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Oakland again eyes Army base for temporary housing of homeless residents

An Oakland City Council member blasted city staff — and her colleagues — for doing more to keep the Oakland A's in town than addressing the city's homelessness crisis.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A major homelessness crisis reignited disagreement between Oakland’s elected leaders and city employees Tuesday, amid public outcry over Caltrans clearing the city’s largest homeless encampment and a recent audit showing mismanagement of homeless services.

As of Tuesday, Oakland is again exploring creating a temporary housing site on land at the city’s former Army base. A report on how to do this, the second on the site requested by city employees this year, is expected within the month. 

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III recently gave the green light to Caltrans to clear Oakland's Wood Street encampment, surveyed by Governor Gavin Newsom this past April after Caltrans cited growing safety concerns. It spans large Caltrans-owned areas under the freeway as well as city and railroad property. Caltrans estimates there may be 200 people living on the land, some for several years. 

Some residents filed a federal lawsuit asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Caltrans. The residents also wrote an open letter to Newsom, asking for Caltrans, the city and county to help improve fire safety at the site by providing dumpsters, garbage removal and fire extinguishers. But Newsom has said in a joint statement with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf that clearing the encampment will make residents at the site safer. 

Although the city has allocated $4.7 million from an “encampment resolution” state grant to open 50 units to house displaced people, residents speaking at City Council meetings have demanded elected leaders to take action to shelter hundreds of unhoused people who are being displaced.

Oakland City Hall in Oakland, California. (Photo by Sanfranman59 from Wikipedia via Courthouse News)

Councilmember Carroll Fife said Tuesday she wants the city to revisit a proposal first discussed in 2020 and studied this year to use about eight acres at the city’s former Army base to shelter up to 300 people. This past May, the council asked city employees to study the feasibility of a temporary homeless intervention site for least 1,000 on the base. 

City workers told the council on June 7 a deed restriction prohibits using the property for temporary or permanent residential housing, along with environmental concerns and the need for land remediation. Staff estimated operating costs for 1,000 people could reach $22.5 million. 

Fife called the report "extensive but overblown. “In the two years past since this initially came out as an option, there has been no work on the part of our city administration to inquire what it would take to utilize this site," Fife said.

A memo from City Attorney Barbara Parker said immediately ordering the opening of the site “runs afoul of the separation of powers provided in the (city) charter, as it interferes with core administrative functions.” Parker noted the site’s deed restrictions prohibit “sensitive land uses,” including temporary or permanent residential housing and uses absent specific waivers from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the federal government. The state waiver could take up to two years.

Ryan Richardson with the City Attorney's Office said the City Council does not have the authority to manage the city administrator's day-to-day management of properties. 

“While it’s true this is city land, in the sense that there are restrictions that legally prohibit the city from using it for whatever purpose, the city does not own it free and clear,” Richardson said. “The reality is in this case, the state and federal government have very intentionally and very broadly tied the city’s hands, in regards to what it can do with that former Army base site.”

Fife accused city employees of not carrying out their directions to study the site. She claimed the state Department of Toxic Substances Control told her no city staffers had reached out regarding a waiver. 

Citing the recent audit showing millions of dollars may have been misspent on homeless services, Fife said she thinks other city leaders have not taken enough steps to address displacement of people due to the lawsuit. 

“I am sickened by this. My district looks insane right now, and it’s because there are people sitting down on the job and allowing it to happen,” she said. “We are not deploying enough resources appropriately to handle the crisis we are in. I'm so sick of this administration and council, honestly I’m over it. I don't want to hear any more excuses about what can’t be done.”

Reiskin said his office can only do what the council directs and provides funds for, and pointed out other work the city has done to establish public housing for unhoused people. He said the council never arranged funding to build on the Army base site and in two weeks new state funds will be accepted to expand the encampment resolution state grant from 50 to 100 small homes for Wood Street residents.

“We are not instigating the action on Wood Street — it was authorized by a federal court for the state agency to take this action,” he said. “It is not being done in a way that we would do it.” 

Fife accused Reiskin of repeating “misinformation” and said the recent audit showed the increase in homelessness and that the city has not done enough to address it. She made a formal motion for city staff to again study the site as a housing solution area.

“There have been many opportunities for you, Mr. Reiskin, to show some leadership in your role as the administrator of the entire city of Oakland to address the concerns I’ve brought to you on a number of occasions,” she said. “I want to see the same energy and zeal for keeping a sports team to address housing and homelessness in Oakland.”

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and Councilmember Sheng Thao supported Fife’s proposal. Councilmember Dan Kalb suggested Fife change her proposal to ask Reiskin to develop a new plan for a temporary supportive facility at the site, with possibilities for funding. 

Fife agreed, asking Reiskin to work with unhoused residents, the county and state on a plan — with a revision from Kaplan to get a report on housing options for people still at Wood Street by Oct. 18. Her revision won unanimous approval. 

“Frankly, I have no confidence that anything will change. But if this is a step forward to getting us to move forward, I’m willing to take that action,” Fife said. 

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