The City and the homeless

Those of our readers who follow homeless issues undoubtedly have read the stories about state and local governmental agencies conducting “cleanups” of homeless encampments that have sprung up on the streets of Bay Area cities.

For example, this March the City of Oakland closed a homeless camp located near the Home Depot on Alameda Avenue, removing 80 abandoned cars and RVs and ordering the occupants of three vehicles and one tent to leave the area.  Likewise, this August CalTrans closed two homeless camps located near I‑80 freeway ramps in Berkeley.  Governor Gavin Newsom himself showed up at one site to assist with removing debris – and get a photo op for his campaign against a recall.

By chance – the street happens to be our regular bike route – the Merry-Go-Round found about a similar action taken last month by the City of Alameda on Main Street near the north entrance to Alameda Point.

Today, we’ll tell you that story.

Coincidentally, just days after the cleanup occurred, staff presented Council with a consultant‑drafted five‑year “strategic plan” designed to “prevent and respond to” homelessness in Alameda.

Council voted 3‑to‑1 to accept the plan.  Councilwoman Trish Spencer voted against it, asserting – mistakenly, we believe – that it lacked specific recommendations.  Councilman Tony Daysog “abstained,” which appears to be his M.O. whenever he approves part, but not all, of a staff proposal.

We’ve read the plan and listened to the comments at the Council meeting.  Today, we’ll highlight a few of the action items proposed by the consultants.

First, the cleanup.

City Public Information Officer Sarah Henry arranged for us to get the facts from City Manager Eric Levitt, Community Development Director Lisa Maxwell, Public Works Director Erin Smith, and Police Chief Nishant Joshi.  Here’s our report:

Not infrequently in the past, a homeless person living out of a car would park overnight at the end of Main Street.  This summer, the number of recreational vehicles and abandoned cars increased significantly, and they began to spill over to the parking lot next to the estuary.  At its peak, six to eight RVs or trailers, and approximately 30 cars, were parked along the street or in the lot.  Some people had more than one vehicle; indeed, as many as three vehicles belonged to a single person.

By the end of the summer, APD estimated, between 20 and 35 people were living on Main Street.  It was not uncommon for some people to stay for a few nights, then move on and not return, or return later.  (APD’s estimate matched the observations made by Daniel Lopez, the Alameda outreach coordinator for Operation Dignity, the non-profit organization with whom the City contracts for services to the homeless:  about 20 people spent every day at the site, “but additional unsheltered folks would hang around the area.”)

As the encampment grew, the Operation Dignity team made regular visits to the site.  According to Mr. Lopez, the people living there “received multiple services in regards to identification documents and solutions for alternative housing/placement options.”  In addition, Operation Dignity provided food and personal protective equipment on a daily basis.

Likewise, the Alameda police department responded to calls for service at the site.  According to Peter Larsen, APD’s Homeless Liaison Officer, since March 1 police fielded about 100 such calls, which included “general complaints from the public about homeless encampments on Main St., mental health welfare checks, vandalism, suspicious persons, abandoned vehicles, medical calls, and miscellaneous incidents.”  In addition, “there have been likely over 100 informal inquiries or complaints” about the camp.

Mr. Levitt told us that he became concerned not so much with the volume of complaints about the growing encampment but with its environmental impact.  “In evaluating encampments, we attempt to provide options to services to the best of our ability as well as refer them to services such as the safe parking funded by the City,” he said.  “In the Main Street case, we had trash, RVs and abandoned vehicles which create health and safety concerns.  For example, that area is not equipped to handle such things as sanitation issues and by ordinance long-term RV parking is not allowed.  It also creates exposure to water quality issues which we do not want created.”

Accordingly, working with Community Development, Public Works, and the police, Mr. Levitt ordered a cleanup of the site on September 29 and 30.

Prior to the cleanup, the City, through the Operation Dignity team and Officer Larsen, notified the people living on Main Street of the impending action.  Operation Dignity passed out flyers in multiple languages about how to get on the waiting list for section 8 housing vouchers made available through the Alameda Housing Authority.  It also referred people to the Day Center operated at the Point by the Village of Love to obtain assistance with housing and other services.  And it provided more than 50 industrial‑size trash bags that people could use for their personal belongings.

Upon getting notice, some vehicle owners decided to move from the site of their own volition.  About 10‑15 people left with their vehicles and have not returned.  In addition, the City offered spaces at the Safe Park lot (also operated at the Point by the Village of Love) to owners of another 10‑15 vehicles.

