Burgeoning homeless camps stymie Oakland leaders
By Rachel Swan
August 18, 2016 Updated: August 18, 2016 7:00am
Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle
Jim James, 55, and his dog Sophia emerge from their tent in the morning underneath an overpass on Brush street Aug. 10, 2016 in Oakland, Calif. James has been homeless for about seven years and he attributes it to his drug addiction problems combined with the loss of his father. James says he has seen the homeless population grow recently in Oakland and has noticed people coming over from San Francisco.
They pitched their tents at the edge of a semi-industrial neighborhood in West Oakland, covering four city sidewalks with their amassed possessions: overturned shopping carts, discarded stereo speakers, eviscerated furniture and even a stuffed Dumbo that hangs from a stop sign.
It happened in a matter of weeks and under the rattle of BART trains on the elevated tracks that overshadow Fifth Street. What was once hidden underneath Interstate 880 is now a chaotic spectacle. Serious quality-of-life issues abound. There are no trash bins or bathrooms, and substance abuse is pervasive.
“You’re seeing the homeless people who may have previously been isolated suddenly having their place of living exposed,” said the Rev. Raymond Lankford, a longtime West Oakland resident who runs the homeless-services nonprofit Healthy Communities Inc. “They’re on city streets where people think it’s an eyesore.”
Yet Oakland has no immediate plans to disband this encampment or any of the others that have been springing up amid the city’s economic boom. Some officials see no other option but to allow the camps to stay and help those who they say are so obviously in despair.
“It’s a crisis throughout the region,” said City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who secured $190,000 in city funding in June to bring services to the camps.
Oakland has about 1,400 people sleeping outside every night, said Sara Bedford, the city’s director for human services. She expects that number to increase as the real estate market continues to surge: The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015 — from $1,500 a month to $2,950, according to a citywide rent survey.
“There aren’t enough shelter beds; there isn’t enough land,” Bedford said. “And the longer the pressure on the housing market keeps escalating, the more we keep feeding these encampments.”
So tent cities like the one around Fifth and Brush streets are sprouting up under freeways and swallowing up sidewalks. More people are living in cars or RVs after getting priced out of their apartments, McElhaney said. Roughly a third of Oakland’s homeless are chronically down and out, hobbled by substance abuse, family violence or mental illness, according to a 2015 city report. Though many of these people receive a $900 monthly stipend in federal Supplemental Security Income, it’s not enough to pay for an apartment, the report said.
Ray, a 37-year-old Brush Street camper who declined to give his last name, said he has grown accustomed to moving “whenever the city wants to clean the sidewalk.” A former house painter and longtime heroin addict, he lives in a shack made of 2-by-4s and sells salvaged junk for a living. His belongings — among them a broken water fountain and a transformer with most of the copper wiring stripped out — spill out over the curb.
“If we had garbage cans, it wouldn’t look like this,” he said.
Many camp dwellers who spoke with The Chronicle seemed resigned to living on the streets, though a few said they were seeking a way out. Gene Jackson, 54, who lives in a camp at 35th and Magnolia streets, said he has tried to kick heroin for nearly 30 years and never succeeded. Michael Chambers, 60, said his criminal history impedes him from getting a job.
“I used to be a gangster, a hit man, a pimp, all of that,” said Chambers, who has established himself as one of the leaders of the camp, which means he breaks up fights and looks out for intruders. Chambers said he grew up in a stable, churchgoing household in West Oakland but got lured into crime at a young age.
Jackie Kaylor, 55, keeps a bucket of mops and cleaning supplies outside her tent on Magnolia Street.
“They (the other campers) call me Mom,” said Kaylor, who grew up in Rodeo and held down jobs at a Kaiser pharmacy and Rubio’s restaurant until she injured her knee and became homeless a year and a half ago. She is applying for low-income housing.
“Some of these encampments were not there three months ago,” said City Councilman Noel Gallo, who blames rising rents for pushing working-class families out onto the streets. He said the number of camps in his Fruitvale district has tripled in the past six months.
Increasingly, the tent cities are brushing up against Oakland’s gentrifying neighborhoods.
THE HOMELESS PROBLEM
A camp beneath a bridge at the estuary had to move to make way for an earthquake retrofit; its inhabitants are now scattered near a bike trail that runs along the waterfront. A camp that sprang up this year beneath an Interstate 580 overpass in West Oakland abuts what’s now a well-kept residential block of Magnolia Street.
Building the infrastructure to house and care for the homeless will not be easy, McElhaney said. In June, the City Council set aside $80,000 to build two tiny house models that the officials hope to mass-produce and place on vacant public land or in donated church parking lots. Alameda County also has a $580 million affordable-housing bond measure on the ballot in November, which includes services for the homeless. The city has outreach teams that take people out of encampments and put them into transitional housing. Such programs are highly successful, Bedford said, but they lack the funding to accommodate the growing homeless population.
For now, McElhaney said, the city is looking at “meanwhile” solutions —which might mean learning to accept these encampments as part of urban landscape.
“What does the ‘meanwhile’ look like for us?” she asked. “It means we’re asking, ‘Is there a way to address these communities without just dismantling them?’”
SAN FRANCISCO, June 23, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — To shed light on the growing homelessness crisis in San Francisco, The San Francisco Chronicle will participate with more than 70 Bay Area news media organizations to provide a comprehensive look at homelessness in San Francisco. This unprecedented collaboration of news media organizations is part of The Chronicle's landmark event, the SF Homeless Project.
The goal of the SF Homeless Project includes spurring San Francisco government, business and civic leaders to take action to end homelessness. The Project will take a hard look at homelessness in San Francisco, including examining the history, how the system has failed, what the problem looks like, and public misconceptions as well as solutions.
Chronicle coverage will commence on Sunday, June 26, building daily online momentum toward an unprecedented day of blanket coverage by Bay Area media organizations spanning radio, print, online and television news on Wednesday, June 29, and continuing its coverage through Sunday, July 3.