At 1 p.m. on Sat. Feb. 16, the Oakland Police Commission (OPC) hosted a three-hour public hearing on policing in the homeless community at Taylor Memorial Church in West Oakland. Dozens of citizens, most of them unsheltered, spoke to the public and to members of the OPC, which is tasked with overseeing the Oakland Police Department (OPD).
Most people who spoke expressed frustration. “OPD has decided to enforce a morally bankrupt policy,” said unsheltered resident, Mike Lee. “They’re kicking people out of tents in the pouring rain.”
During this past rainy Valentines Day, OPD officers were present to help enforce a new city policy that disallows people from camping near Lake Merritt. At least 50 people were displaced. Lee says police have told him they’re just following orders when they’ve helped to evict him in the past, but he doesn’t see this as a good excuse. “OPD has the ability to say we just won’t do that,” Lee said.
Many unsheltered residents wish police would leave them alone. Although marijuana has been legalized in California, two speakers complained of police harassment due to possessing the substance. Needa Bee complained that she and her daughter, who live in a camper together, are constantly told by OPD to move their vehicle, often after only a day. She’s aware of the city law that requires her to move her vehicle after 72 hours, but since police don’t wait for 72 hours to pass before asking her to move, she thinks they’re not following the law correctly and they’re unnecessarily and illegally bothering her.
Due to their negative past experiences, many unsheltered residents feel they should only rely on police during absolute emergencies, so they rarely call them. When they have called, OPD has often not been helpful. Unsheltered resident Darren Soo says when he called OPD about a rape in progress, it took them thirty minutes to show up. When he’s witnessed people in the process of stealing his possessions and he’s called OPD, they’ve rarely showed up and always too late to help.
Although many people were grateful to be able to speak to the OPC and the public about homelessness, some people also questioned the process. Several speakers questioned OPC’s ability to use the testimonies they’ve collected in a way that will practically help homeless people. One speaker named Marissa called for the ability for people to talk to the OPC in a more private way as issues of trauma, and particularly sexual trauma are common for unhoused residents and difficult or even impossible to talk about publicly.
At the public event, two city council members attended: Nikki Fortunato Bas and Lynette Gibson McElhaney, though McElhaney arrived over an hour late. Bas spoke at the public hearing and called for more affordable housing as well as more and better shelters for homeless residents.
“We don’t have enough shelters for everyone, and the shelters we do have are not appropriate for everyone,” Bas said. Many others who spoke agreed with Bas. Although those who were evicted from near Lake Merritt were offered space in small tuff sheds or shelter beds, many, particularly those with traumatic past experiences, chose not to use the tuff sheds as the spaces required having a roommate. Many also chose not to use the shelter beds as it would have required that they give up all their belongings. So some residents were left with no where to go.