The cleanup itself, conducted by Public Works, filled eight dumpster bins with trash as well as a dump truck with hazardous waste.  In addition, the workers removed about 40 tires for recycling.  The City also towed away two vehicles with their owners’ permission.  Two vehicles remain at the site.  (The owner of one of them is hospitalized.)

After the cleanup, four to eight people continue to live at the site.  The City has relocated these people to tents at the north entrance to the Point.

“The effort took significant advance planning and over two days of our entire street maintenance crew doing the cleanup work,” Mr. Levitt stated in a report to Council provided to us by Ms. Henry.  “I am happy to say the cleanup went well with no incident or injury.”

So that’s what’s happening at street level.  Now we’ll turn to the bigger picture.

Earlier this year, the City hired a consulting outfit called Homebase to work with staff to develop a “strategic plan” for addressing homelessness.  The final product was presented to Council on October 5.

The “Road to Home” document runs 69 pages (including appendices).  One section purports to present information about the demographics of the homeless population in Alameda.  Unfortunately, it turns out – as the authors admit – that not much hard data on that topic actually exists beyond the “Point in Time” count done in January 2019.  So the authors extrapolated from other sources.  For example, the report states that 41 percent of homeless people in Alameda are Black or African American.  But that is true only if the composition of the homeless population in the city matches a model derived from county‑wide data.

Moreover, although the report does recommend actions for the City to take, a reader has to wait a while to get to them.  A nine‑page “roadmap” begins on page 41, and is followed, for some reason, by an “appendix” containing exactly the same items broken down into short-, medium-, and long‑term categories (as well as a category called “requires new funding”).  And some of the recommendations are more concrete than others.

Nevertheless, it is worth looking at a couple of key areas.

Shelters.  The report notes that the main emergency shelter for the homeless in Alameda – the Midway Shelter at Alameda Point – serves only single women and women with children.  Even though “the majority of people in the homeless system of care are single adults without children,” the report states, there is no emergency shelter for single adult males in Alameda.  Nor is there a shelter that allows for families “with a male presence.”

The report recommends filling this gap by “expand[ing] low‑barrier shelter capacity,” ensuring that access to a shelter is “full time (24/7), year‑round, and housing‑focused,” and prioritizing new shelter development for “underserved populations (e.g., single men).”  Or put more simply:  Open more shelters – and find a place for the guys to go, too.

The Council discussion in this area focused on whether a homeless person should be able to get into and remain in a City‑run housing program without agreeing to participate in any of the social services it offers, such as substance‑abuse or mental‑health treatment or job training.  (For those of us not schooled in the lingo, this is known as the “Housing First” approach.)  Councilman Tony Daysog opined that such participation should be mandatory.  Both Doug Biggs, executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative, and Amanda Wehrman, the Homebase consultant who presented the strategic plan, said it should not be.  (“We like to say that case management services are voluntary for the client, but not for the employee,” Mr. Biggs said).

Councilman John Knox White made sure he had the last word.  And it was a classic Knox White performance.  The Councilman first claimed that “Housing First” was “not a new thing – it’s an old thing [that] actually went away during the Reagan administration.”  In fact, the first program employing Housing First principles started in New York City in 1992 – four years after Reagan left office.  Then he asserted that “over and over and over again, the studies that have been done around this have found that you have to have a Housing First program” in order to get people “ready to go through drug treatment, mental‑health treatment, job training, etc.”  In fact, as a recent survey of the literature shows, some experts who otherwise praise the Housing First approach for improving residential stability have questioned its effectiveness in addressing behavioral health disorders and promoting employment.

Of course, as everyone knows, if John Knox White says something is true, it must be so.

Permanent supportive housing.  The report observes that “there are not enough permanent housing options and related supportive services in Alameda.”  True enough:  otherwise, the 132 homeless people counted as “unsheltered” in the 2019 Point in Time survey would have had somewhere to live.  At present, permanent supportive housing for the homeless is available at only two places in the city:  the Alameda Point Collaborative, which has 71 units, and Bessie Coleman Court, which has 52.  And the latter serves only formerly homeless survivors of domestic violence.

The report recommends that the City begin remedying this deficiency by conducting an inventory of “unused, underutilized, and available properties” and identifying “the most suitable sites for rehabilitation or development of permanent housing.”  Then comes the hard part – and the one that costs money.  The City doesn’t already own a lot of real estate that could be turned into permanent supportive housing (although Mr. Knox White has his eye on the Carnegie Library).  So it will need to “secure” – i.e., buy or lease – property owned by private parties and convert it into housing for the homeless.

