Judge Gives Oakland Green Light to Close Homeless Camp

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge on Wednesday refused to block Oakland from shutting down a homeless encampment for sober women and their children, and tossed a temporary restraining order forbidding its closure.

In denying a request by six of the encampment’s 13 residents for a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. said it was unlikely their lawsuit over the impending closure would succeed. The suit alleges violations by the city of the Eighth and 14th Amendments, but Gilliam doubted its actions were unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs based their Eighth Amendment argument on the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Martin v. City of Boise, which prohibits criminal penalties for homeless people for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property if there is no shelter space available. But Gilliam noted Oakland had offered shelter beds to the encampment’s residents.

“The court is not blind to the reality that removing the plaintiffs from the site where they are currently living is inevitably disruptive of their lives,” Gilliam wrote in a 7-page order. “The resulting harm, however, is significantly mitigated by the city’s commitment to provide temporary shelter and storage services to the residents of HDV,” which stands for Housing & Dignity Village, the name of the East Oakland encampment.

In an interview, plaintiffs’ counsel Joshua Piovia-Scott said Oakland didn’t offer beds to HDV’s residents until they sued earlier this month to stop the eviction.

About 15,000 people spend the night on Oakland’s streets on any given night, and the city has less than 1,000 shelter beds available on any given night, according to Piovia-Scott, who practices with Hadsell Stormer & Renick in Pasadena.

“The city now has to make a decision – do they want to destroy this community of sober, unsheltered women and their families and put these people back on the street or in temporary housing, or do they want to work with this community to try to create spaces and places for them to be safe and get back on their feet and back into homes?” he said.

HDV’s 13 residents established the encampment at 606 Clara Street and 9418 Edes Avenue in late October as “a site for sober, unsheltered women and their families,” according to a declaration filed by plaintiff Anita Miralle.

City officials subsequently told them they were trespassing and gave them 72 hours to pack their belongings and leave.

Almost half of HDV’s residents sued to stop the eviction, also claiming a violation of their 14th Amendment due process rights stemming from Oakland’s “pattern and practice” of unlawfully seizing and destroying property while clearing other homeless encampments.

Judge Gilliam addressed this claim in Wednesday’s ruling. Because the city had promised in a hearing Monday to store any property left behind at HDV for 90 days and offered to help move belongings, Gilliam said the claim probably won’t survive.

Gilliam’s ruling clears the way for city officials to finally evict HDV’s residents, though it was unclear Wednesday if they will.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth said the city “will continue to offer our unsheltered neighbors alternatives to move them out of the cold, off the streets, and into safety and services,” making a renewed eviction effort likely.

“The city’s policies and procedures were put under close examination by the federal court and it determined that the steps the city is taking are constitutional,” Landreth said. “We look forward to continuing to implement those policies in a manner that balances the needs of the unsheltered with our entire Oakland community.”

Last month, the Oakland City Council approved an $8.6 million emergency funding package for homeless services and unveiled a new rapid re-housing facility with space for 180 residents, according to the city.

The city says it will spend the money on three new “community cabin” sites with emergency shelter and services for up to 320 people per year; four managed RV sites with up to 150 RVs for about 300 people; 100 year-round shelter beds for a total of 450 beds, and on operating the shelter at St. Vincent de Paul year-round. The city estimates the sites will provide beds, shelter and social services for about 1,000 homeless residents within one year.

Piovia-Scott, however, warned Oakland’s actions toward its homeless residents will be closely scrutinized to ensure the city keeps its promises.

“[T]he spotlight will now be on them because we are aware of instances where they have not treated their residents in a constitutional and humane way,” he said about the city’s past efforts to clear homeless encampments. “Now the spotlight is on them for how they treat people and conduct themselves moving forward.”

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