Criminalizing the Unsheltered is Not the Solution to Oakland’s Housing Crisis

When city employees came to remove our community, they didn't even give us time to pack.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld its September 2018 ruling that prosecuting homeless people qualifies as “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. But Oakland officials don’t seem to care.

Late last year, I was one of 13 people evicted from a clean and sober family-centered encampment built on the corner of Edes and South Elmhurst avenues. Our families asserted our right to a safe, warm, place to sleep, where we would not be harassed by the police and predators.

We were a group of unsheltered women who worked hard to turn an illegal dumping site into a community where we could safely sleep, eat, and provide some stability for our children. Named the Housing and Dignity Village, we provided meals, medical services, free winter clothing, and a community garden to anyone in the neighborhood. We were supported by local residents, the East Oakland Collective, the Village, the Ron Dellums Institute for Social Justice, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Omni Commons, and other advocates who fight for the rights of our unsheltered brothers and sisters.

The Encampment Management team under City Administrator Sabrina Landrau and Assistant City Administrator Joe Devries, carrying out the orders of Mayor Schaaf, accused us of “illegally camping” on public property. They could have worked with us to find a safe, orderly way to relocate our community. Instead they chose to forcibly remove us using more than three dozen Oakland police officers and a dozen Department of Public Works employees. They did not give us time to pack. They did not care that some residents were at work and their children were at school and would be returning to the destruction of their homes.

I scrambled to save my belongings as city workers used trash compactors to annihilate our shelters, kitchen, pantry, and platforms for homes yet to be built. As the large police presence kept protestors away, I had to wonder how much money the city was wasting on this effort. They treated an intentional community designed to be a safe and sober space for women and children like a criminal enterprise. We asked nothing of them but to be left alone, but because we were a community-based solution outside of their control they felt threatened.

Modern anti-homeless laws are the cousins of Jim Crow laws, created to control and punish the people who have no option but to live on the streets. These ordinances include “sitting or lying in the streets,” “obstructing pedestrians,” and “sleeping on benches.”

A 2017 survey found almost four thousand people are in need of shelter on any given night in Oakland, and only one shelter bed available for every three people experiencing homelessness. For women like me there are even fewer options. Many of the places that provide beds do not accept children and will not allow occupants to leave at night even if you work a graveyard shift.

Oakland’s homelessness crisis was described by a 2018 U.N. report as a “global scandal” and our unsheltered citizens as “the victims of failed policy.” There are many steps that must be taken as Oakland grapples with its growing homelessness crisis. As a first step, we need an immediate moratorium on evictions as they currently exist until the city creates transparent and accountable encampment relocation process. Next, we need to change the laws that make homelessness a crime and focus on long-term solutions.

Gordon Walker, director of Utah’s Division of Community and Housing estimated that criminalizing Utah’s unsheltered population cost about $20,000 per person in state services, jail time and police costs. By adopting the Housing First program, where the priority is to place people in permanent housing instead of locking them up or sweeping them away, Utah saved millions and dramatically improved the lives of unsheltered people in the state.

But it will take years for Oakland to shift away from its current profit-at-all-cost development and toward a community-oriented model that allows neighborhoods to prosper and grow without exclusionary displacement. City officials can start heading in the right direction by repealing the city’s “anti-homeless” laws.

Anita De Asis Miralle, aka Needa Bee, is a longtime Oakland educator, organizer, activist, and entrepreneur. Like other hard-working Oaklanders, she cannot find affordable housing that she can qualify for. She is the co-founder of Feed The People & The Village; the owner of Oakland’s Original Lumpia Lady & The Lumpia Shack; and Program Director of Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute.


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