That appears be the plan Council is considering for the Marina Village Inn.  But Council is relying on ARPA funds to finance acquisition and renovation of the hotel.  Once those funds are spent, where will the City find more money? The strategic plan doesn’t say.  Undoubtedly, the City will go after any grants offered by the federal or state governments for building housing for the homeless, but the line will be a long one.

There was little discussion at Tuesday’s meeting about what permanent supportive housing could be built; rather, the focus was on where it would be situated.  Two public commenters had concluded that, as one of them put it, “the City is making it very clear that all of Alameda’s homeless population will be housed on the West End.”  This conclusion, however, appears to be based on staff reports showing the locations of existing projects rather than potential locations for new housing for the homeless.  In any event, City staff assured the public that they had not prepared any definitive list of sites – on the West End or elsewhere.  “We’re exploring a lot of opportunities,” Ms. Maxwell said.

Which didn’t, of course, stop the “progressive” politicians from portraying the issue as one of “equity.”  Mr. Knox White admonished staff to “identify ways in which to ensure there is some form of equitable . . . distribution of services provided across the island to our unhoused population,” including especially Bay Farm Island (which he and his acolytes seem to regard as an alien and scary universe).  For her part, Councilwoman Malia Vella insisted that “we have equitable access to housing and distribution throughout the city” and that “our plan is inclusive and really looking throughout the island.”  And then they ran out of buzzwords.

Cash subsidies.  During the pandemic, governmental agencies created a host of programs designed to keep people out of homelessness by giving them money to pay all or part of their rent.  Using federal CARES Act funds, the City itself set up an “emergency rent relief program” for tenants who lost income as a result of COVID-19.

The strategic plan recommends that, instead of subsidizing only rent payments, the City should provide “flexible funds” that can be used for a variety of purposes, such as paying for “costs that will result in an immediate solution of a housing crisis,” “bridg[ing] the gap while permanent housing is secured,” and “cover[ing] household needs that will help people keep their housing.”  (The report states that “Appendix B” gives examples – but it’s actually a “Glossary of Key Terms.”)

The plan is maddeningly scant on details about how such a program would work – Who would qualify? How much would they get? – and about where the money would come from.  But we know one politician who probably found the idea appealing:  Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who has been pushing at every opportunity for a Universal Basic Income program in Alameda.  Handing out unrestricted funds might strike her as one way to solve the problem of homelessness.

One final note about the Council meeting.

During the public comment period, Mr. Biggs of APC concluded his remarks by encouraging Council to “develop strategies to reduce the time and money the city and providers are forced to expend on the inevitable opposition that comes to any homeless services in the city.”  The homelessness plan, he said, should include “policies that limit the ability of those opposing serving homeless in Alameda from stopping or delaying the implementation of these important services.”

There was no mystery about whom Mr. Biggs was targeting:  the opponents of the wellness center that APC intends to operate on McKay Avenue.  Given his job (and his own commitment to assisting the homeless), it was hardly surprising that Mr. Biggs would want Council to use the strategic plan to prevent or limit what he saw as obstructionist tactics.

It was, however, surprising when Mayor Ashcraft picked up the baton.  She fully agreed, the Mayor stated in her remarks, that “we need to find ways to reduce these barriers brought by, I’ll say, NIMBYs, who find every different way of opposing the kinds of supportive housing that addresses the kinds of needs we’ve been talking about.”  Indeed, she went on, “we do need to find a way to minimize the number of objections or roadblocks and barriers that are thrown up, and I think I know the time is now to do this.”

We wish Ms. Ashcraft had not started down this road.  What steps does she propose Council take?  Ban opponents of projects like the wellness center from stating their case (meritless as she and others might regard it to be) at public forums?  Prohibit those people from putting initiatives on the ballot even though they obtain more than the number of signatures required by state law?

We hope not.  Ms. Ashcraft may consider herself a “progressive,” but measures like these would be anathema to Progressives with a capital “P.”  From our time spent with his papers at the Bancroft Library, we’re sure Hiram Johnson wouldn’t have approved.  Now, Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft may be no Hiram Johnson, but she usually doesn’t object to letting her constituents have their say – even if she vehemently disagrees with them.  Maybe she should take comfort in knowing that the pseudonymous character assassins on social media will continue to vilify the adversaries of projects for the homeless; the City doesn’t need to sanction any effort to shut them up altogether.


Strategic plan: 2021-10-05 Ex. 1 to staff report – The Road Home

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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17 Responses to The City and the homeless

  1. Common Sense says:

    Great review. I also regularly take walks on the City Hall West side of the base. Not coincidentally the most recent major homeless trash cleanup was done days before a Boys and Girls Club fundraiser in the same area. This area regularly features big tents, broken cars and vans, big piles of possessions, open fires, loud arguments, the regular presence of police officers, and city maintenance vehicles. For the moment, it looks a little cleaner.

