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Oakland sued for failure to enforce its own policies

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(Readers: this is a copy of my post this morning on the website of my political lobbying group, the Coalition for a Better Oakland. While it concerns the city in which I live, it’s relevant to cities around the country that are dealing with the scourge of encampments.)

It’s with great pleasure I share with you the news that our friend Seneca Scott, executive director of Neighbors Together Oakland (NTO), yesterday announced that NTO is suing the City of Oakland for failure to implement Oakland’s Encampment Management Policy (EMP).

The EMP, you’ll recall, was unanimously approved by the Oakland City Council last October, with the full support of Mayor Schaaf. It carefully defined “no-go” areas where tents would be prohibited, including parks, and was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2021. It was a sane, wise policy, but never implemented. The City Council, says Scott, “ignored the EMP out of fear of political blowback.” The lawsuit demands “that the courts intervene and hold the City accountable for enforcing the law in order to restore balance to city streets and neighborhoods…”.

While the Coalition for a Better Oakland is not party to the lawsuit, we fully support it, and will do whatever we can to be helpful.

NTO’s lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court, is similar to one filed in Los Angeles by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, which is suing Los Angeles over its failure to resolve the encampment problem. That followed a rash of other cities being sued for the same reason: their epic failure to clean up encampments by providing shelter for the unhoused.

There are several interesting things about these lawsuits. First, they denote very clearly that cities have to be compelled to take action on encampments; left to their own devices, they remain inert, paralyzed by fear of pro-encampment activists. Secondly, the lawsuits require cities to not only clean up encampments, but to offer their residents some kind of “four walls and a roof” in which to relocate. This is not just for reasons of compassion, but for legal necessity: the landmark Martin v. Boise legal decision, which was left intact by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires “that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.” Cities have interpreted Martin v. Boise, probably correctly, as meaning they dare not roust homeless people unless they can give them someplace else to live.

It’s great that cities finally are being compelled to deal with encampments, after so many years of official denial and ineptitude. NTO has done a brave and good thing. Without their lawsuit, Oakland government, and especially its renegade City Council, will continue to drift in inaction and lassitude, pretending to be progressive but ultimately caring about nothing but campaign contributions.

Left unanswered by the lawsuit, meanwhile, are three huge questions: (1) What kind of shelter must cities provide to homeless people? (2) how do cities pay for it? and (3) What do we do with homeless people who refuse to leave their tents, even after being offered shelter?

  1. Nancy Brown says:

    My community in the North San Fernando Valley is part of the City of Los Angeles. We have a terrible problem in certain areas with homeless people. They openly smoke meth pipes and drop them and their injection kits whenever they’re done with them. They take care of their bodily functions of all kinds in full view of anyone passing by, including kids on their way to school. When they are high or if they’re mentally ill, they go into the surrounding neighborhoods and sometimes try to break into yards or shake the doors and windows of homes.. They fight, they make noise, and they are unpleasant to see and smell. Many people are frightened of them. This area of the city has made the most noise, even though our homeless population in terms of percentages is low compared to other places in the city. People write on any number of local neighborhood sites and blogs about how horrible this is, that it is not what our community is, and that the city should do something about it. They admit they no longer have empathy or compassion for these people and they tend to blame each individual for doing something that should have/could have kept them out the situation they’re in. Our City Councilman dragged his feet for so long that we were the only city council district that didn’t have a plan to deal with the homeless situation. Now we’ve got three properties that will be built or rebuilt to house a relatively small number of the unhoused and the same people who want them gone and out of sight are putting on their NIMBY clothes and shouting and complaining and saying to recall the governor because this is all his fault. I hope you have better luck in Oakland that my community has had in finding a humane solution to a horrible and inhumane situation. I understand that I’m lucky because my immediate neighborhood has not been directly impacted by unhoused/homeless people roaming the streets where people live. My area still feels like the suburbs. I know the outrage when sober living homes were considered for this area and I have no doubt that there are many very angry and vocal people who wish these painful and ugly realities were not happening here. The truth is they are happening almost everywhere and the humane and compassionate thing to do is absolutely everything we can to find them shelter and whatever rehab or counseling or mental health care they need. I hope you have better luck than LA has in dealing with our current conditions. Oakland is a real city whereas where I live may be part of a big city but it is suburban in every other way. The compassionate among us are drowned out by bigots as well as generally nice people who have had to put up with unpleasant and potentially dangerous situations for much too long. The street people are not going to leave so we need to do everything possible to get them whatever they need. It is the right thing to do.

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