At a January 12 meeting, Oakland’s City Council discussed, but did not vote upon, amendments proposed by Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Nikki Fortunato Bas requesting the City offer unhoused residents extended shelter stays and individual shelter units following evictions of unhoused people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Out of concern for possibly spreading the COVID-19 virus, Kaplan said that “people should not be made to share a room with those who they do not already live with.” A resolution, passed unanimously by Council on March 27 of last year, requested the City to only clear unhoused communities if it offered residents “individual housing units or alternative shelter,” but the Council still has not decided what “alternative shelter” means.
The delay will likely soon affect unhoused residents at Union Point Park, as the City plans to clear the park but does not yet have codified guidance from the Council as to what alternative shelter options they should offer unhoused people when they execute the clearance.
Due to a cease-and-desist order that the S.F. Bay Conservation and Development Commission has delivered to the City of Oakland, which the City has not challenged, residents living in Union Point Park must be cleared from the park by February 12.
Residents claim over 35 people live in the park and that City representatives told them they would be cleared in the first week of February and offered shared space in the City’s Community Cabins, also known as the tuff sheds. For Edward Hansen, 65, who’s lived in the park for over seven years, was born in Oakland, and just got out of the hospital after having a stroke, accepting the space would mean sharing a room with a new person he does not live with. Hansen plans to reject the offer.
“If they’re not going to physically push us with police, I’m going to stand my ground,” said Hansen. “From what I understand they have to offer us something a wee bit better than what we have now.”
After Council unanimously passed the Encampment Management Policy during an October 21 meeting, which set strict guidelines for where the City plans to focus unhoused community closures, Oakland’s City Administration proposed a resolution that defines what “alternative shelter” they plan to offer people like Hansen. The resolution allows “congregate” or grouped shelter, like homeless shelters and shared space in the Community Cabins, to be offered. It further stipulated that the shelter must be offered “no less than 72 hours prior to an encampment clearing” and for a stay “of at least two weeks.”
Advocates for homeless people found the resolution unacceptable and encouraged the public to call City Council members to encourage them to accept amendments by Kaplan and Bas’ that request “alternative shelter” be defined instead as offers of individual shelter units for a minimum of 90 day stays with 30 days prior notice.
“Do not let the current proposal of two weeks, potentially in congregate shelter, pass!,” the homeless advocacy group Housing and Dignity Village tweeted on January 11. “While permanent housing is always the goal…we need folks to receive AT LEAST 90 days in COVID safe housing options.”
Councilmember Loren Taylor and Dan Kalb both spoke in support of the extension of stays to at least 90 days with at least 30 days prior notification. But a point of contention arose over whether or not homeless shelters, where individuals would share space with strangers, should be considered “alternative shelter.” Taylor reiterated a claim that Homelessness Administrator Daryel Dunston made that there have thus far been no outbreaks in Oakland homeless shelters and that the shelters were operating at a reduced capacity. Kalb agreed and stated that shelters that do not require residents to leave during the day “maybe should be” used for the purpose of alternative shelter.
Kaplan expressed concerns that a new strain of COVID-19 that is more contagious could more easily spread in grouped shelters. The CDC’s website refers to it as B.1.1.7 and states that it has already been detected in the United States. She also reiterated concerns over how social distancing and mask regulations would be impossible in shelters.
“It’s not six feet or a mask; it’s six feet and a mask,” said Kaplan. “When you’re in an indoor room with other people where you would be needing to sleep and eat and take your mask off. That is not what the 6-foot standard refers to.”
Council did not discuss the Community Cabin Program but Kaplan and Bas’ amendments would still allow them to be used as long as people, excluding those who were already sharing a tent or a dwelling, were no longer forced to share single cabin units.
During the discussion at the meeting over the amendments, which lasted about an hour, Councilmember Noel Gallo suggested that the matter be brought to the newly formed homelessness commission to get their input before Council votes.
Taylor suggested Council address the issue on March 22, when they will consider amendments to the Encampment Management Policy. Council ended their discussion by unanimously agreeing to delay voting on the amendments, meaning that the City currently has no agreed-upon definition with Council as to what “alternative shelter” means for residents who are facing clearance.