A few weeks ago, I walked over to
in downtown Oakland and met with two outreach workers, Andrea and Mike. Our job that afternoon was to deliver salami sandwiches to people living in the encampments underneath Interstate 880 near 7th Street.
I'm an immersive researcher, and our cost of living crisis is one of those issues I need to understand from every angle.
I drive by the encampments too - and feel the surge of angst as I see debris piled onto the sidewalk and into traffic.
I've met with residents who, rightfully so, are deeply angered the camps have eliminated key corridors and made some public spaces hazardous to navigate.
I've talked to our public works crews who clean the sites weekly - and then carry away literally tons of garbage.
the issue that keeps me up at night.
We have an immediate plan, as well as along term strategy.
- The City Council has approved three sites to set up Tuff Shed shelters that will move people off the sidewalks and into safety and services. Once an encampment is moved to one of these sites, we will clean that sidewalk and prohibit any encampments from returning.
- The City Council has also adopted a two-year ordinance declaring a shelter crisis in Oakland, which will allow the City more flexibility to build and provide public facilities for unsheltered residents.
- We've allocated funds to purchase and operate a new supportive rapid-housing facility within a year - doubling the success of our existing Henry Robinson Center.
- We're reducing impacts and health risks of encampments by offering regular cleanings, hand washing stations, portable toilets, and trash service.
- And when necessary, we're closing the most dangerous encampments.
Our goal is to open our first Tuff Shed site before the rainy season. Each location will shelter up to 40 people in Tuff Shed structures for up to six months - then they'll move into a rapid-housing facility.
The outdoor locations will be staffed with wrap-around social services so clients can get indoors as fast as possible. We've budgeted funding to open one site so far, and we're working with partners to fund the other two locations. We will also continue to coordinate with volunteer, non-profit groups, and private partners to staff and provide services at the designated locations.
But the Tuff Shed locations are only a quick fix. The next step is to get folks into rapid re-housing facilities like Oakland's Henry Robinson Center, which last year saw 87 percent of its clients successfully move into permanent affordable housing.
Oaklanders are contributing to that success by opening their homes to some of our recently homeless who transition out of Henry Robinson - house sharing. In fact, if you've got a spare room or vacant in-law unit, and would like to rent to a person who needs transitional housing, please contact Daniel Cooperman at
The proven success of the Henry Robinson Center is why we've allocated the funds in the budget to open another facility with the same supportive rapid rehousing model that will serve another 300 clients each year.
we're closing the most dangerous encampments
as quickly as our compassion and capacity allows. Our city staff monitors the camps, and offers social services to the majority of people living outdoors. We work with residents before we close their encampments, and do it with both compassion and strategic efficiency to ensure they don't return. It is difficult and complex work. Our progress is slow because we aim to move people to safety - not just move them along. We also will follow up to ensure cleared areas are cleaned and then regularly patrolled so that sidewalks and other area remains clear and available for their originally intended use.
Getting people into Tuff Sheds takes on the immediate crisis, but it won't help solve the larger problem -
the cost of living crisis
. Put simply, we need to prevent people from losing their housing as well as create more housing units for all income levels ASAP, and particularly housing that's affordable for our most vulnerable residents.
- We're implementing the "17K/17K Housing Plan" developed by Oakland's Housing Cabinet that will protect 17,000 Oakland households from displacement and build 17,000 new units of housing within eight years - with at least 28 percent of those units affordable-to-low to extremely low income residents.
- We're educating renters and helping enforce the stronger tenant protections we've enacted over the past few months - including broader Just Cause eviction protections, stronger rent control laws and meaningful relocation benefits. Visit http://rapwp.oaklandnet.com/ to learn more. Helping Oaklanders remain in rent-stabilized housing is the most immediate way to fight displacement and prevent homelessness for the long haul.
- We're also creating new affordable housing funds, as well as streamlining approvals. This includes my Measure KK, the county's A1 funds and the affordable housing bills package that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown just last week here in the Bay Area, which included a $4 billion bond that will build and preserve affordable housing for families. The bills will get more housing on the market faster, but perhaps most encouragingly, they will also incentivize neighboring cities to lift housing restrictions and ease the pressure for us all.
- We're also leading the regional conversation about housing through my role on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the newly formed CASA - The Committee to House the Bay Area.
As we continue to get more affordable housing on the market, know that every day and night I'm determined to fix the encampment crisis.
Our new Tuff Shed shelters offer an innovative approach to an old problem. It will get people off sidewalks and into safety and services immediately, but it will not curb skyrocketing rents tomorrow.
The cost of living crisis is something that impacts us all, whether we are sheltered or unsheltered, and I am determined to fix it both in the here and now, and for future generations.
But first, we all need to understand the issue on every level, from every angle.
Back on 7th street, as we walked beneath the freeway, Andrea and Mike described some of the trends they've witnessed among unsheltered residents in the last few years.
It used to be that a nearly all their clients suffered from addiction, mental health challenges, or both.
Now, when they look in to the encampments, they also see the "working-class poor" - a taxi cab driver, a security guard, a day laborer.
"Some of the people who live out here have jobs," Andrea told me. "They used to live indoors and when they got pushed out, and lost their apartment or the room they rented, they found it didn't cost what it used to."
At one tent, I met a man who told me he has a part time job at a bakery, rising early in the morning to get to work on his bicycle.
"But mostly," he said, "I just need to know that people see us out here. We live in a time when people just pass right by, pretend like they don't see us, and just think about themselves.
"The best thing you can do," he said, "is just think of me and don't forget I'm here. That's enough."
But thinking of folks as we drive by simply isn't enough.
We need to tackle this problem head on, with passion and persistance. We need get people into services as quickly as possible, and return our region to an affordable place to live.
And we need to do it together.