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Oakland Launches Homelessness Audit

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – An audit of homelessness services looks to determine just how many encampments there are and if clearing them is the best use of public money. Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby and Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas partnered together to launch this audit, which both say is long overdue.

"If you go to encampments, someone who doesn't have shelter, we are not successful right now," Ruby said.

"We actually need evaluations of whether we are hitting the goals that we set out to achieve," Fortunado Bas said.

Bas and Ruby connected on the campaign trail last year and formed a partnership to make the audit a reality. Ruby says Bas led the effort from day one.

"It was so wonderful for Nikki to come on board and immediately shine a light on the encampment process and start to get real answers…the audit should shine a light on whether our strategies are effective or not. At the end of the day, it's my job to hold city hall accountable that we move the needle on this crisis," Ruby said.

The audit seeks to find hard data on how many encampments there are, the cost of the current encampment management program, if these closures comply with city policy, and determine if contractors are actually helping permanently house the homeless.

On Nov. 5 last year, KPIX 5 cameras were rolling when the city cleared out a long standing homeless encampment on Wood Street in Oakland.

"It's like a third world country to me, we're refugees in our own country," Tracylee Saelee said as her belongings were being removed by city workers.

The scene was chaotic; more than 100 trailers were removed and tents trashed. Police and homeless residents were seen screaming at each other while officers told the residents that they're just following orders. For the homeless, it's more heartbreak as they're told once again, "You can't sleep here."

"This is not solving any kind of problems they're just creating problems over problems," Saelee said.

"They treat us like we're nothing it's not fair we're humans too everyone has struggles…we'll just switch over to another street," Niki Wolf said.

The plan was to turn Wood Street into a safe RV parking site. Two months later, the landowner is still trying to clear people out. Many homeless residents have been camping there for more than six years.

Saelee says she moved to the Wood Street site because city workers told her to when they cleared her last encampment.

The city did give residents ample warning: a 30 day notice, plus a 72 hour written notice. Most were offered alternative shelter, but many say they don't want what's being offered.

"They said we could got to tuff sheds, but if we do that, we lose our trailers and then you're only allowed to be in the tuff sheds six months. So after that, where do we go? They should just let us be," Wolf said.

But often, the city can't just let them be. Encampments like Wood Street are considered unsafe. They're public health hazards and many pose a fire hazard. City data shows 160 fires have broken out at encampments in 2019.

Oakland budgeted $32 million on homelessness last year, including $1.1 million for police support during encampment closures and $640,000 for staff who clear them out. It also budgeted $1.6 million for rapid rehousing of the homeless.

A KPIX investigation found that program has a lot of complaints as well. The private company that runs much of it, Bay Area Community Services (BACS), could not provide us specifics on how many of its clients that received permanent placement actually stayed housed.

Oakland officials told us they don't have current data on that either.

The audit should shed some light on whether this encampment clearing process is working or if it's a waste of taxpayer money. Ruby says she intends to measure equity as well and to give the homeless a voice in what works for them so they can avoid feeling shuffled around.

"Government is here to serve everyone, if we lose sight of that...then we've failed to do our job," Ruby said.

"It would be nice if people would treat us like we're equal to them and maybe it wouldn't be as stressful for us and we would feel like we can do it," Wolf said.

Results from the audit are expected to be revealed in June of 2020.

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