SF Homeless Project: Can Oakland’s Compassionate Communities program serve as a model for others?

5 mins read

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then some of our policymakers may need a psychiatric assessment. Residents and businesses have witnessed the frustrating routine of clearing out encampments and displacing the unhoused only to see them move across the street or return as soon at city agencies have departed. These tactics have clearly had little impact. Oakland is hoping to make a dent in this vicious cycle with an experimental program called “Compassionate Communities”.

Members of the local organization WON (West Oakland Neighbors) along with other neighborhood groups offered their support to the city to try something else, something radical. WON addressed their concerns in a letter addressed to Oakland civic leaders last June, “we believe it is time to try a different approach to the dealing with the growing number of homeless people in our midst. The current policy of enforcing removal of encampments on a serial basis is inadequate and unsatisfactory, especially in light of a potential epidemic outbreak. We would like to suggest that the City and County seek out and establish a physical space where people lacking permanent shelter can find a place of refuge.”

Compassionate Communities Born

Oakland’s D3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney addressed the 35th & Magnolia camp.

From this spawned Oakland’s “Compassionate Communities” program spearheaded by D3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. “73% of Oakland’s unsheltered residents live in District 3,” noted Gibson McElhaney in a statement. “Supervisor Carson and I wondered what could we accomplish if we considered those living in the streets as constituents to be served, rather than a problem to be solved.” District 3 encompasses Oakland’s West and Downtown neighborhoods.

Compassionate Communities was modeled after a similar program in Santa Rosa according to City of Oakland Policy Analyst Alexander Marqusee. Instead of utilizing city funds to dismantle encampments, they would devote resources to creating a more efficient pipeline to permanent housing while attempting to reduce the most serious health and safety hazards. In June, Gibson obtained $190,000 from Oakland’s mid-cycle budget to launch the initiative.

The City adopted a $130K with the social services organization Bay Area Community Services:

The Pilot

In October, Oakland implemented its pilot program under the I-580 underpass at 35th & Magnolia that borders our two cities. A location selected in part because of the presence of homeless community leaders that the city thought would help, according to Marqusee. “We quickly identified several resident-leaders of the encampment which meant that we could successfully co-create this pilot. The leadership among the campers themselves has been invaluable in keeping the camp organized and safe.”

The city power-washed the area, installed portable toilets and concrete traffic barriers around the designated area (camping on the sidewalk across 35th was forbidden as part of a mutual agreement). In addition to sanitation services, the city provided washing stations, coordinated routine stops by mobile health vans and a needle exchange. More importantly, they coordinated direct access to social services and partnered with church groups and other non-profits to provide regular food drop-offs to those living here.

The location of the pilot program is steps away from Emeryville’s Ambassador Housing on Peralta.

Former Emeryville City Manager and current Oakland City Manager Sabrina Landreth reached out to her Emeryville counterpart Carolyn Lehr to alert them to Oakland’s plans. Lehr in turn communicated the intent to her staff including Emeryville Police Chief Jennifer Tejada. “Our officers are providing additional patrols but we have not seen any increase  in crime that can be attributed to this project,” she noted. Tejada also reiterated the need for a compassionate approach toward addressing issues with homelessness by her force and others.  The City of Emeryville has not contributed monetarily to the program, but have provide outreach to neighbors and have directed their Public Works staff to increase their efforts to maintain the area on their side of the border.

Initial Reaction Mixed

Not surprisingly, the reaction by some neighboring residents was not exactly welcoming at first, but the assurance that this was a temporary solution helped residents understand the big picture. “Most of the interactions we’ve had have been positive once staff was able to explain the full scope of the pilot,” said Marqusee. “We’ve had very positive community meetings with both sheltered and unsheltered residents who are all thankful that we are trying something different that has more of a chance to permanently end the unsheltered status of our encamped constituents.”

After the program was in full swing, most West Oakland residents noted a mostly positive outcome when contacted via Nextdoor.com. “I walk by there most days and the camp is noticeably cleaner” noted Kate McKinley, a Dogtown neighborhood resident. “The surrounding blocks have way fewer used needles and human excrement and there also seem to be fewer individuals sleeping in the area around the camp.”

West Oakland Neighbors Co-Chair Ray Kidd converses with a formerly incarcerated camp occupant.

Net Cost Savings?

In 2015, The City of Oakland spent over $72K to abate 162 homeless encampments and that figure is likely to increase dramatically in 2016. According to former Secretary of HUD Shaun Donovan, each homeless person costs the city 40K and suggests access to housing ultimately saves taxpayers money. “We believe that we will see net savings from this pilot,” added Marqusee. “Abating an encampment requires staff time from public works, OPD and the City Administrator’s office. Instead, we are relying on contracts that the County already had in place and a little additional funding from the City for rapid rehousing services. Ending the cycle of homelessness and abatements lets these civil servants focus on problems that they can actually solve instead of forcing unsheltered folks to place to place.”


The city has so far successfully transitioned 25 people into shelter with a majority going into the City’s interim housing program at the Henry Robinson Multiservice Center according to Marqusee. This center has a near 90% success rate in placing and stabilizing people into permanent housing. A few have gone into permanently supportive housing which includes more enriched services to treat mental illness and substance abuse. Marqusee wanted to also spotlight that some have been reunited with family members. “Our true milestone is when we house all 42 of the original residents,” added Marqusee.

When established, the camp located under I-580 consisted of 42 residents.

Residents of the camp noted there was room for improvement, but were generally appreciative of the efforts. “I got out jail at 2012” noted one irregular occupant who identified himself as Leonard adding he’s had a hard time finding permanent housing since being released. “It’s better. The Porta Potty’s are nice. The barriers make it safer,” noted one resident who identified herself as Kamika and described herself as the first female resident of the camp. “I think it provides hope for some of the people here.” Kamika noted that she was on the waiting list for transitional housing but was also looking at other options with her family.

Next Steps

It should be noted that the city intends to dismantle the encampment by April 1st, 2017 at the latest. “If this project works out well the goal is to bring this model to other encampments in the area,” noted WON Co-Chair Ray Kidd. Locations are currently being scouted for a more permanent camp in a more industrial area of West Oakland.

“I would encourage other cities to not underestimate the intelligence, compassion and patience of their constituents” concluded Marqusee. “Once you introduce sheltered residents to their unsheltered neighbors then they immediately grasp that these are not just transients but rather are people who grew up in the neighborhood who have fallen on tough times. The typical City response does not help to end their unsheltered status and I urge other cities to develop the partnerships and protocols needed to more efficiently provide dignified shelter.”

How you can help

In addition to food drop-offs, The City of Oakland is encouraging those that would like to contribute to make time and monetary donations to Oakland’s Covenant House. Covenant House’s focus is on homeless youth in Oakland and is the official partner for the Compassionate Communities program. Online donations can be made here.

This story by The E’ville Eye is part of The SF Homeless Project, a media consortium dedicated to focusing attention on the issue of homelessness in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area.

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.


  1. HI Rob, thanks for covering this topic! Do you know the names of the churches/organizations that arrange meals for the community? I’d love to get in touch to volunteer. Thanks!

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