During a December 15 meeting, Oakland City Council discussed determining what housing options Oakland would have to offer homeless people if the city vacates its communities during the local emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
You have postponed the final decision on this matter until the new year. Given the dangers posed by the pandemic, the city council will decide whether to consider it safe for the homeless to live in homeless shelters.
The city council unanimously approved the Warehouse Management Policy (EMP) on October 20, which set clear parameters for the focus of evictions by the city. The resolution states that anyone living within 50 feet of an apartment, shop, park, or sports field could expect eviction. But the EMP did not overturn a resolution passed unanimously by the council on March 27, which demands that the city only carry out evictions if “individual housing units or alternative accommodation are made available”.
City administrator Edward Reiskin has proposed that its Community Cabin Program (informally known as the Tuff Shed Program), secure parking lots, trailers operated by Operation HomeBase, limited transitional and permanent housing units, and “collective shelters of reduced capacity and physical distancing measures” but in an agenda memorandum, City Council Pres. Rebecca Kaplan and District 2 Councilor Nikki Fortunado-Bas urged the city “not to view community housing as a form of alternative accommodation.”
Kaplan and Bas’s proposed changes to Reiskin’s plan claim that “moving or moving from a sub-camp to indoor accommodation poses a greater risk for people to transmit COVID-19 than if they lived in a sub-camp”. They pointed to COVID-19 outbreaks in homeless shelters in San Francisco, Spokane, Washington, Salem, Oregon, and Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
“We’re taking a number of steps to make the congregation’s housing as safe as possible,” said Lara Tannenbaum, Oakland’s Human Services Dept. during the meeting in response to the suggestion from Kaplan and Bas. Tannenbaum and homeless administrator Daryel Dunston also said the city’s homeless shelters have PPE, symptom and temperature checks, reduce capacity, and run COVID test events.
But even with reduced capacity, the Kaplan and Bas memorandum claims housing for gatherings is not a safe option during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People living in community facilities make up less than 1% of the US population, but nearly 50% of coronavirus deaths,” Kaplan and Bas wrote in their proposal.
During the meeting Dan Kalb, a member of District 1, asked what exactly the proposal by Kaplan and Bas would change about Reiskin’s proposal. Kaplan responded by saying it would hit the line that would allow for “reduced capacity meeting accommodations”. Bas agreed, adding that she wanted to expand the language in Reiskin’s proposal, which requires “reasonable accommodation for mental and physical disabilities.”
On its website, the Center for Disease Control has used the terms “collective accommodation” and “shared animal shelter” synonymously. However, the proposed changes by Kaplan and Bas focus specifically on homeless shelters and instead use the terms “congregation shelter” and “homeless shelter” interchangeably. Their changes in their current form would effectively ban homeless shelters as “alternative accommodation”, but “shared accommodation” would still be allowed.
They did not suggest deleting a language that includes the city’s shared cabin program as an “alternative accommodation” option. The cabins are shared apartments as residents have to share 8 x 12 foot buildings with a roommate.
The council ended the discussion of Bas and Kaplan’s proposed changes when Bas proposed a motion to continue the decision until the next session of the city council and asked time to clarify their changes and to consider the changes and questions proposed by Kalb. The continuation means that outgoing Councilors Lynette Gibson-McElhaney and Larry Reid will not vote on the proposed changes, while new-entering Councilors Carroll Fife and Treva Reid will.
Pastor Preston’s experience for homeless residents and suggested alternative solutions from the ward:
Preston Walker, a 63-year-old Oakland native and uninhabited resident better known as “Pastor Preston,” lived in a hotel room at the Days Inn under a state and county-funded program called Project Roomkey. He qualified to receive the room, which is neither a meeting place nor a communal accommodation but a private unit, due to an immune disorder that makes him more susceptible to pneumonia and COVID-19.
“This hotel is a blessing to me,” said Preston. “This is the first time in eight years that I’ve had my own personal space where I didn’t have to worry about theft. The sad thing is that without the virus this would never have happened. “
Preston, who has spent time in both communal cabins and homeless shelters in Oakland and across the Bay Area, has expressed his skepticism about sharing space with people during the pandemic. He stressed that it is impossible to wear masks all the time in emergency shelters because people have to eat. He was concerned about the particularly close neighborhood people in the community huts have to live under and their lack of control over who they live with. Preston ended his three month stay in the Community Cabins in late 2019 due to a roommate smoking crystal meth in his common room, making it difficult for Preston to breathe well or sleep well.
With the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on December 18 that it would continue funding the Roomkey project for the duration of the pandemic, Preston will continue to be safe in his hotel room. But at the time of this writing, about 30% of the hotel rooms secured by the state of California are vacant, and activists have urged state, county, and city governments to occupy them and secure more rooms through emergency powers. Housing and Racial Justice nonprofit, Just Cities, has repeatedly urged Oakland to use its 50+ acres of free public land to house its homeless.