Rebecca Kaplan was reading an old article about hurricanes when she got the idea.
The violent wind storms typically aren’t a concern for the Oakland, California, City Council president's constituents, but a creative solution for housing the storm victims caught her eye.
If cruise ships could be used as emergency housing in natural disasters, maybe they could be used to help in Oakland’s emergency: homelessness.
The housing crisis in the city that sits across the bay from San Francisco has resulted in a surge of tent encampments across city sidewalks, under freeway overhangs and in public parks. By the latest count, more than 4,000 people are experiencing homelessness in the city of just over 400,000, up 47% in just two years.
City and state officials have made addressing the issue a priority, but solutions take time and shelter beds remain in short supply. With limited access to running water and toilets, it’s become both a humanitarian and public health emergency, classified as such at both at the city and state levels of government.
“It is a human catastrophe,” Kaplan said, adding that the crisis should be approached like any other disaster. “It has to be all hands on deck.”
The strategies to solve the problem aren’t scaling to meet the magnitude of the problem and she said she'd like to see more solutions brought to the table – even if those ideas raise a few eyebrows.© Rebecca Kaplan Rebecca Kaplan, president of the Oakland, Calif., city council
After Kaplan floated the cruise ship idea, it didn’t take long for word to spread. She says she’s already been contacted by cruise ship companies and is planning to present a fully fledged proposal that could add up to 1,000 on-board beds to the council early next year.
“We say this is an emergency,” Kaplan said. “So, I thought, well, we have a natural-disaster level of crisis. Now I am in dialogue with people who can actually do something.”
From her experience serving a term on the Bay Area Air Quality Control Board, Kaplan recalled that some cruise lines were running up against a deadline to change their systems or dock in place and might be accessible at low-cost to the city.
“There is a synergy,” she said. “All of a sudden there might be cruise ships available.”
The idea has been met with some initial scrutiny, especially from officials at Oakland’s Port, which only caters to cargo ships.
“There isn’t the infrastructure to berth a cruise ship,” port spokesman Mike Zampa told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Safety and security issues at the federally regulated maritime facilities would make residential uses untenable.”
The strategy has also been problematic in the past.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came under fire after Hurricane Katrina for fast-tracking a $236 million contract to Carnival Cruise Lines – a big GOP donor – only to house a handful of victims. After evacuees opted for on-land options over the cruise ship cabins, rooms sat empty for weeks.
Former California Rep. Henry Waxman called the incident a “boondoggle” in a letter to Bush sent in 2006, highlighting that for the $240,000 it cost taxpayers to shelter each family the federal government could have built them permanent homes.
But Kaplan is convinced that the cruise ships are still an option, and she’s ready to see to it that anything with potential to help the problem is pursued. With numbers increasing, both housed and unhoused communities are becoming increasingly aggravated by the city’s attempts to clear the streets as housing costs continue to rise.
© STOCK PHOTO A cruise ship at sea A group of displaced Oakland mothers made national news this week when they took the matter into their own hands, inhabiting an investor-owned vacant house, one of thousands across the city. The fourmothers and their children are staging a fight to stay in the home with the help of local activists but could be forcibly evicted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 17.
Giant tree trunks have also been placed on sidewalks throughout the city, believed to be the work of business owners hoping it will deter people looking for a spot to spend the night. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have been charged with breaking up tent clusters in a whack-a-mole attempt to crack down on unsanctioned encampments. But Kaplan said when people have nowhere to go, making them move only pushes the problem into the future.
And Oakland still plans on closing more camps before the end of 2019.
The closure of 133 camps so far in 2019 doesn't count the planned closure of camps on International Blvd and other upcoming removals per the city's schedule. pic.twitter.com/liDXhq4gJs— Darwin BondGraham (@DarwinBondGraha) December 6, 2019
“They relocate to the next underpass and a month later, at great expense to the city, the cops are called out again to remove them,” Kaplan said. “This is creating a huge amount of expenditure and taking people away from other things they need to be doing, and at the end of the day nothing has changed for all that time, and trouble and money.”
Though the cruise ship idea was what made headlines this week, it’s just one part of a three-part plan that also includes calls for expanding access to areas where people are allowed to camp or park RVs, complete with toilets and water, and examining the region’s building stock for more options that can be quickly turned into emergency housing.
Kaplan acknowledges that there are still a lot of questions to answer.
"I am not saying it is a done deal," she said. "What I am saying is we need to put a lot more options on the table. If there’s a chance we can make it work, we should try."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California official floats a new idea: House homeless on a cruise ship