How Oakland’s new policy of ‘harm reduction’ harms the homeless

The material conditions of our unhoused neighbors directly reflect on the health and stability of our community as a whole. I am a resident of Oakland’s District 3, a UC Berkeley Anthropology undergraduate student, a public health researcher on youth experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area, an advocate for housing justice in Oakland and a formerly homeless minor. Today, I speak from a position of privilege, still grounded in my experiences with housing insecurity and the social and political negligence that perpetuates homelessness.

On October 20th, the Oakland City Council unanimously voted to implement the Encampment Management Policy (EMP) in response to community complaints regarding illegal dumping. This legislation was initially proposed as a harm reduction measure by Councilmember Bas to address related community health concerns and supported by Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf and her constituents. However, its effects contradict harm reduction. The EMP criminalizes homelessness and encampments in nearly all of Oakland, thereby placing the health of encampment residents at extreme risk.

The philosophy of harm reduction centers around “meeting people where they’re at.” Using harm reduction language to describe the EMP is intentionally misleading and trivializes the health of our community. If City Council members had intended to use a harm reduction approach in writing and executing the EMP, they would have made a more significant effort to form coalitions with unhoused community members and their advocates. Plans to allocate supportive housing to unstably housed community members and to implement initiatives that address the root causes of homelessness are proven more effective. Instead, the EMP increases the risk of harm to unhoused neighbors by forcing them to relocate, disrupting their social and support networks.

The EMP further runs contrary to harm reduction because its mandates actively oppose CDC guidelines surrounding encampment management. The CDC advises explicitly against encampment re-location during the pandemic. Covid-19 forces us to acknowledge the interdependencies of public health and the safety of all our community members and to reject any inherent hierarchy of wellness or risk. We can no longer justify the dehumanizing treatment of unhoused people as a means for ensuring “public safety.” Unhoused individuals should not be reduced to the state of their present material conditions. To do so is to ignore personal histories like my own—only through access to stable housing have I been able to achieve my current position.

Oakland is taking advantage of the vulnerability of unhoused community members and criminalizing the commodified barrier between housing and the houseless. The EMP sanctions areas in which Oakland will create and monitor specific encampments by consolidating groups of people into sequestered industrial areas. While the legislation is framed as a way for Oakland to provide space for encampments, they effectively operate as an arm of the prison-industrial complex, providing a means for surveillance and control which lead to a schizogenesis of the very mental crises that perpetuate their separateness.

Given that the EMP dehumanizes and puts the health and safety of our community at risk, the City of Oakland must support members of the unhoused community wherever they currently reside according to CDC guidelines. The City Council should implement measures to prevent a further increase in the numbers of Oakland residents who are unhoused by further protecting tenants who may be evicted in coming months due to the current economic crisis.

There is more that we must do as a community to support our unhoused neighbors during the rollout of the EMP. You can directly support organizations engaging in actual harm reduction such as West Oakland Punks with Lunch, or organizations such as ACCE or TANC that work to prevent people from entering homelessness. Since the passing of the EMP, Oakland has elected council members who support housing as a human right, like Carroll Fife in District 3—an organizer with Moms 4 Housing. We must continue to put pressure on council members who voted in favor of the EMP while fervently opposing any upcoming evictions or hostile anti-homeless architecture that the city plans to use to replace many encampments.

The Oakland City Council would better serve our community by creating policies in line with the true ethics of harm reduction, formed in coalition with unhoused community members and their advocates.

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