Oakland's mayor of five months Sheng Thao has now made some controversial statements about addressing the city's homelessness crisis, perpetuating an often-shared misconception that homeless people are moving to the Bay Area for its superior homeless services.
While people may flock to the Tenderloin for easy access to drugs, it's been a long perpetuated myth that homeless people come to San Francisco because the city treats the homeless so well. While other cities from Boise to Seattle have heard similar complaints among fed-up residents, the biennial data we get from the homeless point-in-time counts tends to show that the vast majority of the homeless here — save, perhaps, for some homeless youth in travel mode up and down the West Coast — were once housed here, and lost their housing for one reason or another.
People do tend to want to stick near communities their familiar with, after all. And for those who do have family who will take them in out-of-state, San Francisco already has a program that provides people bus or plane tickets home.
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao gave a candid interview to the Examiner this week in which she talked about formerly being homeless herself, and considering violence when she once shared a bed with an abuser who slept with a gun beside him.
Regarding criticism she's received for backing the clearing of homeless encampments, Thao says, "I have a lot of advocates say to me, 'How dare you? You were homeless before. You know what it feels. How dare you take our homes from us.' And my pushback is: 'You’re absolutely right. I was homeless. And I wasn’t looking for a plot of dirt to pitch a tent.' I was homeless and I wanted shelter. I wanted to be able to find affordable housing. I couldn’t pay the first month, last month, and deposit and that’s not fair. Housing is a basic right."
Thao also says that there is an ongoing effort to make sure that everyone living in tents in Oakland get housed. But that if the problem continues, and more people appear, she is considering asking them what cities they came from, and charging those cities an "impact fee."
"I am very open about calling out the cities and saying, 'You need to do more for your unhoused residents. Otherwise, you can pay me, you can pay this city, the city of Oakland an impact fee because you’re impacting our city. And we could take it on. However, we can’t serve everyone.'"
The data, and the law, should tell Thao that this won't be a workable solution.
As Candice Elder, the executive director of the advocacy group East Oakland Collective, says to the Chronicle, "I just don’t see how that is ethical. You can’t stop anyone, housed or unhoused, from moving. Is it a city’s responsibility to keep someone within their borders?"
And another Oakland homeless advocate, Talya Husbands-Hankin, tells the Chronicle that Mayor Thao's comment "amplifies a myth that unhoused people are outsiders," and the city would be better of focusing "on creating long-term policies to prevent more Oaklanders from losing their housing and to meet the urgent housing needs."
Are cities around the country telling homeless people to move to Oakland? That seems unlikely. Perhaps Thao is actually talking about San Francisco here? While SF's homeless population went down a few percentage points between 2019 and 2022, at least according to the annual point-in-time count, Oakland's went up 22%. So there's that.
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center in D.C., tries to set the record straight though on what he refers to as city leaders' fantasy about "Greyhound therapy" for the homeless problem.
"This kind of ‘Greyhound therapy’ approach is much promoted and suggested across the country by local officials who are always convinced that homeless people are coming from somewhere else," Tar tells the Chronicle. "But the stereotype is actually contrary to the truth, which is that most people are homeless in the communities they grew up in. And it’s obvious why — that’s where they have friends and family, where they can crash on the couch, get job connections, know where to go."
Top image: Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao arrives at the opening night premiere of "Stephen Curry: Underrated" at 66th San Francisco International Film Festival at Grand Lake Theatre on April 13, 2023 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)