Bay Area tent cities pop up as soaring housing costs take toll

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SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- They are tucked under countless miles of Oakland BART tracks, beneath freeway overpasses, and down alleyways.

Where a year ago there was one, now dozens of homeless encampments and tents have sprung up. KTVU went inside several of Oakland’s "tent cities" to meet the people who call them home, hear their stories, and find out why these communities appear to have dramatically grown in the last few years.

Blocks from Oakland City Hall, street corners have been swallowed up, where laundry, garbage and commerce now mingle as one. Industrial areas in West Oakland have become shanty towns with flea market flair.

Some people told KTVU they were living in tents or homemade shelter because of drug use, mental disorders, or financial problems.

Iraq War Veteran Lee Smith calls his mini-van home. It sits under a shroud of tarps on West Oakland's Wood Street. His gritty neighborhood has grown from 60 to more than 200 people this past year.

Smith is a handyman and says he wants out, but simply can't afford it.

"I'm on a fixed income," he said. "Rent went up (and) all my checks just went like that without taking care of the bills. I had to make a choice," he said.


Shop owners in the area said they’ve seen the problem explode. Many are sympathetic but say the growing “tent city” is also hurting their business.

Ray Mezur owns the Golden West Envelope printing company directly across from the Wood Street encampment.

"They have taken over everything and we’re concerned with the safety of employees," he said. "We're concerned about our insurance rates because everything goes up because of what’s going on out there."

Oakland has less than 500 shelter beds with a homeless population more than 2,200, according to the city. And more than half of their homeless are from Oakland with no plan of moving out.

Homeless resident James Moore says he moved back to Oakland to care for his elderly father who was living in this encampment at East 12th Street. He couldn't afford the rent, so he moved in with his father. And out of principle, he says, he isn't budging from his hometown.

"Why should we have to move away when we are born and raised here. I was born raised in Oakland! I left for 30 years, moved to Pasadena. I came back and decided to stay for my father," Moore said. "He's getting on in years. He's a vet, he needs someone around."

The City has reached out through their Compassionate Communities program and provided portable toilets and garbage clean-up. But critics call that nothing but “urban triage."

I mean the city comes by ever few weeks and picks up garbage for them. I pay 700 dollars a month for mine and they get it free," said Mezur.

But for some homeless residents like lifelong Oakland Raymond Joseph, 50, they feel forgotton.

"No one actually comes out and actually evaluates the situation," Joseph said. "See if anybody can, I don't know, do better by being evaluated or show steps to take or contacts to make to do better."

Joseph has called the I-980 overpass at West Grand home for more than two years. A Laney College grad that couldn't get work, he now dreams of a way out.

"I don't want to be homeless or I don't want to be someone who doesn't fit in with the main stream society," he said, "because the camp doesn't define me. It’s just somewhere to pitch a tent and be."

According to the 2015 EveryOne Counts homeless census, Alameda County has more than 4,000 homeless residents.

More than 2,300 of the county's homeless "unsheltered," meaning they don’t have any sort of temporary or emergency shelter to live in.

More than 115,000 homeless Californians were counted in 2015 and one in four had a serious mental illness, according to the most recent tally from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.