The Union Point Park encampment closure was one of the 500 closures and cleanings that Oakland conducted at homeless camps over the past two years, an audit found. Credit: Pete Rosos

A long-awaited audit made public last week found the city of Oakland “was not adequately prepared” to address the recent growth in homeless encampments, lacking the systems, data, policies, and money necessary to manage them.

The focus of the audit was Oakland’s Encampment Management Team, or EMT, which was established in 2017 as the number of camps was rapidly rising. Including city staff from various departments and police, the EMT was supposed to better coordinate Oakland’s overall response to the crisis.

The new report, completed by City Auditor Courtney Ruby, found that the EMT was “overwhelmed by the undertaking of closing and cleaning encampments throughout Oakland.”

Ruby found that Oakland spent $12.6 million on tasks related to encampments over the past two years, and roughly $1,500 an hour on camp closures and cleanings. Despite the heavy spending, Ruby concluded that the city “does not have a comprehensive budget or formal systems in place” for these costs, often diverting money away from other needs. 

Oakland has at least 140 encampments (though the audit says the city lacks a standard definition of “encampment”), and new camps have tended to pop-up as others are closed by the city or Caltrans. The auditor’s report says the city conducted 500 camp closures, “re-closures,” and cleanings between July 2018 and June 2020, and provided 1,600 garbage pickups or hygiene services (including portable toilets and handwashing stations) at camps.

The audit also found that the city hasn’t done well responding to frequent emergencies at homeless camps. There were 19 murders at camps in 2020, but the audit found that, on average, the police response was “not timely” to calls for service. The Oakland Fire Department responded to 988 fires at camps in two years, and police responded to 1,459 calls. While fire response was faster than police, data is incomplete because it didn’t include medical emergencies.

The debate over how to best address Oakland’s homelessness crisis has been polarizing. Many residents view the city’s approach to closing encampments—historically often involving police, with little advance notice, and offering few alternative safe places to sleep—as inhumane, especially during a housing crisis. Others have begged the city to act faster in shutting down the camps that have expanded tremendously in recent years near houses and shops, raising concerns about safety hazards. Both sides agree that the city’s actions seem random at times. 

In October 2020, the City Council unanimously passed the controversial Encampment Management Policy. The policy was meant to spell out when and where the EMT should clean, close, or provide services to camps.

The policy declared much of Oakland—such as parks, school zones, and bike paths— “high-sensitivity” areas where people cannot sleep outside. The policy says the EMT will prioritize camps in those areas for closure, after giving advance notice and offering alternative shelter. Other camps in “low-sensitivity” sites must follow a number of rules and may receive sanitation services or cleanings by the EMT.

Ruby is recommending that Oakland create a formal program to carry out the new encampment policy and to monitor and assess its effectiveness. Her audit issued 26 recommendations—from training staff to respond to crises at camps to developing a budget for encampment management—all of which city staff has agreed to.

The audit was requested by City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas and advocates for unhoused residents in 2019. While the new report focuses only on encampments, Ruby’s office said another audit looking at city departments and contractors is in the works but will take seven to nine months to complete. 

So, two years after the audit was requested, what do the people who pushed for it—and those it’s written for—think about its findings? We asked them for their reactions. Interviews were edited for clarity and length.

Nikki Fortunato Bas, City Council president and District 2 representative

When I came onto council in 2019 it was clear that homelessness was and continues to be a growing issue, but it was unclear what the city’s plans were. I was visiting homeless encampments and hearing a lot of concerns with a lack of sanitation and lack of basic dignity. 

The basic goal was to have some level of transparency around the Encampment Management Team that had started two years prior. So much was confusing: the noticing [for camp closures], how people’s belongings would be treated. The basic question I have is, with the city’s millions in investment and staff time, are we actually improving people’s living conditions and transferring people into dignified shelter? I think what the audit is saying is we’re falling far short, and that’s very concerning.

The audit highlights a lack of good management in our city administration. We are spending millions of dollars on homelessness and housing but we don’t have a clear plan that outlines the outcomes we’re working towards. As we head into our two-year budget, I don’t think the answer is throwing more money at the problem. Do we need a different plan, a different staffing structure? Another thing that was interesting is there’s no mention in the report of the role of City Council offices; we’d talked about having a councilmember on the EMT.

But just dealing with encampments is not dealing with the underlying issue, which is housing affordability. More and more people are becoming homeless who are working. Entire families are living in vehicles and people are dying on the streets. We’re not dealing with root causes. 

Daryel Dunston, former Oakland homelessness administrator

Former Homelessness Administrator Daryel Dunston speaks with encampment resident Matt Long last year. Credit: Pete Rosos

If you want something to be successful, you have to fund it. The EMT wasn’t stood up with funding or clear objectives, so you had a situation where staff at that time were building a plane as they were flying it. It’s a microcosm of the larger issue of the lack of funding in general for housing and homelessness. How much has been allocated from the general purpose fund? The big elephant in the room is there simply aren’t enough resources to truly ameliorate this crisis. The resources needed, the capital needed, just doesn’t exist at the local level. 

