One afternoon in August, a group of men sat outside the tents where they’d lived for the previous several months in Mosswood Park. A thin stream of smoke rose meekly from a dying campfire next to them. Nearby, workers in neon vests negotiated with other residents, giving them a choice: accept a bed in one of the city’s transitional housing facilities or leave the park for good tomorrow.
One of the men said he was resigned to relocating his tent if forced; he’d been through this before, when he slept under freeways in North Oakland. “They kept moving us 150 feet away,” he recalled. At Mosswood, too, the city had conducted a similar closure a little over a year before.
How and when the city decides to clear particular homeless camps can feel opaque, causing frustration for many, especially unsheltered people. During some months, there are no such operations, and during others, residents of 12 different sites are told to pack up.
The city posts schedules online that show where Public Works crews and other staff will clean, service, and close encampments throughout Oakland each week. The Oaklandside reviewed nearly two years of these schedules, from January 2020 to November 2021, looking at the frequency of closures, and exploring what drives the government’s decision-making. We also spoke to city officials, unhoused people, and advocates about the impacts of these decisions.
When have these operations stopped and started? And why has the city’s approach felt so inconsistent at times?
This week, workers were back at Mosswood, again. This latest attempt to get camp residents to relocate is part of a cycle that began before the pandemic and is continuing nearly two years into it.
Closures were suspended for months. Then they came back with force
The city of Oakland pursued closures of 98 encampments during the two years we examined.
At the start of 2020, the city was conducting several camp closures each month—seven in January, and nine each in February and March—until COVID-19 cases began rising and the county went on lockdown.
Federal health experts advised cities to leave encampments alone.
“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” wrote the U.S. Centers for Disease Control at the time. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
In late March 2020, the Oakland City Council passed a resolution to pause camp closures unless residents were offered private housing units or shelter beds, in keeping with federal guidance.
Records show that city staff took heed. The schedules posted between April and June 2020 noted, in red lettering, that closures had been “suspended.” In fact, virtually no closures were scheduled over the following year.
There were a couple exceptions. In late 2020 and early 2021, two closures were required by agencies outside of the city. The state’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission ordered the clearing of the large camp in Union Point Park—a process that prompted protests and dragged out for months. The schedules indicate the city closed a West Oakland camp to make way for an AC Transit project, too.
In the spring of 2021, closures resumed in earnest. There were three scheduled in March 2021 and another three in April, with a big jump to 12 in May. Since then, planned closures have been consistent, ranging from six to 11 each month.
There were also 15 “partial closures” scheduled between January 2020 and November 2021, when we requested this data. According to the city, a partial closure means a camp has to move slightly or consolidate in one area. The schedules we reviewed also track cleaning efforts, including regular garbage pickups and portable toilet servicing at many locations each month, as well as larger, periodic “deep cleanings.”
The locations and timing of these closures can seem arbitrary to camp residents and advocates.
“It is not necessarily clear to anyone else why they’re making these decisions,” said Talya Husbands-Hankin, who founded the advocacy group Love and Justice in the Streets and regularly attends camp closures to support the displaced residents.
“And they’re not necessarily taking into consideration if there’s somewhere else they can move to safely,” she said, pointing to the closure that was scheduled this week at Mosswood, where residents, already banned from the rest of the park, could have ended up spilling into residential streets.
It is evident why closures stopped in March 2020. But why did they start up again one year later?
City says encampment policy drives its decisions
City officials were under pressure from some housed residents and businesses for years before the pandemic to do something about the growing number of homeless camps popping up around Oakland, many of which were expanding in size from a few tents to dozens or more.
In October 2020, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed its Encampment Management Policy, or EMP, a sweeping set of rules spelling out where people can and can’t legally live outside in Oakland, and how the city will approach cleaning and closing camps and providing sanitation services to residents. The EMP was highly controversial from the start, in part because it declared a majority of Oakland “high-sensitivity,” or off-limits to encampments.
The city said the intention was to provide consistency and clarity around its work at camps—thought to be 140 at the time, and likely more now—where they planned to close those that put people in harm’s way and make conditions healthier at those that remained. The policy requires that staff offer at least temporary shelter to residents before closing a camp. But activists protested the policy—some rallying outside councilmembers’ homes—calling the rules inhumane, and saying they criminalize homelessness and fail to provide suitable alternatives to encampment living.