    Housing First is a failed policy-with skyrocketing prices to build low cost housing ($200,000 per unit) , acquire motels, and retrofit empty buildings, all of which have less than 50% occupancy as the homeless population prefers life without rules on the street. The SF Chronicle has exposed many of these failed policies. Yet a consortium of real estate agents, newly rich homeless advocates (especially locally), and local and state politicians push it. Just look at huge donations from building and trades and developers in the recent Bonta coronation. Gov. Newsom has spent billions for Housing First, but the homeless population has increased 16%. in our state. Watch what is happening in Venice, Ca. That is our future.

    It’s startling that any City “plan” should include stifling dissent unless Aschcraft is channeling Mussolini or perhaps the Biden administration. Any “plan” that does not include drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment will fail. Meth dealers bring their wares directly to the larger homeless encampments, and local fire departments say the majority of their daily calls are for overdoses and fires breaking out from outdoor cooking or meth overdoses at camps. What could possibly go wrong if we put these shelters all over our city?

    • NIMBYs Gonna NIMBY says:

      Would like to know who are these “newly rich homeless advocates (especially locally)” that you’re alluding to. Sounds like baseless slander. Oh wait. It is.

      Data shows that a Housing First policy costs $30K less per individual over a 2-year period than traditional methods. Traditional methods might have less up-front cost, but are a huge drain on expensive emergency services as houseless individuals rotate in and out of emergency rooms and have no place to recover after an expensive hospital stay. There’s a reason why hospitals like Kaiser have been building supportive housing, to help alleviate rising premiums costs being incurred by some of their most expensive (and houseless) patients.

      And your ooga-booga fear-mongering story about homeless encampments – encampments are the result of the LACK of homeless services, not BECAUSE OF these services. I never saw encampments near APC or the Midway Shelter or the food bank or Renewed Hope in the last 3 decades these services existed, have you? If homeless population has increased by 200% but homeless services increased by only 150% – guess what? You’re going to see an overflow of people spilling into the streets because solutions are not scaling up to the problems fast enough.

  2. Mark Greenside says:

    The information about city plans and planning is interesting and helpful. It would be even more interesting and helpful and relevant if someone had spoken with some of the homeless people as well. How well these policies and plans work is often best observed by the people being served and serviced–certainly at least as much as by the people who designed and implemented the services, who naturally have a bias toward the “success” of their own work. The view from the top down is interesting. The view from the bottom up is telling. Instead of only hearing (again) from Misters Biggs and Knox White and Mayor Ashcraft, let’s hear from the people sleeping in their cars. What do they have to say about how the services are working? Where is the conversation with those people?

  3. NIMBYs Gonna NIMBY says:

    I think it’s fine for people opposed to a project to put forth a ballot initiative, but under two conditions:

    1) The signature-gathering effort must be done ethically and without use of misleading claims. Nearly half the people who signed the “Save Crab Cove” petition that I spoke to thought they were doing it to either “save” a park or “build” a new one – they had absolutely no idea that it was to stop a project that would provide homeless services. In a local Facebook news feed, nearly a hundred people shared their experience of having been hoodwinked by petitioners hounding them outside of Trader Joe’s. It would be even better if these petitioners were not being paid by each signature, which only incentives them to lie. Most of these petitioners were paid by a rich out-of-town investor who owns the strip mall near the wellness center. There’s no way the initiative would’ve gathered enough signatures had it been done by actual local volunteers who stuck to the truth.

    2) Once the election’s over, it’s over. Accept the outcome. People like Councilmember Trish Spencer, Friends of Crab Cove attorney Barbara Thomas, and Commissioner Carmen Reid/Davis could not respect our democracy, so they and their cohorts challenged at every chance they could get, including failed law suits and no less than 18 public hearings. The expensive special election itself was not really a problem. It’s the 18 public hearings and votes that followed. Many municipalities limit the number of hearings a project could have to 5 or less. 18 is an absolutely ridiculous use of taxpayers’ money.

    As a volunteer, I am glad to see the project’s a done deal, but it should serve as a cautionary tale for how entrenched NIMBYism has become in city governments and how we need to streamline rules better.

  4. Joe Taxpayer says:

    While it’s always prudent to be very skeptical of claims made by so-called “homeless advocates,” let’s assume for the moment that their cost savings claims are true.

