Homeless and Clueless in Oakland and Elsewhere in America

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Oakland, California, has always lived in the shadow of San Francisco. Now, in one metric at least, it surpasses the city across the bay: homelessness. Oakland’s homeless rate, according to the most recent estimate, is 940 for every 100,000 residents, compared to San Francisco’s 906. In fact, Oakland now has the “distinction” of having the highest homeless rate in California—a significant distinction in the state that leads the nation in the total number of homeless and includes the five major U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest percentages of unsheltered homeless. California, like many other states, is failing the homeless because it has no strategy. To understand what’s been taking place one needs only to look at Oakland and its response. “The bright side of the bay,” as Oakland is known, has followed the same failed game plan as most other cities. And that’s why the homeless crisis persists. Unfortunately, the Biden administration plans to continue subsidizing the losing strategy. First, it’s happened quickly: Homelessness in Oakland increased 86% from 2015 to 2019, the last year the counts were done, due to COVID-19, and it’s likely even higher now. Meanwhile, instead of dealing with the problem logically and methodically, Oakland has reacted with a series of emergency measures that have only exacerbated the problem. Last year, for example, the City Council enacted an Encampment Management Policy. At the time, city officials estimated there were “well over” 70 homeless encampments in the city. The goal of the new policy was to consolidate those into the 40 to which the city was then providing services. Instead, at last report, there were at least 140 encampments—and even “this estimate may be conservative,” according to a city audit released in April. The same audit found “the City was not adequately prepared to shoulder such a massive project … [because it] lacked an effective strategy for dealing with the growth in encampments and did not provide sufficient policy direction or adequate funding at the onset of this crisis.” Oakland is not unique in this regard. And the reason Oakland and other cities are unprepared is that for nearly a decade now they’ve been excessively focused on providing shelter rather than dealing with the “root causes,” a popular term these days, of homelessness. The change began in 2013 when the Obama administration shifted the focus of federal homelessness funding from programs that provide services to the homeless to their speedy placement into housing.

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