Oakland city workers in yellow vests cluster around a homeless camp under a freeway overpass where there is a red van behind a fence. An onlooker peers at them.
The interim homelessness administrator is overseeing the ongoing closure of the Wood Street camp. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Mayor Sheng Thao’s budget proposal, released Monday, would cut Oakland’s “homelessness administrator” role, a leadership position the city created three years ago in a bid to make homelessness policy and encampment management a higher priority. The role was supposed to help Oakland turn a corner and finally get a handle on the homelessness crisis, but the city has struggled to keep the job filled ever since. 

In its place, Thao wants to create two lower-level roles, also in the city administrator’s office, focused on managing the city’s homelessness response.

“The two roles are essentially the same—focused on encampment cleanups, closures, and cross-departmental coordination across the city who support in the operations,” said Pati Navalta, a spokesperson for Thao, in an email. “Converting the position to the two positions expands their capacity to carry those duties out.”

Eliminating the high-paid homelessness chief job also “frees up those dollars to increase operational support,” Navalta said. Thao’s budget attempts to close a historic $360 million deficit.

Oakland created the homelessness administrator role in early 2020, to coordinate all the departments and people working on the city’s response to the worsening crisis. At the time there were an estimated 4,071 people living without permanent housing in Oakland, up from 2,761 just two years prior. 

The new high-profile position would primarily oversee the “Encampment Management Team” working to clean and close camps and move people into shelter, and guide the city’s policy in this area. In practice, this meant negotiating with advocates, mediating conflicts, and communicating with homeless residents and linking them with a variety of services.

The first hire for the role in February 2020 was Daryel Dunston, who’d previously worked for the city’s Human Services Department on homelessness programming. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit right after he started the job, he juggled those tasks with emergency operations, and began as the full-time homelessness administrator later that spring. 

Dunston oversaw the creation of the Encampment Management Policy, spelling out where people can and can’t live outside in Oakland and how the city will respond. It was passed unanimously by the City Council but has remained a controversial piece of legislation.

Dunston left the job after about a year. Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons stepped into the role temporarily while the city searched for the next homelessness chief. They didn’t find someone for the job until a year after Dunston’s departure, hiring Daniel Cooper, a public health professional from North Carolina. Both Dunston and Cooper had previously dealt with homelessness or housing insecurity, and said their personal experience informed their work.

But Cooper was let go less than a year later. Simmons once again became the interim administrator. For the past few weeks, she has been overseeing the massive closure operation at Wood Street, which until now was home to Oakland’s largest encampment and homeless community.

On Thao’s suggestion to replace the position with two lower-level roles, Dunston told The Oaklandside, “I would imagine she’s in a tough spot and had to make hard decisions,” given the financial shortfall.

Dunston, who’s now the assistant city manager in Santa Rosa, said the homelessness administrator was a necessary “air traffic controller.” 

“Generally speaking, you want there to be a lead of sorts, a central person that’s facilitating the city’s response to the homelessness crisis,” he said. “In a lot of cases an administrator-level position is probably going to be the most effective, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be effective under another model.” He said the ability to communicate is key for anyone doing that kind of work.

Residents of Union Point Park and rights activists in protest of the houseless encampment removal by Public Works.
Daryel Dunston, right, speaks with a resident of Union Point Park at a 2021 closure of that camp. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

James Vann, a longtime homelessness advocate, said he was never a fan of the way the job was fashioned in Oakland.

“We’ve been unsatisfied with the way the homelessness administrator position has been used by the city,” said Vann, a member of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group. He believes that the position, which is housed in the city administrator’s office, is too removed from on-the-ground programming and direct support for people experiencing homelessness.

“The basic duty that the Encampment Management Team carries out is to schedule cleanups and evictions. We didn’t feel that that got to the level of needed services for people living on the streets,” Vann told The Oaklandside. “We wanted a department, not just a person who had that title.”

To be most effective, Dunston said, the person or people coordinating the city’s homelessness response needs more resources and “budget authority.” Otherwise there are some inherent tensions with department heads who have their own desires around how to spend their budgets, he said.

The idea of forming a dedicated homelessness department was “always a question,” Dunston said, but Oakland’s budget is a fraction of the size of a city like San Francisco’s, which is able to have such a department.

Several different Oakland departments currently work on aspects of addressing the homelessness crisis, including the police and fire departments and the public works. But most of the homelessness services, including the operation of shelter sites, are housed within the Human Services Department. Thao’s budget proposal dissolves that department, moving the homelessness work to the Housing and Community Development Department. 

Thao’s administration has said that consolidating these departments will combine staff who are already working on similar issues, and make their programs more efficient. The rest of the Human Services Department will merge with the Parks, Recreation, and Youth Development Department to create a new Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The City Council must approve the budget by June 30. Officials will likely propose amendments over the coming weeks. The first public meeting on the proposal is Wednesday.

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.