Raised in poverty, Daniel Cooper knows what it’s like to sleep in the car, hunt for food, shower at the gym and more.
He hopes the hard-earned experience will give him a boost as he takes on one of Oakland’s toughest jobs — tackling the homelessness crisis that has left cars, RVs and huge shacks living in camps scattered across the city. Thousands of Oaklanders have been abandoned by roads, sidewalks and vacant land.
“I’m nice because I understand what people are going through,” Cooper said. “And I understand that single mothers are trying to get a job and are doing whatever they can to raise their children. … I understand a person who wants to do better, but how does that work?”
But despite his direct knowledge, Oakland’s new homeless steward still has to prove himself to Oakland residents who blame the city for allowing the unsightly, filthy, and often dangerous campgrounds to proliferate, and activists and undomesticated people, who call the Dera of the city. Sweep’ unfairly punish vulnerable people to go elsewhere.
Cooper, a public health specialist who last worked for the North Carolina county government, was hired after a year-long search to lead Oakland’s homeless initiative. This is a difficult task in a city with over 5,000 non-residents and a severe shortage of affordable housing.
He hopes to find a balance between prioritizing non-domesticated individuals and their welfare while limiting the impact of the camps. One of his first assignments would be to clear two of Oakland’s most stranded camps and rehabilitate their residents — the first a camp on East 12th Street in East Oakland and the second a massive camp near Wood Street in West Oakland . But he said he first wanted to get to know the people living in the camps to better understand how he could help them.
Cooper grew up in Ocala, Florida to a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Trinidad. As a child, before moving to council housing, he lived in a run-down house at risk of falling out of a hole in the ground. Later, while working on a master’s degree in public health at Nova Southeastern University, he slept in his car for several months.
Still, with the fast pace of business, Cooper’s new role is extremely difficult. He replaces Daryl Dunston, who left the company just a year before moving to a non-profit organization in March 2021. Before Dunstan, Deputy City Manager Joe Davis pioneered homelessness interventions. But he backed out of the work he proposed after he was accused by activists during a 2019 City Council meeting, citing people who have returned to camp after the camps were cleared.
This year, three members of Oakland’s homeless service — including human resources director Sarah Bedford — are gone, and Cooper is tasked with helping fill in.
In April, Cooper’s team began clearing a warehouse in the middle of East 12th Street that had been prone to fires. So far, the city has relocated about half a dozen residents to shelters or shelters and demolished some temporary housing, he said.
The city recently received a $4.7 million state grant to clear the massive canton of Wood Street in West Oakland. The camp is home to a number of well-organized colonies that have set up their own unsanctioned community centers, coordinated fundraisers and events, and even launched a website.
Cooper envisions building some sort of shelter there — maybe a high-end tiny house — that can house at least 100 people over the next few months. He met with non-resident residents there to hear their contributions.
Daniel Cooper, the City of Oakland’s new homeless administrator, poses for a photo at Oakland City Hall on Friday, July 8, 2022 in Oakland, Calif. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
“We’re not going to bring a heavy hammer,” Cooper said. “It’s really about meeting people where they are. That’s the secret sauce.”
John Janosco, who lives in a trailer near Wood Street and has lived in shelters for the past seven years, doesn’t have much faith in the city’s shelter plans. So far, the tiny homes the city has built elsewhere feel like concentration camps, he said, citing their small common spaces, lack of running water, limited resources and strict regulations. Still, he appreciates Cooper’s presence on Wood Street.
“It looks like he wants to do well, but he doesn’t know us yet. He doesn’t know how things are,” said Janosco, 53.
One of Cooper’s most difficult tasks will be enforcing the city’s controversial administrative policies, which he admits are incomplete. It states that people are not allowed to camp in certain areas near homes and businesses, but stipulates that the city cannot evacuate a camp unless it can accommodate all residents. Nor can the city force people to seek shelter. Some activists and expats say the city isn’t doing a good job of informing people about available housing or offering accommodation tailored to individuals’ needs.
The city has to be strict when it comes to urging people into homeless shelters, said Blaise Bova, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul in Alameda County, which operates an animal shelter in West Oakland. Shelters usually have at least 30 beds available, but many non-homeowners turn them down as living in a tent gives them more freedom. This means they miss out on accommodation services like case management, showers and laundry while living in illegal camps, she said.
“I think as a community we really tend to leave people behind at worst,” Bova said.
Seneca Scott, mayoral candidate and executive director of the nonprofit Neighbors with Oakland, agrees. His group is part of an ongoing process trying to force the city to crack down on homeless camps.
“You have to turn them off immediately, period,” he said. “Use what is possible.”
Janosco has a different question than Cooper.
“We want him to work with us,” he said. “We want the homeless community to be treated like people, like people first.”