Homelessness is a real crisis in Oakland, Part I

Lorene Briley, 45, stands outside her RV at the site of a new pilot RV Safe Parking program at 771 71st Ave. in Oakland on June 21, the day after moving there with her 18-year-old son. “I do feel safe, there’s security,” Briley said. “I don’t think people will steal from me like they did on the street, so I’m enjoying it.” – Photo: Yalonda M. James, SF Chronicle

by Eddie R. Dillard

The issue of homelessness has reached epic proportions and impacts major cities across California. Cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, to name a few, must deal with the daunting issue of homelessness.

California’s metropolitan populations are grappling with this burgeoning phenomenon. The quality of life for individuals, families, children and residents across the economic spectrum is declining.

The root cause of homelessness is heatedly debated by many: the perceived greed of landlords and developers versus the NIMBY (not in my back yard) activists, the environmentalists who champion open space over affordable residential development in urban communities, and others who believe they know the root cause of homelessness.

By the numbers

According to the California Department of Finance, one in five Californians pays more than 50 percent of their income for housing. With the medium home price in the nine Bay Area counties at $810,000 and the current market rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $3,000 to $3,500 per month, individuals and families are rapidly being forced to live in unhealthy tent encampments and in their vehicles.

There are approximately 3,210 homeless individuals living in 90 tent encampments under freeways and occupying vacant lots throughout the city of Oakland. The number grows daily with new encampments springing up along sidewalks and the avenues!

The city provides health and hygiene services at 22 campsites and is providing these campsites with toilets, washstands and garbage cans. The city has established four community cabin sites and two RV lots. To date, 324 people have moved through the community cabin program and 209 have moved into permanent housing. The other 120 individuals went back to the streets.

Keep Oakland housed

Mayor Libby Schaaf has developed a three-pronged strategy to address the City’s homelessness dilemma and keep Oakland residents housed. Since its inception last year, the Keep Oakland Housed Initiative has served over 1,800 households.

The first strategy approach is to provide individuals who are at risk of becoming homeless with legal representation, financial assistance and supportive services. This program has already prevented over 800 households from becoming homeless in the past several months.

The second strategy approach involves a collaborative effort between Alameda County and the Interfaith Council of Alameda County.

The “Safe Car Parking” Program, led by Pastor Ken Chambers and supported by Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, permits homeless people living in their cars and RVs to park on various church properties. The program is operated by Westside Missionary Baptist Church, Corinthian Baptist Church, Center Street Baptist Church and Williams Chapel Baptist Church.

Cars and RVs are permitted to park on these church properties seven days per week from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Each church provides laundry services and daily showers from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. In addition, the church provides funds for gas and minor vehicle repairs. The program serves 60 individuals and is funded by a $300,000 grant from the city of Oakland and a $50,000 grant from Alameda County.

In addition, the city has opened two Safe RV Parking Sites of its own where people can park their RVs 24/7 in a secure lot with sanitation facilities. Two more are in the planning stages.

Another element of the second strategy approach is the “tiny house” or “community cabin” initiative. Individuals living in tent encampments are encouraged to relocate to locations designated by the city where they live in small cabins with basic electricity and insulation while provided with sanitation facilities and wrap-around case management services.

The third strategy approach is the accelerated affordable housing development effort. This involves the use of city of Oakland impact fees charged to developers of housing projects who do not include affordable units in their projects. These impact fees will provide funding for 100 percent affordable housing projects.

The mayor was recently appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to a statewide task force to design and recommend best practices for implementation of the tiny house or community cabin program statewide.

With the growing homeless population, homelessness should not be accepted as the new norm. It should be considered a problem that can only be solved with all hands on deck.

We call on Alameda County, the City of Oakland, Oakland Unified School District, the Port of Oakland, AC Transit, BART, Caltrans, Peralta Community College District, and federal, state and private sector stakeholders in the city of Oakland to begin collaborating to solve the homeless issue!

Next issue: Potential innovative alternative approaches.

Eddie Dillard, freelance writer for the Oakland Tribune, Oakland Post, Globe Newspaper and Daily Californian, can be reached at 510-706-9005 or edillard927@gmail.com. He worked 30 years for City of Oakland Office of Economic Development and for 15 years served as president of Oakland’s Black Chamber of Commerce.