Has an Oakland city councilman become the voice of the anti-homeless backlash?

Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo

by Kheven LaGrone

Local media has made Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo the voice of his city’s growing anti-homeless backlash. He should protect and serve all of his constituents equally; however, media spread his attacks on the homeless constituents.

He seemed to blame the homeless for choosing to be homeless. He criticized them for fighting for their rights through the courts. Gallo even attacked other council members for respecting and serving their most vulnerable constituents. According to Fox News:

“Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo told Fox News that elected officials are often too consumed with their public image and are ‘too loose and flexible’ with the laws in place making it difficult to reverse Oakland’s sobering statistics. When the city has tried to get tough and remove the homeless or dismantle camps, they have been slapped with lawsuits from advocates that argue kicking the homeless out is a civil rights violation” (see “Oakland’s Homeless Stats Soar as Pressure Grows from Residents Businesses for a Solution,” Nov. 12, 2019).

Gallo vilified Oakland’s homeless and made himself their victim. He complained to Fox News in the same story:

“’We are in court regularly – in federal court – based on the 14th Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment that everyone has rights but, at the same time, I as a resident, also have constitutional rights and that’s where the debate is currently,’ Gallo said, adding that even though the city has won all of its court challenges to date, the cases have taken up a lot of time, patience and money.”

But Gallo’s complaint was misleading. Oakland’s winning those court cases did not mean that the homeless were wrong. It meant that Oakland had more money and a full legal staff to fight with.

They fought against homeless people with no money. Besides, Oakland won at least one case, Miralle v. City of Oakland, by misleading the court (see “Did the City of Oakland Mislead the Judge,” San Francisco Bay View, Jan. 28, 2019).

But it seemed that Gallo wanted to violate the rights of his homeless constituents in order to evict them. According to Martin v. City of Boise, being homeless is not a crime. A homeless person has the right to camp on a public space if he has nowhere else to go.

However, in KTVU’s “Oakland City Councilman Wants Military to Help Clean Up Streets, More Policing of Illegal Dumping,” Gallo associated his homeless constituents with trash and criminal behavior. Then, according to KTVU News:

“Gallo said he wants police to issue more citations, make more arrests and physically pick up homeless people and violators and transport them away from schools and put them anywhere else.”

This statement dehumanized Gallo’s homeless constituents. Homeless people were not all trash or criminals. They are individuals with their own stories.

They came together in encampments to support and help each other. They came to encampments because they had nowhere else to go.

Many even had jobs but couldn’t afford an apartment in gentrified Oakland. Many homeless people hid in their tents because they wanted to avoid encounters with the police as well as rowdies terrorizing the encampments.

This statement also highlighted a failure in Oakland’s gentrification. Gallo wanted to remove his homeless constituents, but he could not arrange a place to send them.

Removing long term and native Oakland African Americans had always been part of the gentrification plan. However, the leaders didn’t make plans for where to send them.

In effect, Gallo blamed the homeless for being homeless. He argued as if his homeless constituents had options, but chose a homeless lifestyle that violated his rights.

He suggested that homeless people really had homes but wanted to live outside; he suggested that the city’s “getting tough” would make them stop “playing homeless” and go back home. He suggested that the solution to the housing crisis was moving them around Oakland.

Gallo also suggested to KTVU that homeless people should be transported to City Hall. Gallo knew, or should have known, that would not work. In November 2019, a group of people camped at City Hall. They were immediately evicted.

Gallo blamed other cities, like San Francisco, for sending their homeless to Oakland (see “Oakland Homeless Stats Soar”). Yet, several studies have shown that most of the homeless people were native and long-term Oakland residents who were displaced by gentrification. Oakland leaders aided this gentrification, thus Oakland leaders should find a solution.

If Gallo had evidence that other cities were transporting their homeless to Oakland, then as a city official, he should take the city to court.

Ironically, Gallo should empathize with his homeless constituents. He told KTVU that he was from Oakland and lamented the loss of his hometown. Many, if not most, of Oakland’s homeless were also Oakland natives or long-term residents. They lamented the loss of their hometown because they were displaced to the streets.

Gallo should be helping his homeless constituents, yet he betrayed his most vulnerable constituents. Instead of riling hostilities, he must stop playing victim and start helping them.

If nothing else, he has to find a way for the housed and unhoused to exist together peacefully. Perhaps some compromises must be made between the housed and the unhoused.

Perhaps more encampments should be allowed downtown; the homeless especially need to be located near jobs, transportation and services. In fact, fees the City was supposed to collect for affordable housing should be used to build affordable housing downtown.

Ironically, Gallo told KTVU that Oakland was a compassionate, progressive city. Perhaps Oakland’s housing crisis needs a more conservatively compassionate solution.

By the way, Gallo was emailed more than once asking for his comments on “Oakland Homeless Stats Soar.” If he felt he was misquoted or taken out of context, this was an opportunity to clarify or correct any statement he felt needed it. However, he never responded.

Kheven LaGrone, investigative reporter, activist, writer, artist and curator, can be reached at kheven@aol.com.