What Would Help Homelessness? Humility at City Hall Would Be a Good Start
The following are remarks I delivered to a Neighbors Together Oakland rally on Collaborative Ideas to Improve Public Safety
Oakland’s elected officials have been making bad plans, ignoring citizens’ wishes for a long time. In the 1950s and ’60s, “urban renewal” destroyed vibrant West Oakland neighborhoods and a thriving black business district. In 2020, City Hall passed a homeless Encampment Management Policy that ignored Oaklanders’ wishes.
Before passing the policy, the city commissioned a survey. 85% of African American respondents supported the city’s enforcing rules on encampments, and 76% supported allowing the city to relocate them. Citizens were also rightly upset that encampments were mostly allowed in already disadvantaged neighborhoods and wanted them cleaned up.
At the time, the city estimated there were about 70 encampments in Oakland, and the city provided services such as toilets and garbage to 40 of them. The city passed the Encampment Management Policy as an emergency measure. It promised it would combine the 70 encampments into the 40 that the city services. A year later, there were an estimated 140 encampments. In other words, the policy resulted in the number of encampments doubling, not declining.
An audit of the program found that “the City was not prepared to take on such a project ... [because it] lacked an effective strategy and did not provide sufficient policy direction or adequate funding.”
The city lurches from emergency response to emergency response, with no strategy, focus, or definition of success. Homelessness just keeps growing. The city doesn’t measure outcomes and allocate money according to what works. Instead, it blindly holds on to doing to same thing regardless of the fact that it isn’t working, and then pleads for “more money” as if that will change anything.
A lot of people say that homelessness is a housing problem, and we do have a housing problem—but why do we? There are empty lots and buildings all over Oakland.
Today, the permitting process is so complicated, arbitrary, and corrupt that only deep-pocketed developers building large expensive projects can get through it.
We have to make it easy to build a single house, or 10 houses, or duplexes, four-plexes or small apartment buildings. We need to re-establish home ownership as a common opportunity.
Today, the government calls units that cost $600,000 or more “affordable housing.” Sorry, city hall and Sacramento: that’s not affordable—and your regulations are solely responsible. 75 years ago, many black migrants who came here from the South for war work were able to build their own homes in an unincorporated area of North Richmond. By 1948, 60% of these North Richmond black migrants owned their own homes mortgage free.
We also have to make being a landlord attractive again. It used to be common to earn a little money on the side by renting a room or a couple of units. Today, I don’t know why anyone would be a landlord, and we wonder why affordable rooms or apartments to rent have vanished.
Neighbors Together Oakland recently scored a great victory, forcing the city council to rescind the “emergency” eviction moratorium, but many small landlords had already lost their homes and properties. We need to have laws that are fair to tenants and landlords, and make being a landlord attractive to more regular folk today—a way to make a little extra money and help fill the need for rentals that people can afford.
So, yes, we need more housing and we need more housing of every kind. But housing alone, unfortunately, can not solve homelessness.
I have traveled all over the country, interviewing people experiencing homelessness and visiting programs designed to help them. I’ve learned that there are about as many reasons that people become homeless as there are people who are homeless: it’s very individual, from childhood trauma, addiction, and mental illness to just plain bad luck. Housing alone doesn’t solve mental illness, addiction, or despair.
The most important thing I have learned is that the difference between cities that are failing in homelessness and those that are succeeding is that in those that succeed, the members of every part of the community: citizens, non-profits, churches, emergency services, hospitals, police, mental health resources, and the government, come out of their silos, give up protecting their own turf, and work together. They create coordinated, strategic plans and develop programs and services that meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness, and then they all row in the same direction in providing them.
The most dramatic example has been operating in San Antonio, Texas for 12 years and has reduced unsheltered homelessness there by 80%. They built a 22-acre campus called Haven for Hope that provides everything from simply a safe place to sleep, get a shower and something to eat, to extended housing with on-site services provided by 140 non-profits. They create a plan around every individual. It’s both cost-effective and incredibly successful. The streets are clear and people are safe and cared for.
Wouldn’t you think that results like that would interest folks at city hall?
Well, when I served on the citizen review committee in 2020 before the Homeless Encampment Policy was enacted, I argued, as I’m sure most of you would, that encampments are no place for people to live. I gave the city representatives a detailed overview of how the Haven for Hope model works. They weren’t interested.
It’s time to recognize that City Hall is never going to solve homelessness in Oakland. Neighbors Together Oakland is exactly right: The only thing that will solve homelessness and our other challenges is for all of us to come together as San Antonio did. We need leadership from the business and faith communities, non-profits, citizen and community groups, police, fire, healthcare, and, yes, city hall, to come together. Let’s look at the array of programs and services that are needed, and then work to create them in a coordinated, strategic way that is accountable to the community and to those served.
It’s time to tell City Hall to get some humility and work with the community. We demand results and we need to be part of producing them.