Oakland not backing up homeless help with city money

Oakland not backing up homeless help with city money

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Two men check out a homeless encampment below Interstate 580 in Oakland after a fire torched 20 tents at the site May 1. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Two men check out a homeless encampment below Interstate 580 in Oakland after a fire torched 20 tents at the site May 1.

Homelessness is a growing problem in Oakland, both on the streets and now at City Hall as well.

Mayor Libby Schaaf recently laid out an ambitious plan to deal with the city’s quickly spreading homeless encampments — but when it came time to put up the money, she came up way short of what was suggested by the city’s Department of Human Services.

The department’s plan, which was outlined in an April 13 report to the City Council, called for setting up three “safe haven” camps where homeless people could pitch their tents or park their RVs. Each site could handle 40 campers and would have sanitation, a site manager, round-the-clock security and access to social workers.

The cost: about $1 million a year.

The plan also called for setting up portable toilets, washing stations and garbage collection for another five existing camps, at a cost of $180,000.

That added up to $1.18 million. But two weeks later, when Schaaf submitted her budget proposal, there was only $250,000 for the camps and “safe haven” sites. The budget did include $1.6 million for a cleanup crew to keep camps from spilling onto city streets.

The staff report had also suggested spending $2 million for added transitional housing, plus money for job training and other programs — but when Schaaf’s budget landed, just how the housing would be paid for was unclear.

According to Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, the mayor told council members during her budget presentation May 3 that she supports using part of a $600 million infrastructure bond approved by Oakland voters last year to buy motels and single-room-occupancy hotels to use for homeless housing.

But after poring over the budget, Kaplan said she couldn’t find that money included — and neither could any of the city staffers she asked.

“Please provide the specific page and section,” Kaplan wrote in a May 3 letter to City Administrator Sabrina Landreth. She said she has yet to get a response.

“We are drowning in this challenge,” said Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, whose district includes a city-sanctioned camp that was recently shut down following a fire. Many of the 1,384 homeless people counted in a 2015 one-night tally are believed to live in her district.

“The city must do something meaningful to address the needs of the unsheltered while keeping our neighborhoods safe and clean,” Gibson McElhaney said.

Schaaf said in a statement that “it is disappointing not to have all the resources we want,” and that as a result the city has to make “hard choices.” She said the primary responsibility for providing homeless services lies with Alameda County.

Schaaf also said that she is moving ahead with plans to use the infrastructure money to create more transitional housing.

As for Gibson McElhaney, the mayor said, if she wants more city-funded homeless services, “she has the right to identify existing services she wants to cut.”

On board: University of California President Janet Napolitano may be on the hot seat with state lawmakers over the state auditor’s findings that her office had $175 million hidden away — but she is on firm footing with UC’s regents, even after their call to bring in their own auditor to review the state’s assessment.

“It’s total nonsense,” Regent Richard Blum, a major financial contributor to UC, said of the Board of Regents-ordered audit. “But if I were still (the board’s) chairman, I might feel the need to do it as well.”

Blum said there is nothing improper about keeping millions in reserves and that a portion of the money was mandated to be doled out over time.

As for the state investigation’s finding that Napolitano’s staff reviewed UC campuses’ responses to the auditor’s surveys before they were sent to Sacramento, Blum says he buys Napolitano’s argument that the campuses asked for the help.

State Auditor Elaine Howle, however, told the campuses to keep the surveys confidential, and threw them out when she found out what UC headquarters had done. And Chronicle reporting has found no evidence that the campuses requested Napolitano’s help with survey answers.

“I’m not easily snowed over, and in my opinion Janet Napolitano is an excellent UC president, and I support her,” Blum said.

Blum is hardly alone on the board in his view of Napolitano. Even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sits on the board and who criticized Napolitano for holding back the money while raising tuition, said, “I continue to believe in her ability and capacity to turn it around.”

Not that Blum exactly embraces Newsom as an ally. In fact, he said the lieutenant governor’s criticism of Napolitano’s money handling was “chicken—.”

“And you can print that.”

Well, not in a family newspaper we can’t.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KPIX TV morning and evening news. He can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call (415) 777-8815, or email [email protected] Twitter: @matierandross

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