City’s Plan for Homeless Causes Tension in West Oakland Encampment

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Jessie Parker sits under his canopy and outside of his tiny home. He’s says he’s unwilling to stay in the city’s community cabins and worries that the city’s plans could break up his current encampment. Photo by Zack Haber.

After opening three community cabin sites, the City of Oakland is continuing its plan to create more sites and has also laid plans to open RV sites for unsheltered residents, but tensions run high in the Wood Street homeless encampment in West Oakland as many of the dozens of residents there feel uncertain and skeptical about how they see the new programs affecting them.

“What we really want to know is what the city is going to do,” said Jessie Parker, who has lived in the Wood street area for over five years. “They’re keeping it cloudy.”

Parker is one of dozens who live on the site just west of Wood street between West Grand Avenue and 26th street.The area contains tents, tiny homes, RVs, cars and trailers. He lives in a tiny home and has arranged a canopy over it using tarps. When a heat wave struck for a few days in early June, folks from all around the encampment flocked to his site to cool off. If given a better housing option, Parker would move, but the city’s community cabin sites house people in 10×12 feet sheds without air conditioning or heat, and residents are required to share each shed with a roommate.

“A shed is not an upgrade,” said Parker, who claims living in a shed with another person would remind him of his time in prison and that, standing at 6’5’’, he wouldn’t have enough space.

Parker fears the new program could put his current encampment in danger. His fears are not unwarranted.

In an October 2018 agenda report which lays out the city administrator’s plans for using $8.4 million in state emergency homeless service funding, assistant city administrator Joe DeVries describes encampments like Wood Street’s as “dangerous” and “unregulated” and writes that the city’s community cabin sites will “eliminate the health and safety impacts…encampments are having on the surrounding community.”

Lydia Blumberg, who lives in a vehicle in the Wood street encampment, thinks the city makes it hard for her to live in a way that’s safe, healthy and non-impactful because they offer inadequate services. She says they rarely clean portable toilets, hand-washing stations have no water, and that they refuse to provide a Dumpster.

Many at the Wood street encampment live in vehicles that are unregistered, not operating, or both, but still provide shelter for them. Some of these residents are uncertain if their homes would even be allowed in a city run RV site and haven’t heard word from the city about this issue.

Muliazum Coleman, who has lived in the city-run Lake Merritt community cabin site for about six months, appreciates his time there but thinks it hasn’t been effective for finding housing long term.

“It’s all right; it’s like an apartment complex just for the homeless,” he said. “They say they move people out though but most people I’ve seen move out end up right back on the street.”

While people like Coleman could benefit in the short term, DeVries’ report shows the city’s plan can’t house most of Oakland’s homeless population. It states that the community cabin sites could provide “emergency shelter and services to up to 320 people per year,” and that the RV sites plan to house 300. But EveryOne Home’s latest census report shows 8,022 homeless in Alameda County while the Urban Institute’s latest report estimates that 49% of that population lives in Oakland, putting Oakland’s totally unsheltered population at around 4,000.

Joe DeVries, Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office and the office of District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney have not returned The Oakland Post’s request for a comment  for this article.

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