The city of Oakland has agreed to significantly change how it conducts closures of homeless encampments, settling a lawsuit filed by a group of unhoused residents in 2018.
The city must now provide one week’s notice before closing a camp, more carefully store residents’ belongings, and avoid closing camps during rain or extreme weather.
“By approving this settlement, those changes will take effect,” said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas at a special, half-hour meeting of the council Tuesday morning, where the agreement was approved.
Under the settlement agreement, the city will also pay $250,000 to members of the Housing and Dignity Village community and encampment.
Seven unhoused residents of that group first sued the city in federal court in November 2018 over the planned closure of their camp on a vacant, city-owned lot in deep East Oakland, at Edes and S. Elmhurst avenues. They were initially unsuccessful, with a judge permitting Oakland to move ahead with shutting down the camp.
Following the ruling, the city again announced it would close The Village’s camp in early December, giving residents 72 hours’ notice. In their lawsuit, which was updated after the December closure and names Mayor Libby Schaaf and other officials as defendants along with the city, the houseless residents alleged that city officials agreed to postpone the closure until after a community meeting. The city denied this. Residents said they were startled to be met with dozens of city workers and police officers early one morning, who carried out the scheduled closure.
“Department of Public Works workers tore down shelters and structures, and failed to store property that plaintiffs specifically requested be stored,” including professional catering equipment, personal journals, and religious materials, according to the lawsuit, which details an extensive process the residents went through to try and retrieve their belongings.
The homeless residents also alleged in their lawsuit that the city failed to offer them adequate alternative shelter. Instead, Oakland offered them only one-night stays at shelters where they wouldn’t be able to bring their pets or possessions.
“It is the natural and predictable consequence of the City’s actions that homeless residents with no means to move their property, nowhere to move, and no City assistance are forced to leave behind belongings they desire to keep and that are integral to their lives and their efforts to get off the streets,” the lawsuit stated.
Anita Miralle, founder of The Village and lead plaintiff in the case, said the settlement agreement represents one small step towards the group’s broader goals.
“From the outset, what the plaintiffs were fighting for was an end to all evictions,” Miralle, who also goes by the name Needa Bee, told The Oaklandside. “Due to the limitations of the legal system, we were only able to chop away at a specific policy.”
She said The Village members were reluctant to settle, preferring to attempt to hold the city accountable for its actions in court, but ultimately felt they’d be more successful coming to an agreement.
The closures her group began protesting long ago have continued in the years since the lawsuit was filed, Need Bee said. Members of The Village, which provides support services to unhoused residents throughout Oakland, have moved locations multiple times since the Edes site was closed. Several days ago, several people received tow notices on the vehicles they live in.
And the Edes location was not the first place where they settled or were told to leave; Needa Bee and others lived in camps located on E. 12th Street in 2018 and at Grove Shafter Park in 2017. Both were also closed by the city.
Civil rights lawyers representing the residents, Dan Siegel and EmilyRose Johns, could not be reached for comment. The city of Oakland did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the agreement.
In the years since the lawsuit was filed, the city has made significant changes to the way it closes and cleans encampments. Most notably, in fall 2020, the council adopted the controversial Encampment Management Policy, or EMP. The law attempts to clarify and standardize Oakland’s process for cleaning, servicing, and closing camps. It says no homeless resident will be arrested for sleeping outside or be made to leave without being offered shelter.
Homeless residents and advocates have criticized the policy for declaring most of Oakland off-limits for camps and breaking up communities of people who have few other shelter options.
The settlement terms, which must stay in effect for four years, make changes to the EMP. Instead of 72 hours’ notice, the city must now give a full weeks’ warning to camps it plans to close, including detailed plans and contact information for service providers. The city can act quicker in cases of emergency.
Under the agreement, city workers must follow strict protocol to collect, store, and keep track of items taken during closures. The city also must make items available for pickup by their owners within 48 hours.
In response to the December closure of the Village, the settlement introduces new policies around extreme weather. It instructs the city to monitor forecasts and avoid closing camps in the rain, during weather that exceeds 90 degrees or dips below 42, and when air pollution levels are above 200 AQI, considered “very unhealthy.”
The city agreement follows a related $5.5 million settlement of a lawsuit against Caltrans in 2020. Under that settlement, the state agency was required to reimburse over a thousand residents whose belongings it destroyed during camp closures on its property, and to provide more consistent notice and storage during future closures in the East Bay.
Needa Bee said her group is pleased with their financial award and hopes to pool funds to eventually buy a property where they could live legally without being hassled.
“The only thing that’s going to stop this homelessness crisis is permanent housing,” she said. “It’s cliché at this point, but it’s true.”
This story was updated after publication with comments from Needa Bee.