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