When Hilary Nevis bought her house last year on 29th Street in Oakland’s Hoover-Foster neighborhood, she remembers a single person sleeping under the freeway overpass a few dozen yards from her front door.

“It was a really small footprint. He didn’t bother anyone. He very much felt like my neighbor,” Nevis said.

Now the homeless encampment has grown to about a dozen tents — a sight familiar to many Oaklanders. Nevis feels like the city has become too lenient about responding to homelessness, and she’s not alone. Complaints about homelessness grew 600 percent between 2011 and 2016. The city is planning to roll out relief for some tent encampments, but isn’t planning to help them all.

We’re Not in This Together

Oakland’s unsheltered homeless population grew 37 percent over a two-year period and has become the city’s most visible problem. Those with and without homes feel like the city hasn’t done nearly enough to solve the crisis.

After Nevis moved into her house last year, she would come home and find people sitting on her porch and using her outside electrical outlets to charge cellphones and other electronics. She decided to let this go.

“That always just kind of made me feel uncomfortable and I know some of my neighbors agree with that,” Nevis said.

Neighbors have sent Oakland many complaints about a homeless encampment underneath the freeway on 29th Street in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood. The city has struggled to serve its homeless population, which grew about 26 percent between 2015 and 2017. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Then, on a recent spring night, someone pounded on her door looking for a stolen phone, she said. Nevis can’t confirm who the person was, but it flipped an emotional switch. She began trading stories with her neighbors about how bold homeless people in her neighborhood had become. Nevis went from believing she could live together with her homeless neighbors to feeling threatened by them.

“We were like, oh hey, we can be a community, like work together. And then one of those people tried to break into my house. I’m like, no, we’re not in this together,” said Nevis, who has aired her concerns on SeeClickFix, Oakland’s citizen complaint website.

Nevis started calling Oakland’s public works department and she eventually got Joe DeVries, an assistant city administrator who has overseen a lot of the city’s homeless initiatives. DeVries discussed ways Nevis could better protect her home, and he requested that Oakland’s police department enforce the “No Blocking Sidewalk/No Loitering” signs and asked police to “direct the encamped to leave.”

Nevis also tried to superglue her outside outlets shut, but on a recent morning she found the plugs had been pried off. Since the incident, Nevis says she has become overly sensitive to the encampment; she wants to feel safe in her home, she said.

“I feel like the lines have not been drawn very clearly for the people who live under there,” Nevis said.

Helping Some Encampments, Closing Others

Among those who feel Oakland has been slow to respond to its emerging homeless crisis are some at City Hall.

“Our response is slower than we’d like it to be and it’s not as thorough as we would like it to be,” DeVries said. “Hopefully with the new budget, that’ll change. But it’s not going to change as quickly as anyone would like.”

The Oakland City Council got a lot of pressure from activists to allocate an additional $3 million a year for homelessness, but the adopted budget fell well short of that. The budget does include extra money for wash stations, portable toilets and garbage pickup at some encampments, but DeVries guesses only between 10 to 15 encampments will be served.

An encampment management team made up of staff from the public works, fire and police departments has been meeting to discuss which encampments will get the extra help, DeVries said. The decisions will be based on a number of factors, such as encampment size, ability to manage and location, he said. When asked whether a high number of neighbor complaints would play a role, DeVries said not necessarily.

“We have a responsibility to go out and evaluate each encampment compared to other encampments and then prioritize our work based on that evaluation, not based on 50 people complained and they used really colorful language or they jammed up my email,” he said.

Complaints to Oakland About Homeless Encampments


Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED
Zoom in to see more granular details of the heat map.

Data from complaints about homeless encampments submitted to Oakland's Department of Public Works, including by phone calls, emails, the city website and SeeClickFix from July 2009 through May 2017.

The city also allocated $450,000 to develop a “safe haven” site, where people could live in temporary structures while they get help finding housing. DeVries said that would likely be in West Oakland, where a concentration of encampments exists.

Along with efforts to keep some encampments operating in place, the city could also decide to close some encampments, DeVries said, adding that the encampment near Nevis’ home would likely be considered.

