Oakland Wants to Put Its Homeless on a Cruise Ship

Call it the “Love Boat.” 

Oakland, ground zero for the nation’s homeless crisis, is planning to host its street people on a cruise ship. 

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One cruise ship company has agreed to lend a hand, but the plan confronts a major logistical problem.  There’s no place in the Oakland port to berth the boat.

Oakland’s city council president, Rebecca Kaplan, who’s as exasperated as the rest of the city over its mounting homelessness problem, is pushing ahead with the plan, despite criticism that it’s unrealistic and also a potential public relations disaster.

Cruise ships have been deployed in relief-type operations in the past — during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example.  But it turned out to be enormously expensive – and embarrassing.  Those aboard the ship were housed at the whopping cost of $100,000 per family. 

Even with widespread sympathy for the Katrina victims, it seemed to many like a wasteful boondoggle. 

Kaplan insists that the plan can work, citing the use of cruise ships to house participants in past World Olympic Games, without much controversy.

Some critics say the rooms on cruise ships are unusually small and deliberately made so, in part to encourage guests to spend most of their brief cruise time out of doors, returning to their rooms mainly just to sleep. 

They think it’s unrealistic to put homeless families on a cruise ship for an extended – and possibly indefinite — stay

But others say the problem is just the opposite:  A cruise ship environment projects luxury and sends the wrong signal to the homeless and to other city residents, especially the working poor who are struggling just to pay their rent.

After the devastation of Katrina, the Carnival Cruise Line dispatched three of its ships to New Orleans to provide emergency housing but the company was widely criticized even though it insisted that its enormous fee – paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) – only covered its operating costs.

Evacuees from Katrina ended up rejecting the accommodations so the city used them to house its displaced workers and their families instead.   A second cruise ship line also cashed in on the operation.

The issue of using cruise ships to shelter disaster victims arose again last year after the devastation in Puerto Rico. 

In the end, FEMA spent $75 million to dock a half-empty cruise ship off the coast of the island for four months.  That was more than the agency spent on direct home rebuilding operations in Puerto Rico over the same period.

Representatives of cruise ship companies have extolled the use of their ships during emergency relief operations while stopping short of endorsing them as semi-permanent homeless shelters

“Cruise ships used as dockside “floating hotels” are a welcome solution for cities, counties, organizations, or companies looking for hard-to-find hotel accommodations. The ship’s sleeping rooms and other venues are available for insurance adjusters, clean-up crews, construction teams, medical professionals and others,” one trade industry source notes

Oakland has struggled for months with how to address its deepening homeless crisis.  The homeless population has surged 47% in just the past two years, and many have begun living illegally out of their cars.

Earlier this year, the city council came up with an innovative plan to establish designated “car parks” on the edge of the city exclusively for the homeless

The city council cruise ship plan calls for 1,000 homeless to be sheltered on at least one cruise ship, assuming a way to berth it can be found.  Kaplan is soliciting support from the main cruise line companies and asking Oakland residents and homeless advocates to support the plan.

But judging from the reaction thus far, the plan’s unlikely to find its sea legs anytime soon.

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