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MANIFESTO: Encampments, a blight on our city

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One of the compelling reasons we launched the Coalition for a Better Oakland is because we believe something must be done about the proliferation of homeless encampments in the town we love.

We recognize and acknowledge that the causes of homelessness and many and complex. We sympathize with our unhoused sisters and brothers, and would like to work with the city to find solutions to the current catastrophe. But our common-sense point of view, which we believe is widely shared by Oaklanders, is not being heard in the councils of government. In fact, it is being repressed.

Mayor Libby Schaaf seriously dropped the ball when she was first elected, back in 2015. Already at that time, camps were proliferating. Many people asked Mayor Schaaf and the City Council to begin managing the camps, instead of allowing them to spread in an uncontrolled manner.

What did Mayor Schaaf do?

In glowing rhetoric, she talked about “a bold new plan” to reduce homelessness, but it was always in the vaguest terms, with no practical solutions.

She assured homeless people that if they moved to Oakland, they would find housing, medical treatment, and other services.

She told homeless people Oakland would “treat them with compassion.”

When San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose began efforts to manage the spread of camps, Schaaf assured the Bay Area’s homeless population Oakland would “shelter all residents.”

She even suggested that Oaklanders “open their houses to homeless people,” although she herself, she explained, had no room for any in her house.

With rhetoric like that, no wonder homeless people flocked to Oakland. They heard that they would be taken care of. They heard that they would be received with open arms. They heard they might even be able to live with the mayor! And they believed these things. But they were not told the truth. There was no plan, no money, no conceivable way to give them what they needed. Libby Schaaf was just making it all up.

Thus, by October, 2020, when the camp situation became so unbearable that even the most liberal Oaklanders were begging government to do something about it, the City Council, under enormous pressure, finally acted. With Schaaf’s strong support, they passed, unanimously, a resolution limiting tents to certain restricted areas, and prohibiting them everywhere else, including parks.

Schaaf promised that the new regulations would begin to be enforced in January, 2021. But guess what? Nothing happened. The City Council wouldn’t even abide by its own rules. Our parks remain overrun. Underpasses, rights-of-way along BART lines, intersections and miles of streets are lined with encampments and the piles of junk associated with them. (Take a look at Frontage Road, in West Oakland.) And, as the public has tragically seen, fires at encampments are burning down cultural centers, museums and businesses. With fire season just around the corner, that is a serious concern.

Why did Schaaf make unrealistic and unachievable promises to homeless people? It was cruel to invite them to Oakland. Everyone knew, or should have known, the city was in no shape to care for them. Maybe Schaaf was speaking out of truly idealistic motives. Maybe she was pandering to, or intimidated by, the screaming demands of the small but vocal minority of radical pro-homeless activists. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking clearly.

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?

To answer this, we have to backtrack a few years and consider what Schaaf could and should have done when she took office. She should have announced that the city intended to manage the camps in a way that was both compassionate to the homeless and reasonable to the people of Oakland.

But she didn’t.

She should have made it clear that public parks, like Mosswood and Lakeside, were off limits for tents.

But she didn’t.

She should have created sanctioned places where homeless people could legally put up their tents.

But she didn’t.

She should have told the truth to homeless people: Don’t come to Oakland! We can’t take care of you; we don’t have the money.

But she didn’t.

She should have taken on the pro-homeless crowd and told them that they had no idea how to govern and that their demands for free housing, food, medical care and job training for 4,500 homeless people, possibly for life, were insane and would bankrupt Oakland.

But she didn’t.

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

We here at the Coalition for a Better Oakland know this: A city that loses control of its streets is in trouble. We strongly support the City Council’s Oct. 2020 policy that restricted encampments to “low sensitivity” areas. That decision was—as Schaaf herself said—“a compassionate response to an unacceptable condition.” If camps were located in manageable areas, like parts of the Port, the former Oakland Army Base and other conglomerate areas to be identified, services could be provided more efficiently to homeless constituents. Campers themselves would be relieved of the constant threat of street sweeps, knowing that they could safely remain in approved areas. Their legitimate security concerns could more easily be addressed. Such a policy would be a win-win for everyone.

But Schaaf knuckled under to the activists. The City Council drifted further into radical, unrealistic politics after the November elections. And every day, the situation grows more dire.

Look: this issue is neither Democratic nor Republican, neither rightwing nor leftwing, but common sense. The Coalition for a Better Oakland is nonpartisan. We Oaklanders are hard-working, tax-paying, compassionate, and politically savvy. We deserve parks where kids can play—parks that have not been desecrated. We deserve a city where cultural centers and museums and small businesses are not burned down. We deserve streets where we can walk in safety and not dodge human excrement, rotting garbage, passed-out bodies, and hypodermic needles. We want to see our leaders do the job they were elected to do and manage these camps. It can be done—it should be done—it is legal—and it is morally right.

  1. jack saunders says:

    Well put, Steve. 100% agreement.

  2. Michelle Dragovich says:

    Thank you for stating the issues so clearly.

  3. You are welcome!

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