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A tipping point in Oakland’s struggle with tent camps in parks

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Some years ago, the first tents began appearing in Oakland’s Lake Shore Park, which is down the block from me. Soon, the tents spread across the street, to the little park around the Oakland Senior Center and Veteran’s Administration building. In 2016, I began imploring my city councilwoman, Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, to do something about it. How inappropriate it was for homeless tents to be in a park where old people and veterans are at risk—not to mention where little children from St. Paul’s Episcopal School play on the lawn.

Many of my neighbors joined me in my protests, to no avail. Over the past year, the encampment at the Senior/VA Center spread, until it became a huge, unsightly and unhealthy sprawl, with piles of rotting clothes, broken shopping carts, discarded junk food containers, rats, and, yes, human excrement. This is at the entrance to the part of Oakland known as Uptown, the city’s most vibrant district, a symbol of Oakland’s rebirth. The dirty tent city became a symbol of Uptown, of my city: no wonder tech companies are reluctant to relocate here! At the same time, other city parks had it even worse. Several, such as Mosswood, were completely overrun with tents: parents complained that they dare not bring their children there anymore. City government didn’t care. The situation became egregious.

My councilmember, Gibson-McElhaney, claimed to be concerned, but professed to be powerless. So-called homeless advocates, she and others said, were just too pushy. Any elected official who tried to remove camps from public parks was harassed. These “advocates” would show up at City Council meetings and disrupt them. They never were in the majority, but they were experts at screaming and shouting—and the local press, of course, quickly discovered their newsworthiness and gave them added publicity.

And then something happened. Last month, Oakland officials announced they’re placing a new parcel tax on the March, 2020 ballot. It would assess every homeowner $148 a year to pay for “maintenance of the parks.”

Now, this was against the backdrop of a previous parcel tax, Measure AA, that Oakland put on the ballot last year. It failed to garner the two-thirds majority for a tax hike that is required by state law. But that didn’t stop Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, and pro-homeless City Council members from trying to impose it. They said they didn’t care whether or not the measure legally passed—they were approving the parcel tax anyway!

That was so outrageous that several groups sued the city. You can’t just ignore the law! But Schaaf & Co. refused to obey the Superior Court’s ruling. They argued that election results don’t matter and neither do court decisions. (Sound familiar? Trump makes the same ridiculous points.)

Meanwhile, yesterday the local papers reported that, in a dramatic shift, Oakland city officials have changed their minds and now favor eliminating all camps from public parks! The city’s homeless czar, Joe DeVries, declared that parks should off-limits for tents. Unnamed city staff were quoted as saying that the parks are unusable by ordinary citizens due to the sprawling encampments.

It makes me wonder why, after years of inaction, DeVries, Schaaf and other Oakland officials suddenly recognize that camps in parks are strongly opposed by a majority of Oaklanders. Could it because of the fiasco of Measure AA? Oakland’s decision to disregard the will of the voters made it a laughingstock, and worse: it discredited the city, destroying the trust people have in their government. If the peoples’ votes are meaningless, then why bother to have elections?

It’s clear that DeVries and his colleagues finally understand that Measure AA is dead, and they might as well give up and stop trying to sneak it through. They also understand that there is zero chance that their March 2020 parcel tax will pass. Why on earth would Oaklanders vote to tax themselves for “park maintenance” when their parks are unusable? Why would they believe a cynical city government that has allowed, if not actively encouraged, homeless people to set up tent cities in public parks?

Well, DeVries and his colleagues apparently saw the light on their road to Damascus. We all feel sorry for homeless people. We all wish they could find housing. But there have to be limits. An orderly, civilized society cannot allow dangerous, dirty tent encampments to pop up willy-nilly—especially in public parks, which are entirely paid for by the taxpayers, who have a right to expect their parks to be clean, safe and pleasant.

When and if Oakland moves to expel the camps from the parks, they’ll encounter fierce opposition from homeless advocates and their lawyers, who will do what they do best: sue. But the law is quite clear: No camping in public parks. Period. The city has a legal obligation to keep the parks clean; it does not have a legal obligation to allow homeless people to live there.

The battle to evict the campers will be nasty, but a majority of Oaklanders will support it, including me. There are vast areas of public land where the tent camps can safely and legally be relocated, such as the 1,560-acre former Oakland Army Base. Having all the camps in one location would make providing services much easier, effective and less costly. I hope this is the approach that Schaaf and the City Council adopt, because it’s the one the people of Oakland expect and demand.

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