“That particular encampment is so close to residential property and close to a school corridor where a lot of children walk. Those would be the ones that I personally think we need to evaluate for closure,” he said.

Getting Neighborhood Buy-In Is Important

Closing a camp doesn’t do much to solve homelessness unless there’s a long-term plan for where people can go. A lot of attention will likely be paid to how Oakland works with sheltered and unsheltered residents to address encampments in neighborhoods; and the city isn’t starting off with a great track record.

Activists protested in February when the city dismantled an encampment at 36th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way known as “The Village.” Some neighbors in West Oakland were upset after the city promised to end a pilot project serving a homeless encampment earlier this year, only to have more people move into the space after the city’s services stopped.

“I believe that this failure has damaged the city’s credibility to the extent that they will have to demonstrate one or two successful sanctioned encampments before most neighborhoods would be willing to discuss supporting a proximate sanctioned encampment,” said Ray Kidd, a member of the West Oakland Neighbors group.

Other neighborhood groups are asking the city for whatever services it can provide now. The Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland hosted a number of city and county officials this month to discuss a response to an encampment nearby known as the “Living Room.” The city promised to provide bathrooms and washing stations as well as health services by Aug. 22, according to a church spokeswoman.

A man who calls himself “Akie” says the encampment at 29th Street underneath the freeway overpass should not be closed down because it provides a quiet and safe place for him to be. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Under the freeway overpass on 29th Street, a man who calls himself “Akie” is sitting on a twin mattress reading a newspaper. Akie believes some encampments will probably be shut down, but he doesn’t believe this one — on Hilary Nevis’ street — should be on the list.

“[I] think this is one of the safest and one of the quietest and peaceful-est encampments around, and this one should not be shut down,” he said.

Akie said what the encampment needs is clean water, bathrooms and garbage pickup. But that doesn’t look like it’s in the cards for this space.

Akie feels like people who live in this encampment would be responsive if homeowners approached them and talked about how to live together, but that hasn’t happened. For now, everyone is talking through the city, which doesn’t have a good response yet.

Oakland Residents Say Tent Encampments Threatening Neighborhoods 11 September,2017Devin Katayama

  • concernedCitizen

    I too live near one of these encampments. It has gotten MUCH worse recently. So bad, in fact, that I have acquired a pistol for self defense. My kids do not feel safe here, I do not let them out without supervision. I blame this cities failed liberal policies. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but I do not see this being resolved easily, there will be a breaking point and it’s a tragedy!

    • Bigfrog

      What “liberal” policies would those be? The success of tech companies in SF luring thousands of people from across the country to move here and purchase/rent housing at premium prices?

  • Chairman Meow

    The bicycle chop shops should be your first clue: there is no shared sense of community, only a sense of opportunity to peddle in petty crime. This is where all the stolen property from bicycle theft, car break ins, muggings, and home invasions ends up being traded with other drifters for other resources like drugs, tools, and other weapons. On top of that these encampments are host to much higher rates of assault and rape. Because of that, all tent campers are armed with at the very least knives. I tried being neighborly and compassionate to the campers in the past, I even fed them and donated my old clothes to them, but I expected a bare minimum reciprocation of respect for the neighborhood in the form of no littering, no defecating, no needles, and no crime in the streets. Sadly it has been too much to ask. Speaking as a SOMA resident who has observed this for years.

  • mgw

    It has gotten considerably worse and those in my neighborhood are emboldened. Robberies of cars during broad daylight becoming a common occurrence. Tricks being had, deals going down, rat-infested. You need help? It’s out there. If you just want to live on the streets and get high…do it elsewhere.

  • To the gulag with you all

    Petty crime is a symptom of homelessness, this is an inexorable fact. The notion that you grow contempt for the desperate, those who need or hurt so badly that they exercise their plight in the form of bike chopping or impolite un-neighborly-ness shows the limitations of your bourgeois liberal values. “They’re okay as long as they don’t express their terror economically because that makes me contemplate that my comfort comes at the expense of their livelihoods.”

    How is it that they can live their lives without respect to misery? You demand they not defecate in the street, but where are they going to go? Do you not see the daily unending contempt they experience? People ignore their desperate faces–they get chased off from gas station bathrooms and restaurants.

