Orwelling Our Way out of Oakland’s Homelessness Crisis

Posted on September 13, 2018


Shelter Res picOne year ago, Oakland’s City Council approved a shelter emergency ordinance . This legislation–along with a state level version of the shelter crisis legislation passed around the same time in late 2017–gave the city extraordinary powers to suspend the normal health and safety, building code and zoning laws that govern habitations to build emergency transitional housing for homeless residents. Though homeless advocates at both levels hoped that robust plans and acts would be put in place that addressed the housing emergency with the kind of urgency it required, they would soon be disappointed.

The mayor, city administrator and city council didn’t make plans to convert city owned buildings to shelters and transitional housing, as the new legal structure allowed them to. The city leaders, following the direction of Mayor Libby Schaaf, instead expanded and adapted a pilot program introduced by Lynnette Gibson-McElhaney in 2016 called Compassionate Communities. Compassionate Communities had an over-riding goal–to remove an existing West Oakland camp, camouflaging both the moral and legal implications of doing so with the compassion play of a temporary sanctioned camp and navigation center.

compassionate power point

With the carrot of a sanctioned encampment providing rudimentary services for some residents, the stick of police and public works shut down the unsanctioned encampment went unnoticed. Last year, the sanctioned pilot camp was struck and removed and like a street con artist’s trick, the city had made homelessness disappear [though the original camp returned, nonetheless, in various iterations]. The ease with which Compassionate Communities erased the visible signs of homelessness at Magnolia and 35th did not go unnoticed by city officials, however. They were eager to hone the idea and similarly rid themselves of downtown’s homeless problem without addressing its causes on a larger scale. The second generation Compassionate Communities got a new Orwellian code-name–the Safe Haven program.

Under the Safe Haven program, the city would do away with the tents completely and use mandated plastic garden sheds. Safe Haven retained the premise of McElhaney’s plan–the eradication of existing camps with disposable sanctioned camps–and took it one step further. Now, the city planned to target several specific existing homeless encampments in the downtown area  in what the city has come to call a “geographic focus”.

compassionate communities suggested

With Safe Haven, the city builds a “tuff shed” encampment adjacent to an unsanctioned homeless encampment the city desires to terminate. The tuff shed encampment offers ONLY the homeless people from the existing encampment a limited number of beds in the plastic sheds. But the tuff sheds aren’t meant to be a person for person transfer from the old camp. The numbers of the original camp generally exceed the tuff shed capacity. And there are others who don’t want to live under the strict terms and thin shelter of fenced off garden sheds that have been likened to a prison camp.Those who can’t fit, are told to leave the unsanctioned camp they’ve created to meet their needs and are scattered to the ends of the city, looking for new shelters. The Safe Haven ordinance, which was approved unanimously by the city council, was first implemented on Castro street, adjacent to an encampment by the 980 freeway. The language of the ordinance allowed for more tuff shed encampments if other means of funding or donations became available in addition to the initial half million city investment at Castro.

Months later in April 2018, Kaiser Permanente and other corporations donated funds for another tuff shed encampment. The city targeted the Northgate camp–perhaps the largest in the city–between downtown and West Oakland. Because of the language in the Safe Haven ordinance, the administrator did not have to return to council to receive and administer the funds for the new tuff shed camp. The city evicted the Northgate camp in phases as the tuff sheds were erected, again, scattering those who could not live in the safe haven or various reasons to the wind.

Of course, by this time, stories of the conditions in the original camp and the lack of any other substantive proposals for addressing the crisis began to overcome the euphemisms. The uninsulated sheds radiated austerity and discomfort that couldn’t be ignored. The camps were spare, with no cooking facilities, onerous check in and out processes, no heat and very little storage–forcing some people to make unenviable choices about what to keep and what to throw away. Rumors that the service providers were corrupt, incompetent and cruel were also hard to hide. Even the city stopped using the Safe Haven euphemism, simply referring to the Castro and Northgate projects as tuff shed camps to often loud derision in public venues.

