Funding for homeless evokes historical rift between Alameda County cities and Oakland

Fremont Mayor Lily Mei addressing the Alameda County Board of Supervisor in Oakland on Nov. 20.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf earlier this month made surprisingly candid comments disparaging a plan by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for divvying up $16.2 million in new, one-time-only, state funding to combat homelessness.

Last week, a number of Alameda County mayors, in a show of solidarity, refuted Schaaf’s critique, saying the rest of county lacks the basic infrastructure to help the homeless already present in Oakland, therefore, requires a larger portion of the allotment.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 850, freeing up $500 million to aid the homeless problem in the state. Alameda County received $16.2 million, while Oakland received a separate “large-city” allocation of $8.7 million. But Oakland officials also demanded a proportional share of the countywide pool–roughly $7.4 million–Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi, said on Nov. 20.

The Oakland City Adminstrator’s Office, also, did not fully participate in a sub-committee of Alameda County city manager until late in the process, said Muranishi. Instead, county supervisors voted to allocate an additional $3 million to Oakland.

“It would be too bad if we had to come down to ourselves again to do this.”Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan on the possibility of a countywide sales tax increase within the next two years to fund programs for the homeless.

On Nov. 13, Schaaf suggested to the San Francisco Chronicle that the county was being penalized for its success in tackling the homeless problem in Oakland. Schaaf’s criticism of the county supervisor’s over funding for the homeless also isn’t new. It’s a gripe Schaaf often lodged against the county during her recent re-election campaign.

But a number of Alameda County elected officials including, Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter, Union City Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci, Livermore Mayor John Marchand, Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, and Hayward Councilmember Mark Salinas, disagreed.

Mei said Fremont’s homeless population represents 18 percent of the total number in Alameda County, yet receives just under 3 percent of state and federal funding to alleviate the problem. The Fremont City Council increased funding for homeless services last year, said Mei, from $470,000 to $2.4 million, and plans to add additional services next year.

“Fremont cant do this alone,” said Mei, who added Oakland has a built-in infrastructure that others in the county do not. “This is a tremendous disparity in funding versus homelessness. This disparity disadvantageous every other city in the county other than Oakland.”

“Suburban poverty and urban poverty are very different,” said Marchand, “and the Tri-Valley does not have an abundance of service providers to choose from for the provision of services.” All seven shelters in the five-city Tri-Valley are located in Livermore, he added. But none serve those with behavioral health issues and substance abuse services, said Marchand.

Dutra-Vernaci, like every official at the hearing, noted the homeless problem is a regional issue. “One of us can’t do it alone, so we got together–collaborated–our city staffs put together a program that we think is very workable,” she said. “This money, of course, is not enough, so I would be surprised if any of it is not spent within the three years it is allocated.”

Alameda County Supervisor also said $500 million in total statewide funding from the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) is “not anywhere near adequate,” especially in light of the state’s reported $30 billion budget surplus. By comparison, the county affordable housing bond, approved by voters in 2016, is $580 million, said Chan.
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As the county awaits news for how the incoming administration in Sacramento responds to further funding solutions for the homeless in the state, Chan said she is looking into the feasibility of Vote-By-Mail special election to raise taxes for helping the homeless in the county or a ballot measure in 2020. “It would be too bad if we had to come down to ourselves again to do this,” said Chan.

But the discussion last week highlighted a historic rift between Oakland city officials and the rest of the county. Oakland, with a population of roughly 400,000, is the largest in Alameda County. Neighboring cities, along with those in the Tri-Valley and Fremont–the second-largest in the county–often express disenchantment with what they feel is Oakland’s arrogance when it comes to regional matters.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, who represents a portion of Oakland, attempted to tamp down on the regional resentment. “As long as we stay at the table and not make each other the target, and keep focus on the people who are unsheltered, I think we have a compassionate enough decision makers in that community,” he said. “As opposed to criticizing, we need to sit down and be a party of the decision-making process.”

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