation.
“We’re going to resist however we have to”
Oakland’s waterfront, including the Union Point Park area, is governed by the BCDC. In October 2020, the BCDC served Oakland a cease and desist order, saying the park encampment violated state and city policy, and ordering Oakland to kick out some of the residents in November before fully shutting down the camp by Feb. 12. In the order, BCDC catalogs numerous reports made to the agency of violent incidents, including homicides, and other crimes at the park since 2018.
In recent years, Oakland has closed down encampments at the park and cleaned the area multiple times, sometimes in response to state requests. In November, the city complied with the first step of the cease-and-desist order, deep-cleaning areas of the park and making sure all the tents were clustered in one designated area. Those actions took place during a contentious week in which a historic building located next to the encampment burned down.
All this week, the city of Oakland maintained that it planned to fully close the camp by the Friday deadline. Some residents had preemptively moved their belongings to storage, while others said they had no plans to pack up.
“We’re going to resist however we have to,” said resident Tee C. on Monday, the day before the eviction was scheduled to start.
She said she was uninterested in the city’s offer of a Community Cabin, because she feels unsafe living in “close quarters with complete strangers,” and finds the rules at city-run sites patronizing. “Millions of dollars are donated to the homeless but they’re misused,” with not enough spent on basic housing or direct financial assistance, she said.
“We all wanted to stay together,” Tee C. said. “We stick together, cook together, and eat together. When somebody has a problem,” residents protect their neighbors and “it makes us feel safe.”
On Friday, another resident, Laroy, also said the camp is his “safe zone.”
“It’s hard to take someone away from where they feel comfortable at, and put them somewhere else,” said Laroy, a West Oakland native who said he’s “been dealing with the system my whole life,” spending time in juvenile detention and prison, and coming out to find a changed, unaffordable Oakland. “They push us to the side and don’t care about the homeless.”
City staff said they’ve been working relentlessly to get the residents into safer, stable shelters.
“We were able to identify the needed number of transitional housing and Community Cabin beds to accommodate all the residents who expressed interest or were willing to engage,” said city spokesperson Karen Boyd earlier this week. The city has also offered transportation to those sites, food, and hygiene supplies, she said.
What does the city’s new encampment policy mean for the future of Union Point and other sites?
Initially, the city pushed back on BCDC’s timeline, asking to postpone closure until after the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said that disbanding encampments can increase the risk of COVID-19 spread, advising cities to leave them be “if individual housing options are not available.”
The commission was receptive at first, but came back with concrete deadlines “after hearing from residents of the adjacent marina,” according to a report by BCDC staff.
Activists, who helped build makeshift blockades so city vehicles would have trouble entering the park this week, argue that Oakland should have appealed the state order. According to city staff, the City Council voted in closed session to refrain from appealing.
Brock de Lappe, the harbormaster at the adjacent marina, has been a vehement critic of the encampment—and the government officials who’ve let it remain at the park, whom he’s called “impotent.”
“It’s not a suitable place to live,” he told The Oaklandside this week, saying business owners, rowers, and marina residents have experienced safety issues related to the camp and the many RVs parked along Embarcadero nearby, including a rat problem that residents acknowledge. “The city has had months to find housing for people. I don’t believe a few dozen people should be able to remove a limited and precious resource from the general public,” de Lappe said, referring to the park. “The laws and policy are not being enforced.”
The closure of the Union Point Park camp would be the first major operation conducted under the city’s new Encampment Management Policy, and the outcome of this case could indicate how staff plan to use the rules going forward.
The controversial policy, which the City Council passed unanimously, deems much of Oakland a “high-sensitivity area”—including places by waterways and parks, like Union Point—where camps are not permitted unless explicitly allowed by the city. In the remaining “low-sensitivity” areas, camps aren’t prioritized for closure but must follow several new rules. The policy also says when the city will deep-clean a camp or provide sanitation stations.
The policy says that nobody will be arrested or fined for refusing offers of alternative shelter during a camp closure, raising the question of what will happen if, like at Union Point Park, residents continue wanting to stay put.
On Thursday morning, at a meeting of BCDC’s Enforcement Committee, commissioners were under the impression that Oakland was actively closing the encampment this week, as planned. They lauded the Encampment Management Policy, interpreting it to mean that any complaint about a camp in a high-sensitivity area will trigger a near-immediate full closure, which one commissioner called a “huge win for us.”
However, city staff have often said that, while the policy permits swift action after 72-hour notice, they’ll often work with residents over a longer period of time to find alternative shelter before shutting sites down.
The commission also must follow an extensive legal process before being permitted to levy the $6,000 daily fine on Oakland, noted journalist Jaime Omar Yassin.
For now, it appears that camp residents will have at least another long weekend at the park before the standoff continues.