The city received additional homelessness targeted funding earlier this year from a county grant, and started the ball rolling for a third tuff shed encampment. But the climate and situation have changed this time around. For various reasons the city is also seeking new service providers to run the tuff sheds–apparently to some extent due to the poor performance of the previous ones. This transfer of authority and funds from the old providers now necessitates a new ordinance for the third camp and this means that the city must come back to city council to approve the new tuff sheds.

5 addditional

The attempts to build a third camp by the city occur in a new and different context. The program itself has gotten a reputation for being neither compassionate nor safe to large portions of the city and no longer appears like a sincere effort at helping homeless Oaklanders find shelter. Moreover, the latest “geographic focus” for the third tuff shed encampment is Lake Merritt, where a visible, stable homeless population has lived for years with few incidents and with relatively strong relationships with surrounding communities. The new legislation would transfer existing funds from the old service providers to the tune of half a million dollars, and would, like its predecessor legislation, keep the door open for more encampments should new funds become available, allowing the city administrator to okay them without council input. City administrator reports accompanying the resolution, indeed, foresee at least 5 more encampments to be paid with an anticipated grant from the state of California.

A year after officially declaring a shelter crisis, neither the city council nor the city administration headed by Libby Schaaf has done much of what you’d expect during an emergency. Outside of a few longer range solutions that will take years to implement and will serve only a handful of homeless people, the tuff sheds are literally the only immediate action the city has undertaken. For this reason, Rebecca Kaplan introduced legislation that passed the council in April that obligated the city administrator to return to council within 3 months with a report of programs it was prepared to begin to respond to the self-declared emergency, including exploring the use of public land from both the city and other public agencies for shelter, and entering into partnerships with other service providers for sanctioned encampments on private property.

The city missed the first deadline, and due to city council summer recess, did not produce its report of proposed action for another 3 months. Six months later at the same Life Enrichment Committee meeting where the administrator asked for more tuff sheds, the city proposed no actual committal of funds nor action, and offers little more than new Orwellian nomenclature.

No longer safe, or tough, the new garden shed village will be placed in the Kaiser Convention Center parking lot. Unlike other tuff shed encampments, the Kaiser iteration–now called Community Cabins–will give the city the cover to immediately evict one of the camps on the grounds of the long shuttered convention center, which it will do in the second week of September. Now that its impossible to ignore the reality that the tuff sheds are used to eradicate existing encampments–or perhaps humble-bragging to Schaaf’s well-heeled constituency that it’s exactly their intent–the city now refers to the raison d’être of the potemkin villages as “resolving” existing encampments.


There is some hope in this 2nd wave “community cabins” displacement regime, however. The fact that the city has to come back to council for the funds and permission means that the council can stop the encampments and obligate the city to instead use the emergency powers and the funds to create real solutions–perhaps even in the city’s empty publicly owned buildings. The city council can say no to the “community cabins, which the administrator admits, would halt further tuff shed construction. Indeed, homeless advocates could act as early as this week by insisting that the city halt its eviction of the encampment on the Kaiser grounds until it has a passed resolution for the tuff sheds there.

will not open

Then there’s the fundamental weakness in the city’s A site choice for the “cabins”–the Kaiser Convention Center parking lot. The gigantic Kaiser Convention Center, which contains a large auditorium perfect for creating any number of dormitory style emergency housing plans, has been empty for years. In 2015, the city awarded Orton Development an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with the city which required the company to present a feasible plan for development within a maximum year and a half. That ENA has been expired for over a year, and the city council has apparently not received a Lease Disposition and Development Agreement from Orton–the pre-requisite to even begin planning for rehab or construction.

Even if Orton is serious about Kaiser–an open question–its years from even staging the project. And its common practice for municipalities to open their unused civic spaces for sheltering its residents–Seattle recently even used its city hall for the purpose at night. Thus, the city is opening itself up for an embarrassing round of explanations about why it can’t use an auditorium that’s been empty for over a decade, but is instead forcing people into garden sheds in its parking lot. The Kaiser argument could open up new discussions about using city buildings to create housing of last resort and temporary shelter rather than the convoluted and expensive cabins, and could further convince the city to obligate the adminsistrator to purse property from OUSD for the purpose as it was obligated to do by Kaplan’s legislation. There is still time and opportunity here.

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