A year-long search for Oakland’s next top homelessness official resulted in the hiring this spring of Daniel Cooper, a public health professional from North Carolina.
Cooper is only the second person to officially hold the “homelessness administrator” title, a role created in 2020 to inform policy and oversee staff working on encampments and homelessness response.
He has a monumental task in front of him. The estimated number of people living without permanent housing in Oakland has reached a high of 5,000, including a growing population living in vehicles. The crisis in Oakland disproportionately affects marginalized communities, and especially Black men. Black people make up 70% of the homeless population in the city but only 23% of the general population.
Emergency pandemic funding enabled the city to help hundreds more people move into shelter and housing over the past two years. Cooper, who said he’s determined to take a “person-centered approach” to the job, sees opportunity for change given the resources available.
Cooper previously worked for Mecklenburg County in North Carolina and the state of Maryland, dealing with public health and homelessness. He said he brings a personal perspective to his work, having experienced homelessness as a child and young adult in Florida.
In Oakland, Cooper succeeds Daryel Dunston, who served one year in the administrator role and helped create the controversial Encampment Management Policy. Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons filled in while Oakland conducted a national search.
The Oaklandside spoke with Cooper last week about his plans for the job and impressions of Oakland so far. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to this job?
The complexity of the work. In terms of the scale, size, and scope of homelessness, Oakland is very much a case study for a lot of other places and public health interventions. We look at places like Oakland, Skid Row [in Los Angeles], certain parts of Detroit, and there may be spots in New York as well—those are the really, really strained areas where everyone can tell that we definitely need to do something different. I found it exciting to be able to contribute to any sort of rebuilding and improving and development of a homeless response system on the scale of what I see in Oakland.
What do you see as the unique role of the homelessness administrator? This is a relatively new position so I imagine you’ll have some role in shaping it.
I think the uniqueness is there’s a difficulty in aligning our homeless response on one pointed strategy. That’s been stressed to me by the city administrator—really having a clear and cohesive method as to how we’re addressing homelessness.
What are some of the first things you did in this role?
What I’ve done and what I will continue to do is get to know the communities that I will be working with, as well as the most troubled encampment areas in Oakland. I’ve taken a few tours of the most notorious sites that everybody thinks of when they think of Oakland, or at least those that were raised as important priority sites, like Wood Street and the East 12th median, and also some locations on the lake. I want to get to know the stakeholders, the people that are already doing this work, and the community as well, so I can best understand their needs. I think that’ll take some time to fully understand.
Who do you mean when you refer to the “stakeholders” in this work? Who are you trying to serve?
I think the most important stakeholders in the homeless community are the individuals that are on the streets. Because those are the people, the bodies. It’s not just trash and debris. It’s really ill-fitting to design and create and implement interventions without any input from those that will be affected.
And what have you been hearing from the unhoused people that you’re speaking with?
I’ve heard various points of view in terms of how the Encampment Management Policy is applied and operationalized. I’ve heard some good things in terms of there being a sense of excitement for a new homelessness administrator, and the city taking a new approach.
Why do you think Oakland has such a large unhoused population? What do you see as the primary causes of this local crisis?
I really, really, really struggle with this question. I honestly do. Because there’s a number of ways as a public health professional I can answer the reasons and causes for Oakland homelessness. That is dependent on what type of historical context is surrounding it. How did we get here? Well, it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen in the last three months. I think Oakland is the effect of decades and decades of decisions that have displaced many of its residents.
So if you see the crisis as the product of decades of policies and decisions and systems, how do you think about your own role in this work?
I see my role as very important. I think it’s really ambitious to think that I’m going to come in and solve everything in a few months, and hopefully I don’t give that impression at all. I think some of the things that I can change and bring to this role is my public health background and a person-centered approach. I do have a number of intervention strategies that I think are useful in creating social and behavioral change in populations, that I’ve seen work and that I would like to explore here in Oakland.
Can you share any of those strategies or ideas?
One key idea I have is getting to know the community—and doing that through effective, clear, well-resourced outreach, to get to know their needs. I also think we have a lot of work to do in terms of differentiating between homelessness and what I’ve seen as criminal activity mixed into homelessness. In the encampments that I have walked through, a number of the residents have told me, “Hey, this isn’t our trash.” One person couldn’t create these tons and tons of debris. This isn’t a homelessness problem; this is illegal dumping. Deciphering and really understanding all that is the challenge. And I think you do that through outreach, followed by effective assessments of each individual, their situation, what their needs are, but also what the appropriate supports are to help that individual in whatever way they desire.
Do you think Oakland is set up to respond to each individual’s needs and desires?