    If true, it’s still not politically viable to house people without requiring participation in rehab, job training etc. Most ordinary taxpayers who pay for their own housing don’t particularly appreciate people getting free housing while getting high all day. A progressive majority on council preening its (very ironically named) progressive cred does not reflect the views of the tax paying electorate. Most citizens would insist on at least some stick to go along with all those truckloads of carrots.

    The 3 yes votes may be patting themselves on the back today, but come next election they’ll find out what the people who pay the way think.

    • anonymous says:

      The only people who will care about this already have their minds made up. Most people don’t really care about the precise details of this issue: no one (who doesn’t already know who they will vote for already) is going to have “housing first” or “rehab participation” as the deciding factor.

  5. Alamedan Advocate says:

    This is a long-winded way to say that you just want the homeless shipped out of Alameda. Questioning motives, numbers and people who are trying to help is not surprising from you and your typical conservative views and “old Alameda values”.

  6. Joe Taxpayer says:

    Is “permanent supportive housing” really permanent?

  7. dave says:

    Identifying as “progressive” in no way necessarily correlates with recognizing constitutional rights such as that of free expression or the right to seek redress from your government, particularly in Alameda, where we see idealogues hiding their tyrannical agenda behind “progressive” masks – particularly, even in this forum.

    As for Doug Biggs… he is part of the Homeless Industrial Complex that in no way wants to actually end homelessness, but, rather, treat it in perpetuity, lest he no longer have a job. It’s in the same vein of Big Pharma investing in drugs to *treat* cancer and other diseases, but not cure them.

    • DavesNotAllThereMan says:

      Dave Hart: this comment is slanderous, and shame on Mr. Sullwold for allowing the comment to go through. Mr. Biggs spent I think 20 years working for APC, which has had a stellar track recording of ENDING homelessness for thousands of individuals! All those people living in APC homes on the base? They are FORMERLY homeless. Most have jobs, receiving training, going to school. You cannot complain about the growing homeless problem while at the same time slander the only people and organizations who care enough to mitigate the problem.

      • Dave Hart, the original "dave" says:

        While I have posted on local blogs for years under the handle “dave,” the posts in this thread under that name are not mine. Would you be so kind “new dave” to come up with a different handle? That way I can keep enlightening & entertaining the public under my long time signature.

        Thanks in advance

    • dave says:

      I owe nothing to either of you…. Sorry… (Not sorry…)

  8. dave says:

    Anyone that genuinely wants to address at least a portion of the homeless issue – and not just perpetuate the Homeless Industrial Complex, would actually speak up and act in favor of LPS Act reform. To the extent that the unhoused are mentally ill, only reform of California’s “5150” law can begin to mitigate the problem of the mentally ill and unhoused.

  9. dave says:

    The Mayor is supposedly a lawyer? Then surely she knows that “minimizing objections that are brought up” won’t pass constitutional muster. Surely, she’s following the latest law that “outlaws” vaccination clinic protests, and which many constitutional scholars say won’t last past a 1st amendment lawsuit.

    “But 1st Amendment experts continue to raise legal questions about the law’s constitutionality, including its definition of harassment.”

    Surely she knows all that, so, surely, she is disingenuously pandering to Doug Biggs’ acolytes.

  10. N. T. says:

    I posted this comment to an old article but, then found this one.
    FYI, Item 7A: At their 11/16/2021 council meeting, with zero prior community outreach to their existing residential tenants, the Council voted in favor of altering 2 of the historic Big Whites homes (and 1 townhouse) to construct them into emergency homeless shelters. They will service 11 program participants in each home, for a total of 32 persons at a time. New program participants will cycle through every 6 months for a total of 66 persons per year on an ongoing rotating basis.

    City staff has already walked the homes to contemplate the possible new floor-plans.

    Many of the City’s residential tenants who live next door or across the street from the sites believe this is too large a program for the number of participants and close proximity to each other and neighbors. The organization BACS, that was chosen by the City to run them has zero experience running any “low barrier” to entry emergency shelter with this many program participants (66 per year) in a residential setting. So, this would be a rather large scale experiment in relation to the small historic neighborhood within which it sets. The sites are only separated from each by 2 to 4 other homes.

    At the 11/16/21 council meeting this was item 7A. I don’t recall what time it finally came up at the meeting. There was a lot of outcry and a little drama on this issue but, the majority decided to vote it in that night instead of passing a put forth motion to delay the vote until the next council meeting. This would have allowed time for working on the currently problematic contract with BACS, and to meet with their residential tenants, most of whom only found out about the shelters a week or less before the vote.

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