The majority of youth who are unhoused in Oakland live in tents and cars. Credit: Pete Rosos

On any given night in Oakland, hundreds of young people search the city for a safe place to sleep, most ending up in cars and tents, and some in shelters. 

Hundreds more regularly crash on friends’ or relatives’ couches—falling under the radar of government officials and service providers, but nevertheless experiencing a level of housing insecurity that has devastating effects on their lives.

“When youth cannot obtain stable housing, they cannot establish permanent social ties, focus on education and employment, improve their health, develop independence, or gain self-mastery,” wrote members of the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission in a new report that sheds light on the city’s homelessness crisis as experienced by children and transitional-age youth up to 24.

On Monday evening, several of those young people had the ear of city decision-makers who have the power to make changes to the conditions they grew up in. At the special joint meeting of the Oakland City Council and Youth Advisory Commission, the youth told harrowing and triumphant personal stories, and presented detailed policy recommendations crafted by youth leadership groups. 

The groups—the youth commission, the county’s Youth Advisory Board, and the Career Technical Education Hub in Oakland—called for the creation of a task force in Oakland focused on youth homelessness. 

City Councilmember Sheng Thao vowed to write a resolution that would create such a task force, and said she would schedule the legislation for a council committee meeting in the coming weeks. Thao was one of multiple officials at the meeting—along with councilmembers Carroll Fife and Treva Reid—who spoke about their own experiences with homelessness and housing insecurity when they were younger.

“I was one of you,” Thao told the youth presenters.

“The odds are stacked against us”

At last count in 2019, there were 468 unaccompanied youth and young adults under age 25 experiencing homelessness in Oakland, and 731 total in Alameda County. But measured another way, the crisis of housing insecurity affects many more young people. Using a broader definition than the federal government’s “literally homeless” designation, the county considers 4,445 of its public school students unhoused.

At Monday’s meeting, young people spoke about being rejected from services and housing programs because they weren’t considered “literally homeless.” Programs that rely on federal funding are often required to follow those eligibility rules, which deny people who couch-surf or have other temporary accommodations. The youth asked the city to offer services to a wider group.

“Homelessness does not look one way,” said Sahra Nawabi, 19, who serves on the county’s Youth Advisory Board. “I was once that youth who needed help, but since my type of homelessness didn’t satisfy their script, I was completely rejected.” 

Other speakers said they had been lucky enough to receive resources, but spoke about a missing “puzzle piece”: education on how to maintain and benefit from those resources.

A young woman said she inherited her family’s Section 8 housing voucher after her mother died in early 2020. She found herself with stable housing after years of sleeping “anywhere I could find to lay my head that night.” But at 19, and having recently come out of incarceration, she didn’t know what her rights or obligations were as a new voucher-holder.

“There’s emails from me asking [my landlord] to literally explain housing,” she said. “You’d think these programs would be teaching us how to maintain our housing or education, or teaching us financial literacy.”

Antonio Pizano, 25, shared how he overcame relentless barriers after both of his parents died and he and his brothers bounced around from foster home to foster home.

“That left us to fend for our own in the community,” said Pizano, who dropped out of high school so he could start working as soon as possible. 

Now, he’s poised to receive an associate’s degree in criminal justice and sociology from Merritt College, making him the first college graduate in his family, all while he runs a youth center in Solano County. 

Having a child at age 20 while in foster care motivated Pizano to persevere against the odds, he said: “I wanted to be responsible, and not replicate the same type of housing insecurity my family gave me.” 

City Council promises to act fast

In 2018, the Youth Advisory Commission made a request to the City Council to pass a “homeless youth policy,” creating new programs with dedicated funding. The council received their proposal, but never voted on the policy. 

The landscape in Oakland has changed since then, for better and for worse. The pandemic has thrust even more young people into precarious housing and job situations, and yet cities have more access than ever to state and federal emergency funds for homelessness services. 

While many new shelters have opened, youth have spoken about the persistent need for services designed to meet their unique needs. Many feel safer living with other young people and using services where staff are trained to work with youth who’ve experienced trauma. 

The policy recommendations presented by the youth leadership groups in 2018 and on Monday are wide-ranging, from support for peer mentorship programs and more shelter beds to rental assistance and programs for LGBTQ youth, who are far more likely to experience homelessness than others. In Alameda County, Black youth are also disproportionately represented in the homeless population: Black people make up 63% of the young unhoused population, and only around 10% of the county’s overall population. 

Last year, Alameda County received a $6.6 million grant from the federal government, for youth homelessness programs. The grant requires that youth take an active role in deciding how the money will be used.

On Monday, the youth leaders said they’re planning to use the bulk of the award on new transitional housing, as well as new “navigation” services to help people through the processes of applying for housing, school, and jobs.

Councilmembers said they’ll schedule the task force resolution for an upcoming committee meeting, where they’ll be able to hear from city staff about which of the youth recommendations are feasible.

“Let’s keep this alive, and let’s have our staff respond to this and help us implement some of this in a logical timeline,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb.

The officials said they were moved to action by what they heard from the youth.

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she’d recently learned about an Oakland student who uses the dating app Tinder to find shelter at night.

“That was a stab in my heart in terms of how much of a crisis this is,” she said.

“Your voices have been heard,” Bas told the youth as the meeting ended. “Your stories are visible.”

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.