That aside, how the government in Oakland is structured creates inherent tensions—between the mayor’s office, the City Council, and the city administrator’s office. You have cIty councilmembers advocating specifically for residents in their districts. You naturally have competing interests. The only place that there is alignment is the notion that the solution to homelessness is housing. Everybody agrees, but that’s where opinions part. Folks haven’t coalesced around a unified strategy. That was supposed to be the PATH Framework, but there isn’t complete buy-in. 

The audit falls short because it only focuses on encampments, which are but one small piece of a broader issue. The reality is there’s not enough affordable housing units in Oakland, period. Encampments are a symptom of that.

Needa Bee, founder of The Village and unhoused activist

There was a big question of what happened to the millions in public dollars, with so little intervention happening in the streets and so few people getting the support they need. Although the audit didn’t look at the full scope, this tiny little sliver of looking at just the EMT has shown that money is really being misused. 

There’s a couple problems with the framing, and a lot of cultural blindspots. The way unhoused people were spoken of in the audit was dehumanizing. It didn’t put it in the larger context. The reality is this crisis is created by the city of Oakland, due to gentrification, due to the total lack of ability to provide deeply affordable housing units. The fact that there’s only [1,215] shelter beds doesn’t do justice to the people who are in need. 

What surprised me was there was no budget or strategic plan. The audit said: we’ve provided 26 recommendations so they can better manage this. I’m wondering where’s the conversation of, ‘What is the proper way to address this, if the folks addressing it are the folks who in the past were squandering this money?’ What kind of accountability is going to be placed on them?

Ed Reiskin, city administrator

[Note: Statement was provided via email.] We appreciate the City Auditor’s thoughtful analysis and detailed recommendations regarding the City’s efforts to address the crisis of homelessness in Oakland, and for recognizing the impact this crisis has on our unsheltered and sheltered residents, our business community, and on City staff assigned to this work. In 2017, the Administration established its first policies and procedures, based on prevailing Federal guidance and consistent with the best practices in our peer cities, to address a relatively new and growing problem of large street encampments. 

Since 2017, unsheltered homelessness has increased 63% in Oakland. As the City Auditor pointed out, over the past three years, an interdepartmental team worked hard to compassionately manage the surge in encampments without always having clear policy direction or sufficient resources (funding, availability of housing alternatives, staff) to address the magnitude of the growing crisis. The Administration is grateful that the City Council unanimously approved a comprehensive, citywide Encampment Management Policy last October, and are now beginning to identify the necessary resources to support this important work with an understanding that even more is necessary.  We are hard at work implementing that policy amidst a historic budget shortfall, staffing shortages, and an ongoing pandemic that has limited the shelter options available to the residents of our encampments. We thank the Auditor for her recommendations and look forward to addressing these as we continue the work of standing up our new Encampment Management Policy.

The entrance to VACCEB, 655 International is shown from the outside where food distribution still happens despite the recent fire.
The Oakland Fire Department responded to 988 fires at encampments over the past two years. Earlier this year, a fire believed to be started at a camp destroyed the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay. Credit: Amir Aziz

Talya Husbands-Hankin, advocate with Love and Justice in the Streets

The audit affirmed what advocates and unhoused residents have been saying for years, that the city of Oakland has been spending millions to push people from one sidewalk to another while failing to provide real solutions and provide housing. There’s been such a lack of transparency about how decisions are being made, and who’s making decisions. Advocates and unhoused residents have been asking for years now to be part of the Encampment Management Team so we could be in those conversations. I believe there’s millions more dollars not accounted for. Advocates have witnessed many more OPD officers at evictions than the three accounted for in the audit’s $12.6 million. I’ve been in an eviction when they used a helicopter. 

I think the focus and framing on improving the Encampment Management Policy is deeply problematic. We shouldn’t be focusing on an eviction policy; we should be focusing on upholding human rights. One piece that stood out to me is the numbers around re-closures. That’s a clear signal that evictions do not work if you don’t give people a place to be. 

I hope this will shine a light on how the city is operating, in a way that will activate more members of our community in advocating for change. The city did make major changes during the pandemic. We’d been advocating for years for more Porta-Potties and wash stations, but it was a huge step. What does it look like to be providing water and sanitation for everyone? And I hope they will seriously work on providing trauma-informed training to staff. When we’re talking about over 70% of unhoused people being Black in Oakland, and when we’re seeing harm inflicted by city policies, this is anti-Black racism.

James Vann, advocate with the Homeless Advocacy Working Group

We gave the auditor a lot of documents and had a real listening session. We were very disappointed when the report came out. It took about two years. Our expectations were greatly deflated because she only looked into the EMT and the amount of money that was spent. The auditor did a fairly good job on what she studied, but what she didn’t study is what would have made an audit meaningful. 

The EMT does not make up a big part of what constitutes homeless services in Oakland. It doesn’t take into account all the services that are needed, the budgets that are required, and the health of the people and what they have to endure sleeping in the weather. The auditor acknowledges the city recently adopted an Encampment Management Policy, but she fails to see that that plan is only an eviction strategy. It lays out where people cannot be, what they cannot do. It says nothing about where they can go. The encampments have grown and the number of people living in vehicles is increasing rapidly. 

The 26 recommendations are mostly simple things like better record-keeping. This is not at all going to help the situation of homelessness. HAWG is calling for interim and transitional shelter—buying up all the hotels and motels we can, starting small-house villages—to get people off the streets.

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.