    Congratulations on the coincidental circumstances that led you to be housed. You are them with very few changes. It is by grace alone you don’t suffer from the blight that precedes homelessness. You should be ashamed of your lack of compassion.

    • bestadvice

      Please provide your address. I need a bike.

    • lunartree

      Having a bleeding heart doesn’t count as empathy though so many “bourgeois liberals” as yourself seem to believe. People pour out emotions on this subject all day long, but are they willing to make the necessary changes to actually make a difference? Reasonable regulated spaces for this should be set up, perhaps under the highways, but that is unpopular. Housing should be built (many thousands of units), but high density SRO housing has become unthinkable and is fought by “progressives”. Mental healthcare must be provided, but still we don’t like forcing the clearly mentally ill to get treatment. I’m tired of hearing appeals from emotion from people who in the same breath will oppose the necessary steps to fix the problem. Simply tolerating it is not enough and is NOT humane.

    • Chairman Meow

      Your tolerance of disrespect to the community amounts to an act of indifference to the public health and safety of all of your neighbors including the homeless themselves, and it comes from a place of pity and guilt. These people don’t need your pity and indifference and you aren’t some saint because you pretend to see nothing. Petty crime is a symptom of homelessness — an inexorable fact? Give me a break with this condescending nonsense…

    • Steve

      By allowing it you encourage it. I think you also miss the point by calling residents “bourgeois liberal” as if everyone is a champagne socialist. The people that are being affected by this are working class citizens that have had to work, save and study to where they are today. If we dont support these kinds of residents why should anyone bother to contribute to building a civilized space in which to live? Why should a tax paying citizen have to worry about their kids not being able to play outside safely? Is that some kind of privilege only reserved for the rich? Do those kids whose parents have worked and built a life not deserve this? Or should we always roll over and subject ourselves to the lowest common denominator?

  • trumpepe

    The current situation is intolerable. A common sense proposal:
    1 Allocate unused property under 880 and similar areas. Securely face the properties
    2. Build simple platform tents with designated areas for families, single men, single women, etc have Designsted sanitation and cooking area that the occupants must keep clean.
    3. Provide 24/7 ingress/egress control
    4. Each occupant signs a contract – no alcohol, drugs or weapons on the premises.
    5. Bring in targeted social services.
    6. Failure to abide by the rules or refusal to sign on to staying in one of the designated tents results in enforcement of vagrancy laws and all other criminal statutes for those who choose to stay on the streets.

    Bottom line – no more ad hoc camping on Oakland streets.

    • Steve

      I’ve never understood how bay area cities are okay with this? You have a group of people that have decided they arent going to contribute to the cities maintenance and are actively putting a negative strain on the residents. Yes I always here about the odd civil person in the encampments but as a whole this is a dangerous situation. Its a fire hazard, health hazard (all of their rubbish is flowing into the bay) and puts a strain on the cities resources (children at schools, crime, trash).

  • Art Lives

    Alameda county was given a 140 million dollar grant to help the homeless… where is the money?

  • Judy Elkan

    WAKE UP! These people are victims of systemic racism, classism, and prejudice. This isn’t an issue of being lazy or not using resources correctly unless you want to talk about the $12.6 million dollars Alameda County spent last year on homelessness. I am one of those people who asked the City of Oakland to designate $3 million of a $1.3 billion dollar budget towards the “homeless crisis.” Which in truth, is a HUMANITY crisis. This isn’t an issue of “not enough money.” We rather condemn people then solve the problem with a direct solutions to support different populations with different needs. The majority of unsheltered in Oakland are Black and long time Oakland residents from the neighborhoods they are encamped in, Most have experienced some type of trauma be it physical, mental, or emotional. Do you know what it’s like to be Black Man in America? I don’t. 14% polled in this latest county survey were from the foster system. We need to stop shaming and blaming and start fixing and creating opportunities for people to feel human and valued and to meet them where they are. Why take action based on those whose deeds we judge the with condemnation and outrage? How can we help and heal people from this perspective? Who wouldn’t become an addict of some kind with the stress of living on the street? As a woman, it’s frightening, unsheltered women are raped and pimped all the time. Who wouldn’t turn to a quick fix to numb the pain? Who wouldn’t contemplate stealing? How about taking the perspective from all the folks living in camps, in cars who want a another chance, who have jobs or are looking for work, kids who attend school, moms with kids, kids helping their moms all while living on the street. Why not focus on these people, the people who want help and let’s have their back and show them we care. I am so sick of living in a society where we don’t care for one another, a society that doesn’t see everyone’s life as sacred and worthy and where we only give a certain number of chances, in a country as wealthy as ours everyone deserves safe shelter. And when you walk by a homeless encampment with your children or someone with no empathy you should take that moment to be grateful for everything you have and take a moment to recognize that with a super rich come a super poor and compared to many other nations on this earth we are hardly ever confronted by the fact that people are constantly being exploited for another person’s gain and that’s how we get encampments everywhere. Not by fair play and the sharing of resources.