According to LaTonda Simmons, Oakland’s interim homelessness administrator, the EMP was set to go into effect in January 2021, but this was delayed until March or so, while the city worked to establish the systems and hire the workers to carry it out. That’s why you see closures starting again that spring, she said.
Daryel Dunston—Oakland’s first homelessness administrator, who left abruptly in March 2021—had spent the months after the EMP was passed working to get it up and running, said Simmons. That ground-laying work and hiring continued into March. Closures slowly began again just a few weeks after Dunston left and Simmons stepped in. Dunston did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Part of Dunston’s work, Simmons and other staff said, was finalizing contracts with the nonprofit Operation Dignity, which the city has long relied on to conduct outreach at camps. Workers visit encampments scheduled for closure, offering residents shelter and connecting them with other services.
“That happens usually for a number of weeks in advance of a closure, so people are well-informed and have lots of opportunity to engage in resources,” said Lara Tannenbaum, Human Services manager. During a closure itself, Public Works staff, police, and others are typically present.
Simmons said the city has spent the past year catching up with the work that was put aside early in the pandemic.
“After about a year’s worth of stagnancy, by the time the council adopted the [EMP], we had a situation where conditions on the street had simply grown and grown and grown,” she said. “We had a duty to address the health and safety conditions on the streets, for the unhoused, for the infrastructure itself, and for those that would be affected nearby.”
She said the city was receiving “hundreds of requests” each week from neighbors and business owners, as well as city workers, to address particular camps. Those complaints, along with visits to observe camp conditions, determine which of the many “high-sensitivity” camps the city prioritizes for closure and cleaning.
Also around this time, in April 2021, City Auditor Courtney Ruby released a scathing report on the city’s management of encampments. The report found that Oakland spent $12.6 million on tasks related to homeless camps over a period of two years, including around $1,500 an hour on closures and cleanings. But Ruby said that despite the big spending, the city lacked a “comprehensive budget or formal system” for encampment work, resulting in an overwhelmed workforce and an ineffective strategy for addressing the ballooning number of camps in the city.
Simmons noted that the audit was based on the city’s approach to encampments prior to the implementation of the EMP.
Closures can cause “so much anxiety” for displaced residents
LaMonte Ford, who has lived in various West Oakland camps for seven years, said he’s experienced and witnessed numerous closures, by both the California Department of Transportation and the city.
“Each time it causes so much anxiety,” he said. “Nothing ever got solved, and we always went back to the spot they pushed us out of.”
During the Caltrans closures, his personal belongings were seized and destroyed, including a storage chest and a ninja sword.
“I didn’t have a lot of items, but they were very sentimental to me. The chest reminded me of my grandfather, and I studied with that sword,” he said. Beyond losing material possessions, “I was separated from the support I had with other residents,” said Ford. He became homeless after losing several family members, and credits the “camaraderie” he found on the streets with saving his life in a moment of crisis.
“No matter what number of sweeps the city carries out, each one has an enormous impact on the unhoused residents being forced to relocate,” said Husbands-Hankin. “For people who are making their shelter out of literally whatever they can find—surviving without access to water, sanitation, and basic human rights—to be faced with the threat of police and the Department of Public Works pushing you out of your only spot in the world is deeply harmful.”
I was separated from the support I had with other residents.
The importance of community is something the city doesn’t always realize or acknowledge, said Husbands-Hankin. At a recent closure on 45th Street, she saw staff offer residents spots at a Community Cabin site—city-run shelters with sheds—in a completely different neighborhood, away from their connections.
But some new homelessness programs have deliberately prioritized nearby residents. A tiny-home shelter on E. 12th Street houses people who’d previously lived in tents on the same lot.
Since the pandemic began, the overall number of city-funded shelter and transitional housing beds has increased by around 500, to a total of 1,558, according to the city. (At last count in 2019, there were roughly 4,000 people homeless in Oakland.) The county also opened several COVID-19 hotel shelters.
Multiple policies and laws, including the EMP and the 2019 court case Martin v. Boise, require the city to offer residents shelter before closing a camp. But defining what constitutes “shelter” has been a point of contention and confusion in Oakland.
“Residents are always offered some sort of interim housing option,” said city spokesperson Karen Boyd in an email. “This could be a shelter bed, a cabin bed, or a transitional housing bed. All offers of beds are longer term. None of our programs only offers a bed for a few days.”
Even so, many unhoused people balk at the offers. “They take people from the environments where they have support, even if it’s just from your neighbors, then they put you in these clean, LEGO-ish environments,” Ford said, referring to the Community Cabins.
