The staff transition comes during a period of growth for Oakland’s unhoused population. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland’s top staffers working on homelessness are leaving their jobs this month. 

Sara Bedford, director of Oakland’s Human Services Department, which provides senior, youth, and homelessness services, is retiring after 29 years with the city. Lara Tannenbaum, who manages the Community Housing Services division of that department, is leaving the city after seven years of working on homelessness as well, The Oaklandside has learned. 

Talia Rubin, another staff member in the13-person Community Housing Services Division who worked closely with unhoused residents, left her job this year, too. 

Sara Bedford Credit: City of Oakland

“Sara, Lara, and Talia have made meaningful contributions and provided leadership directing critical services, holding strategic partnerships, and implementing emergency programs and services in support of Oakland’s unsheltered community,” said Karen Boyd, city spokesperson, in an email to The Oaklandside.

Taken together, the work of these staffers ranged from the development and oversight of shelters and supportive housing programs, and budgeting for Oakland’s homelessness response, to direct service provision to people living on the streets, including during the closure of encampments. Oakland has struggled to address its homelessness crisis for decades, but the problem has accelerated in recent years, and the population living in the city without permanent shelter is currently at its highest documented level—over 5,000 people.

“It has been a true privilege to do this work in partnership with the Oakland community and with a Human Services team that is unrelenting in their commitment to better outcomes for Oaklanders,” said Bedford in an email. 

Tannenbaum told The Oaklandside she’s leaving the job because she’s ready for a professional change and said the decision was unrelated to Bedford’s retirement, which was announced earlier this year in February.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to work for the city addressing homelessness over the past seven years,” Tannenbaum said in an email. “It’s something that I feel passionately about and I’m very proud of what has been accomplished during that time even as there is so much more that needs to be done.” 

These departures come as the city’s new homelessness administrator, Daniel Cooper, is poised to start his job shaping policy and overseeing work on encampments and related programs. Cooper was hired after a year-long search following the abrupt resignation of the first-ever person to hold the job, Daryel Dunston. Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons held the position temporarily in the interim. 

Oakland’s homeless crisis has exploded in recent years

Oakland’s homelessness staffers have demanding jobs. They are tasked with addressing a structural and regional issue at the intersection of housing, mental health, public health, and the economy. They field urgent and often conflicting pleas from people experiencing homelessness and their housed neighbors. 

After Dunston left his job as homelessness administrator, he spoke with The Oaklandside about “inherent tensions” and “competing interests” within the city government, too, referring to the city administration, where the Human Services Department sits, the mayor’s office, and the City Council that passes policy carried out by staff. From his perspective, their distinct and sometimes conflicting mandates, along with insufficient funding and housing, made it hard to work together to make significant progress on Oakland’s homelessness crisis.

Those tensions have been on display in recent months, as several city councilmembers have brought forth proposals for numerous housing and shelter projects, often criticizing what they see as a lack of will on the part of city staff to act swiftly and use public land to house more of the many people in need. Staffers have sometimes responded that they’re hampered by a lack of resources or feasible locations. 

The transition in the Human Services Department comes just days after the release of data from Alameda County’s 2022 point-in-time homeless count. The count found that Oakland’s homeless population has surpassed the 5,000-person mark for the first time, though the growth rate during the pandemic has been much slower than it was in recent previous years. 

The data showed that hundreds more people in Oakland are living in their vehicles, while the population sleeping in tents and on the streets declined significantly since the last count in 2019. Emergency COVID-19 aid from the state and federal governments has enabled both Alameda County and the city of Oakland to open several new shelters and transitional housing facilities and move hundreds more residents into permanent housing over the past two years. 

Starting next week, Estelle Clemmons, the city’s Community Action Agency manager, will step in as interim Human Services director, Boyd said. 

“The City Administrator’s Office has established a Transition Leadership Team comprised of Ms. Clemons, Homelessness Administrator Daniel Cooper, and Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons to guide the transition and ensure HSD functions and priorities are successfully executed through the staffing changes currently underway,” she said.

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.