Early this year, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and UN Special Envoy Leilani Farha reacted to their separate visits to the new homeless “Tuff Shed” shelter “community” (formerly called “encampment”) at the corner of 6th and Castro streets. One cannot help being struck by their personal perspectives that are as diametrically opposed to each other as are two ends of a magnet.
Mayor Schaaf touted her visit as a testimonial to how the city’s “pilot program” is, in her words, “showing signs of success.” The long-standing “surrounding six-block encampment area – once one of Oakland’s largest – was dismantled” and, consequently, the area in the shadows of the juncture of the I-980 and I-880 freeways “remains free and clear of any debris and street camping.” In her view, this new “compassionate and humane means to resolve encampments” has “afforded a consistency not found in the encampments.” Residents have a “hard roof to sleep under” in a “community of friends and resources” with a “supportive staff of counselors to drive residents to meetings for addiction treatment, job interviews, and potential housing appointments.”
During Mayor Schaaf’s presence at this temporary pilot program “leading to a path to housing,” residents “applauded” a few achievements of their peers: one who reached “30 days of sobriety while living at the site” and another who, “with the help of the on-site case managers, found an affordable room to rent.” After a resident expressed appreciation for “Oakland’s patience, assistance, and compassion,” the meeting ended with “one more round of applause . . . followed by hugs.”
UN Special Envoy Leilani Farha, accompanied by a reporter and photographer from the London-based Guardian newspaper, made an unofficial visit to this same stopgap smattering of small wooden sheds housing about 35-40 people. Ms. Farha, a civil rights attorney by training, was led inside a shed inhabited by a self-proclaimed “camp mom.” Homeless chronically since the age of twelve, she described how at night her shed was “like an iced freezer.” The sheds lack insulation, electricity, and plumbing. “In international human rights law,” Ms. Farha asserted, “providing adequate shelter to people who are homeless is the absolute minimum standard for any country, regardless of resources.”
Ms. Farha expressed concerned about the scale of Oakland’s homeless crisis, estimated to be rapidly approaching 3,000 people among whom are hundreds of children. “Everywhere we’ve driven today, I’ve seen camps.” While visiting another of Oakland’s homeless communities comprised of a string of shacks built from discarded materials, and watching “large rats scurry in the mud looking for food scraps” and listening to inhabitants describe their feelings of humiliation and embarrassment in dealing with the difficulties of using overflowing portable toilets, making do with the absence of running water, preventing their possessions from being ripped off or losing their possessions in encampment fires or in sweeps by city authorities, Ms. Farha said, “I find there to be a real cruelty in how people are being dealt with here.” “There’s a cruelty here that I don’t think I’ve seen.”
The “unacceptable” squalor and “deplorable living conditions,” according to Ms. Farha, clearly violate international human rights law. Oakland has an obligation to do much more than it has, and by any moral compass it should do it immediately.