    “Every two years, during the last 10 days of January, communities across the country conduct comprehensive counts of the
    local homeless populations in order to measure the prevalence of homelessness in each local Continuum of Care.
    The 2017 Alameda County Point-in-Time Count was a community-wide effort conducted on January 30, 2017. In the weeks
    following the street count, a survey was administered across Alameda County. In the city of Oakland, 457 unsheltered and
    sheltered homeless individuals were surveyed, in order to proifle their experience and characteristics.”
    http://everyonehome.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/City-of-Oakland-ES.pdf

  • Judy Elkan

    WAKE UP! These people are victims of systemic racism, classism, and prejudice. This isn’t an issue of being lazy or not using resources correctly unless you want to talk about the $12.6 million dollars Alameda County spent last year on homelessness. I am one of those people who asked the City of Oakland to designate $3 million of a $1.3 billion dollar budget towards the “homeless crisis.” Which in truth, is a HUMANITY crisis. This isn’t an issue of “not enough money.” We rather condemn people then solve the problem with a direct solutions to support different populations with different needs. The majority of unsheltered in Oakland are Black and long time Oakland residents from the neighborhoods they are encamped in, Most have experienced some type of trauma be it physical, mental, or emotional. Do you know what it’s like to be Black Man in America? I don’t. 14% polled in this latest county survey were from the foster system. We need to stop shaming and blaming and start fixing and creating opportunities for people to feel human and valued and to meet them where they are. Why take action based on those whose deeds we judge the with condemnation and outrage? How can we help and heal people from this perspective? Who wouldn’t become an addict of some kind with the stress of living on the street? As a woman, it’s frightening, unsheltered women are raped and pimped all the time. Who wouldn’t turn to a quick fix to numb the pain? Who wouldn’t contemplate stealing? How about taking the perspective from all the folks living in camps, in cars who want a another chance, who have jobs or are looking for work, kids who attend school, moms with kids, kids helping their moms all while living on the street. Why not focus on these people, the people who want help and let’s have their back and show them we care. I am so sick of living in a society where we don’t care for one another, a society that doesn’t see everyone’s life as sacred and worthy and where we only give a certain number of chances, in a country as wealthy as ours everyone deserves safe shelter. And when you walk by a homeless encampment with your children or someone with no empathy you should take that moment to be grateful for everything you have and take a moment to recognize that with a super rich come a super poor and compared to many other nations on this earth we are hardly ever confronted by the fact that people are constantly being exploited for another person’s gain and that’s how we get encampments everywhere. Not by fair play and the sharing of resources.