Cabin residents often complain about having to share the small sheds, sometimes with a stranger. But Simmons said the city makes an effort to meet people’s particular needs, offering a pet-friendly shelter if they have a dog, or an RV park if they live in their car.
Businesses impacted by nearby camps
Many people who’ve watched encampments grow outside their doorsteps or businesses push the city to be more aggressive in closing them.
Bruce Vuong has owned an auto shop near San Antonio Park since the 1980s, and over the past several years a large encampment on the E. 12th Street median has grown outside his building.
He said health hazards associated with the camp, including rats and urine, concern him. He and neighboring businesses have lost numerous customers because of the conditions outside, and because of theft—including of several catalytic converters from customers’ cars parked in his lot—that he said is associated with the camp. Some of the residents have been arrested in connection with these incidents, he said.
“I spend more time looking at the camera than fixing cars,” Vuong said. He’d planned to permanently close his shop this past summer, but after a neighborhood meeting with City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, he decided to give it another year.
After about a year’s worth of stagnancy…conditions on the street had simply grown and grown and grown.
Bas is proposing that Oakland give $1 million to Lao Family Community Development, to house up to 50 of the E. 12th encampment residents at its temporary housing facility, opened in 2020. The six-month program focuses on clients with experience in the criminal justice system, and provides them with job training and placement, and social services.
Vuong said he’ll need to see it to believe it. “They told us that the camp would be cleaned up by December 2020,” he said. “There’s been a promise for months and months and nothing happens. They don’t give a hoot about us.”
A new group called Neighbors Together agrees, filing a lawsuit over the summer alleging that Oakland has failed to enforce its EMP. Their lawsuit demands the city close all the encampments that violate the policy, and find temporary housing for residents.
Omicron hasn’t stopped closures
At the end of 2021, the wildly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus had prompted a surge in cases like none seen before in Alameda County. The crisis has pushed into January, with high infection rates prompting people to stay home, businesses to temporarily shutter, and schools to go remote.
One thing that hasn’t stopped? Encampment closures.
Simmons said the context has changed since the start of the pandemic, when closures were suspended because there was no guiding policy at the time on how to safely and consistently approach the operations. She said all the closure decisions remain based on whether there is sufficient shelter to offer.
Advocates for unhoused communities are not moved by that reasoning, and this week sent several letters to Simmons and her colleagues begging the city to “stop the sweeps” during a period of increased risk of exposure to the virus.
“Vulnerable populations in poor health are at risk of death,” wrote Jeanne Finberg. “Do not make the situation worse!”
Simmons spoke to The Oaklandside on Monday afternoon, after spending the morning at Mosswood Park, where the latest closure was scheduled to take place.
“We were watching the [COVID-19] data as we moved into this process,” she said. “There were a lot of emails and questions that flew around this week—what are the numbers telling us? What is the shelter availability? Was it prudent to proceed with closures?”
The city ended up handing out COVID-19 tests and asking the residents to identify what trash crews could remove, but letting people stay, according to Simmons. (Some advocates said they went to the park the next day and found people gone.)
“There weren’t any evictions today, so to speak,” Simmons said. “Even if we might notice something as a ‘closure,’ we’re trying to be very thoughtful of what the impacts might be. We’re making decisions as we go along to make sure we’re not creating a disruption in the community, but we are going to clean where we can.”
Another closure was still on the books for Tuesday, near I-880 in Jingletown.
Simmons will readily admit that closing or cleaning encampments does not yield the “big and structural” change that the crisis of homelessness demands.
The City Council adopted the EMP in hopes of “stabilizing” the growing camps, she said. “But I don’t think encampment management…addresses the root cause of homelessness. I don’t think encampment management, by itself, sufficiently provides a place for people to go.”
From her vantage point, it’s up to policymakers to dedicate more to support the solutions that come after, or instead of, the clean-ups and closures.
“We can address encampments constantly,” Simmons said, “but if we don’t have the resources to be able to address the needs of the people, then you’re really shifting people around.”
Ford, the West Oakland camp resident, agrees. He said the city needs to think bigger.
“I understand things cost money, but we need to reach people where they are. Apartments shouldn’t be too far-fetched [or] out of the question, and while we’re there, help us out with the means,” he said. “Some of us are relearning how to tie our shoes, let alone go mainstream back into 9-to-5 employment. But if we had a safe place where we could take a shower and go to sleep, who knows what the possibilities could be?”