Dear Ms. Tilak,

Thank you for your April 24th letter. The National Lawyers Guild – SFBA welcomes the efforts of the Oakland City Council and City Attorney Barbara Parker to protect incarcerated people and other communities that are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shrinking the population at Santa Rita by releasing people with less than six months or less to serve on their sentences is an important step in this direction.

In regards to your invitation to share additional suggestions, we believe there are further steps to be taken to reduce the risk of increased infection at Santa Rita and urge the City Attorney to advocate for them as well. First, we ask the City and the City Attorney to join in the demand for testing of all people in custody at Santa Rita. The crowded jail conditions – which make CDC guidelines such as social distancing untenable – make it critical for everyone in the jail to be tested to prevent asymptomatic but infected individuals from infecting others. The Sheriff along with their private medical provider, Wellpath, have rejected this proposal, creating the conditions for the rapid spread of the disease. There is no excuse for not testing all people in custody at Santa Rita. Testing is a necessity.

Secondly, the jail population can be further reduced by releasing all people in custody who are awaiting trial for offenses that do not involve alleged acts of violence as well as those with health conditions or of an age that increases their vulnerability to COVID-19. We believe that these people in custody can be released without risk to public safety.

However, as we have seen recently, releasing people from jail may simply lead to their winding up on the street, where they will continue to be at high risk for infection and spreading the disease. It is critical that the Sheriff, other County agencies, and cities in Alameda County work together to find housing for people released from custody.

Thus, we urge the City Attorney to work with us to address the needs of people experiencing houselessness, another section of our community at high risk of harm from COVID-19. We want the City to take a collaborative approach toward addressing the issues people who are houseless are experiencing, similar to what is occurring in Los Angeles and Orange County.

We ask that the City pressure the County to remove all barriers to accessing hotel rooms. The current program only allows those who are symptomatic and awaiting test results (meaning they must have access to a test, which is difficult), those who are positive, or those over 65 or medically fragile to access hotel rooms. When in the hotel rooms, they must abandon all items other than a 64 gallon bag consisting of clothing, medications, religious items, legal identification, vital papers, and other small personal items. They cannot have pets (one service animal excepted). They cannot have guests or leave the premises, and may only have three 20 minute breaks outdoors a day. They do not get a key to the hotel room and they are under supervision of security guards. These conditions replicate prisons and jails. Very few people will be successful in their program under these circumstances. You can read more here. The University of California Berkeley School of Public Health also just released a new report on the COVID-19 Homeless Response which underlines the following necessities:

“Hotels rooms or other forms of single-occupancy units should be employed as prevention to prevent viral spread, not just for quarantine or isolation. Similarly, housing should not depend on test results….[We must] provide hotel rooms with accommodations to make them appropriate for people experiencing homelessness, including safe transportation, storage of personal belongings, accommodations for pets and/or families, trauma-informed protocols, and adopting a low-barrier approach.”

Oakland needs a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the crisis of houselessness, especially in this time of pandemic, which we do not see ending any time soon. It is now far more dangerous than it has been to have people living on the streets. We need an approach that includes immediate, short-term, and permanent approaches including:

  1. Designation of safe camping spaces that allow social distancing and include clean toilets, hand-washing stations, showers, and garbage collection.
  2. Vehicle parking areas with clean toilets, hand-washing stations, showers, and garbage collection.
  3. Short term emergency housing in shelters and tiny houses that allow families to stay together with their pets and property and provide services for job training and treatment of substance abuse and other mental health issues.
  4. A commitment to a vast increase in the creation of affordable housing in the range of 1000- 2000 units yearly.
  5. Support for current eviction moratoriums by extending protections through implementing a rent forgiveness program.

Thank you again for reaching out to the NLG. We look forward to working together on these issues.

Sincerely,

Sara Kershnar, Executive Director National Lawyers Guild – SFBA

Cc: Alameda County Board of Supervisors and Public Defender