  • Judy Elkan

    WAKE UP! These people are victims of systemic racism, classism, and prejudice. This isn’t an issue of being lazy or not using resources correctly unless you want to talk about the $12.6 million dollars Alameda County spent last year on homelessness. I am one of those people who asked the City of Oakland to designate $3 million of a $1.3 billion dollar budget towards the “homeless crisis.” Which in truth, is a HUMANITY crisis. This isn’t an issue of “not enough money.” We rather condemn people then solve the problem with a direct solutions to support different populations with different needs. The majority of unsheltered in Oakland are Black and long time Oakland residents from the neighborhoods they are encamped in, Most have experienced some type of trauma be it physical, mental, or emotional. Do you know what it’s like to be Black Man in America? I don’t. 14% polled in this latest county survey were from the foster system. We need to stop shaming and blaming and start fixing and creating opportunities for people to feel human and valued and to meet them where they are. Why take action based on those whose deeds we judge the with condemnation and outrage? How can we help and heal people from this perspective? Who wouldn’t become an addict of some kind with the stress of living on the street? As a woman, it’s frightening, unsheltered women are raped and pimped all the time. Who wouldn’t turn to a quick fix to numb the pain? Who wouldn’t contemplate stealing? How about taking the perspective from all the folks living in camps, in cars who want a another chance, who have jobs or are looking for work, kids who attend school, moms with kids, kids helping their moms all while living on the street. Why not focus on these people, the people who want help and let’s have their back and show them we care. I am so sick of living in a society where we don’t care for one another, a society that doesn’t see everyone’s life as sacred and worthy and where we only give a certain number of chances, in a country as wealthy as ours everyone deserves safe shelter. And when you walk by a homeless encampment with your children or someone with no empathy you should take that moment to be grateful for everything you have and take a moment to recognize that with a super rich come a super poor and compared to many other nations on this earth we are hardly ever confronted by the fact that people are constantly being exploited for another person’s gain and that’s how we get encampments everywhere. Not by fair play and the sharing of resources.

  • Judy Elkan

    WAKE UP! These people are victims of systemic racism, classism, and prejudice. This isn’t an issue of being lazy or not using resources correctly unless you want to talk about the $12.6 million dollars Alameda County spent last year on homelessness. I am one of those people who asked the City of Oakland to designate $3 million of a $1.3 billion dollar budget towards the “homeless crisis.” Which in truth, is a HUMANITY crisis. This isn’t an issue of “not enough money.” We rather condemn people then solve the problem with direct solutions to support different populations with different needs. The majority of unsheltered in Oakland are Black and long time Oakland residents from the neighborhoods they are encamped in. Most have experienced some type of trauma be it physical, mental, or emotional. Do you know what it’s like to be Black Man in America? I don’t. 14% polled in this latest county survey were from the foster system. We need to stop shaming and blaming and start fixing and creating opportunities for people to feel human and valued and to meet them where they are. Why take action based on those whose deeds we judge the with condemnation and outrage? How can we help and heal people from this perspective? Who wouldn’t become an addict of some kind with the stress of living on the street? As a woman, it’s frightening, unsheltered women are raped and pimped all the time. Who wouldn’t turn to a quick fix to numb the pain? Who wouldn’t contemplate stealing? How about taking the perspective from all the folks living in camps, in cars, who want a another chance, who have jobs or are looking for work, kids who attend school, moms with kids, kids helping their moms all while living on the street. Why not focus on these people, the people who want help and let’s have their back and show them we care. I am so sick of living in a society where we don’t care for one another, a society that doesn’t see everyone’s life as sacred and worthy and where we only give a certain number of chances, in a country as wealthy as ours everyone deserves safe shelter. And when you walk by a homeless encampment with your children or someone with no empathy you should take that moment to be grateful for everything you have and take a moment to recognize that with a super rich come a super poor and compared to many other nations on this earth we are hardly ever confronted by the fact that people are constantly being exploited for another person’s gain and that’s how we get encampments everywhere. Not by fair play and the sharing of resources.

Author

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama is a reporter covering the East Bay for KQED News. Previously, he was the education reporter for WFPL in Louisville and worked as a producer with radio stations in Chicago and Portland, OR. His work has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Takeaway and Here and Now.

Devin earned his MA in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago, where he was a Follett Fellow and the recipient of the 2011 Studs Terkel Community Media Workshop Scholarship for his story on Chicago’s homeless youth. He won WBUR’s 2014 Daniel Schorr award and a regional RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for his documentary “At Risk” that looked at issues facing some of Louisville’s students. Devin has also received numerous local awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: dkatayama@kqed.org Twitter: @RadioDevin Website: audiocollected.org

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