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The Oakland City Council has a chance to do something about homeless camps. But will they?

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No issue in Oakland is as contentious as homeless camps. They have proliferated across the city to a shocking degree in the last three years, and the government of Mayor Libby Schaaf, as well as the City Council, has proven utterly incapable of doing anything about it.

Most American cities are suffering from homelessness and the blight of encampments, but Oakland seems unique in that regard. Most other cities have at least taken steps to manage these camps, for instance by limiting them to certain areas that are not close to schools, commercial centers, public parks and crowded intersections. Of course, whenever a city tries to limit camps, they immediately run into flak from pro-encampment activists, who accuse the city of everything from callous disregard to institutional racism.

Oakland, alone among California cities so far as I can tell, has been so intimidated by these activists (whose favorite thing to do is pack City Council hearings and disrupt them so violently that they have to be canceled) that Schaaf and the Council have simply sat on their hands and done nothing, as the camps have taken over what used to be a very nice city. But all that could change tomorrow: the City Council is set to vote on a proposal that would clear most places of camps and limit them to appropriate areas, preferably on the city’s outskirts.

Predictably the pro-camp activists already are raising a howl. “Redlining!” one of them alleged, which is of course nonsense; “redlining” is when banks refuse loans to people who are perceived to be bad financial risks. The anti-camp side (including me) responds that restricting camps to appropriate areas actually benefits homeless people, because services such as porta-potties, water, food distribution and healthcare can be centralized and made more efficient, rather than scattered across 78 square miles and dozens if not hundreds of individual camps. That this is obviously true, seems to me beyond debate, but the pro-camp activists still aren’t buying it. What Oakland has to do, they insist, is give each of the 4,000 homeless people a permanent home, as well as complete food and medical care, job training and all the rest. Where the city is supposed to come up with the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to do so, they never explain, except to offer nebulous “raise taxes” non-solutions. Raise taxes on whom? A struggling middle class? Small businesss like nail parlors that are already on the verge of failure? Corporations that are fleeing the city for friendlier locations in the suburbs?

I do not think it’s “uncompassionate” to manage homeless camps. Any city that purports to govern itself has the responsibility to keep the public safe and to protect the businesses that are so important to jobs and the tax base. In Oakland, business owners of all races and ethnicities have been pleading with city government to please make the camps on their streets and sidewalks to go away. It is well-documented that shoppers refuse to visit commercial areas overrun with homeless camps and the drugs, prostitution, violence and mayhem they so often spawn. Stores that otherwise would have been healthy have been forced to go out of business or relocate because of encampments literally at their front door, hardly an ideal situation during the pandemic and economic shutdown.

I’ll be watching tomorrow’s City Council vote closely. This will be a chance for Council members to actually do something courageous and productive, instead of kowtowing to the shouters and doing nothing. I actually have some hope this time the Council will act correctly. Even if they approve the new package of proposals, it won’t be nearly enough. Individual campers will refuse to comply, and the city will prove unable to rise to that challenge since the police will refuse to intervene, so frightened are they of being sued by profiteering “civil rights” attorneys. Frivolous lawsuits will be filed challenging the constitutionality of any new camp laws–suits that get tied up in the courts for years, and drain the city’s treasury. And the pro-camp activists aren’t going anywhere; if anything, they’ll up the ante.

But really, Oakland is in a perilous situation. We’re on the verge of becoming a third-world disaster like the slums of Rio or Caracas, if we’re not already there. Two, three years ago I was in a very small minority when I called for the camps to be relocated to places, like the former Oakland Army Base, where services could be concentrated. People called me the most dreadful names, and even threatened me. Today, tens of thousands of Oaklanders who are generally sympathetic to the plight of the homeless have realized that the situation is totally out of control. They’re demanding their elected officials clean things up and, for once, those City Council members might actually listen to their constituents.

  1. Janet Noble says:

    Outstanding! I really appreciate your wisdom and your courage in speaking up. I live 7/10 mile from the encampment at Harrison & MacArthur and have many good friends who live just alongside this encampment. For the last three years I have tried to contribute in terms of strategizing, going to meetings, writing emails, making phone calls. I have felt the greatest concern for the family struggling with their business called The QuikStop gas station & convenience store. The managers have suffered great harm due to the encampment just across the street, with very frequent shoplifting and extremely threatening behavior. I have felt absolutely horrified by what they have had to endure — and I am so disappointed that more people don’t speak up and INSIST that the housed community and businesses need to have their safety and civil rights defended.

    Anyway — just THANKS SO MUCH — and hoping this new policy will be effective.

  2. Thank you, Janet Noble. I, too, have wondered why so few people care about the rights of those of us who live in homes and the rights of our wonderful local business owners. I think many people are simply too busy with their lives to get involved in issues. Also, the pro-homeless people are so loud and so accusatory of everyone else, that some folks may be intimidated from speaking their minds. This is political correctness run amok, of course; and speaking of political correctness, I avoid using ridiculous jargon like “the housed community.” That’s a horrible degradation of the language. Anyhow, I too hope the new policy will be effective. I’ve wondered how the “no camps in parks” part will be enforced, given Schaaf’s dumb “We won’t criminalize the homeless or arrest anyone.” But I’ve been told, privately, from sources in city government that if people refuse to take their tents out of the parks, they will be cited.

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