I will caution that this is only based on what I’ve seen so far. It’s a little premature [to draw a conclusion], but I think Oakland has an opportunity to do a number of things differently with the changes in staff leadership and the different funding sources that we have seen in just the past few months. The family homelessness grant for families in recovery, thanks to Gavin Newsom and Secretary [Lourdes Castro] Ramírez, and the encampment resolution check should be in the mail. I’m also excited about the flexibility on HHAP 4 and 5—pretty large funding buckets that have a lot of flexibility. And so I think when you combine all those factors, we have an opportunity for change, but it’s not going to happen overnight. As any system changes, there’s performance monitoring, measuring, and tracking, and that’s a lengthy process.
Encampments are some of the most visible forms of homelessness in Oakland, and thus the sites of much passionate debate and feelings of urgency. What is your early impression of how Oakland addresses encampments? And what will your role be in that process?
Well, I think the council has adopted a policy on how the city will address encampments. And I intend to work within that piece of legislation that I’ve been given, to the best of my ability. I will say, from what I’ve seen, though, the policy does tend to prioritize rights of way, public spaces, parks, infrastructure, high- and low-sensitivity zones…and it has less of a focus on people. So I’m excited as a public health professional to apply a person-centered approach, and would love to see some resources and funding behind that.
If you haven’t already, you’ll hear from many residents who feel that encampments are blight and safety hazards. And you’ll hear from many others who feel that closing camps is punishing vulnerable people who are trying to survive with few other options. Who do you see as your “constituents” and how do you plan to navigate those tensions?
I get those emails, and phone calls too—all day long, hundreds of them. I get the complaints and the concern. And I hear both sides of the story. I don’t know that I would necessarily side with one group of constituents over the next, as much as I would try to understand the nuances of the situation and do the least amount of harm for the individual that I was working with. That’s the public health philosophy. I think in some instances, encampments are public health crises and they should be closed. And I think sometimes, as I mentioned earlier, they’re also used for illegal activity, which is not necessarily a homelessness problem. People calling that there’s an encampment next door—that’s very important. And the individual living there, well, also has needs and rights.
Your predecessor, Daryel Dunston, left this job after a year. He hasn’t said much publicly about why he made that decision. But he has spoken in the past about what he saw as disconnects between the city administration, the city council, and the mayor’s office. You talked about your desire to be a unifying role between different entities working on this. Are these issues that have come up for you yet? What do you see as the challenges inherent to this role?
I mean, I think it’s the exact opposite. And I’ve known Daryel for quite some time. I would say that if he felt a disconnect or frustration then he’s valid and right in his feelings. For me, I see a number of opportunities to collaborate, with the changes that are happening. In terms of rifts in the city or whatnot, I don’t really focus on that. Because this work requires building relationships. And that’s something I’m dedicated to doing. Everybody that I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the city has been great thus far. But, you know, maybe come and revisit me next year!
Were you part of the partial closure of the E. 12th median camp a couple weeks ago?
Yes, I helped orchestrate that. And then my deputy homelessness administrator was at that operation, and we reported some successes. We did a communications piece on that site. Overall, I would call it a success in terms of the tonnage of debris that was removed. And in terms of the individuals we were able to conduct outreach with, and those who accepted services in some form. I also heard that during the operation, occupiers came and barricaded themselves inside of suspected drug activity structures, and provided some resistance. I think there’s a lot of other elements that happen at the E. 12th median, too, that are not solely homelessness. If you look in that communications piece, it talks about the number of fires and calls and homicides there have been. So we have a lot of work to do still. But in my mind, if I can help one person get off the streets, I have to say that is some level of success.
You mentioned that “occupiers” came to the closure. That’s a pretty common reaction to large-scale closures—people protesting and trying to stop them from happening. Do you have any thoughts on how you’ll respond to that?
Occupiers and protesters, if you will, are a part of this work. I think in many cases they’re actually really trying to be heard. And so it goes back to the beginning—getting to know the individuals and getting to know the human beings.
Anything else you’d like to say to our readers or people in Oakland who are passionate about addressing this crisis?
I have been fortunate to come from extreme poverty into a position where I’m helping people in extreme poverty. We were homeless over the course of my life, growing up. I come from an immigrant family, an African American household, with an absentee father and my mother raising four kids. We lived in this condemned unit for some time, and I couldn’t crawl around because the flooring was rotted and you could see through, right to the grass. We were able to get a Section 8 voucher, but in my teenage and adult years I experienced episodes of homelessness too. I was homeless for months in college because I had to make a decision: do I want to finish this degree? Nobody knew that I would stay in the library until closing time, then go to the gym to shower, and then sleep in my car, and then go back to class. And so I really do get the issue at hand, in a very real way. I studied these entitlement programs, but I also lived through them, trying to transition yourself from one socioeconomic status to the next. So this work is important to me, and I don’t plan on switching it up. I’m very, very eager to talk to folks about public health and social determinants of health and how we can create solutions.