Oakland’s trying a new response to its growing communities of homeless encampments: replacing some with gated communities of Tuff Sheds meant to help residents find their way to permanent housing.
In Oakland, this has meant an explosion of tent encampments, forcing city officials into a difficult choice between tolerating the camps — which can be vulnerable to crime and disease — or clearing them away.
Lately though, a new approach has surfaced: replacing some with communities of tiny wooden sheds. Some of these facilities include sanitation, security and on-site social workers. But they serve just a fraction of the nearly 2,000 people sleeping outside in Oakland every night. And they come at the cost of clearing existing encampments nearby.
When the city began its latest project in April, unsheltered residents next door wondered if they’d be invited in to live in the city-sanctioned sheds, or forced to move on.
Five years in a tent city
Marcus Emory was one of nearly 100 people living at the homeless encampment at 27th and Northgate, in West Oakland.
He lived in a plywood shack that had been built for him by a good Samaritan. He says that he’s always had apartments, but he became homeless after being evicted from his Oakland apartment two years ago.
“I got with a female that was heavily on drugs,” he says. “And instead of me paying my rent, I paid her drug deals. Looked up, had an eviction notice.”
At first, he slept on a couch in the street outside his old apartment. Then his nephew, Shawn Moses, who was already living at 27th and Northgate, invited Emory to join him, and he’s been with him ever since.
Moses says he lost his job in 2001, after the stock market crash, and has been homeless since then. He lived next door to Emory, in a nearly identical wooden shack.
“I’ve been here five years,” he says. “The longest basically.”
As the most veteran resident, Moses served as a spokesperson and advocate for safety at the community. Over those five years, He says he’d lost a friend to a hit-and-run accident, and another to a tent fire that he suspected was homicide.
Even beyond the perils of violence and speeding cars, living outside is extremely dangerous. Communicable diseases spread more easily and healthcare is hard to come by. One study looking at cities around the world found that the average lifespan for a homeless person is just 50 years.
“I count one homeless person a month die just in this area,” says Moses. “That’s a lot of people.”
How to do “Housing First” when there’s no housing
Oakland doesn’t keep track of the number of unhoused persons who die each year, but no one doubts the need for a better approach.
Many advocates and researchers support a philosophy known as “Housing First,” which prioritizes housing as the first response to homelessness.
They argue that permanent shelter is the foundation for making other changes like finding employment or managing substance dependency. So local resources should be devoted to putting the most vulnerable unhoused people into stable, permanent homes.
But of the more than $18 million dollars Oakland spends annually on homelessness, just $1.7 million goes towards “housing first” programs.
Although these programs serve about 700 individuals, according to city officials, that money is stretched ever tighter by skyrocketing local rents.
As a result, most of Oakland’s housing-insecure residents have to find space in the city’s dwindling supply of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, at overbooked shelters, or too often, on the streets.
One new approach has been sheds: Tuff Sheds.
Costing about $3,000 off the shelf at Home Depot, the wood and steel structures measure 10-by-12 feet. They’re green with white trim, a set of windows and a squat, triangular roof.
In late April, the city installed 20 Tuff Sheds in a parking lot by the 27th and Northgate encampment. Officials promised that individuals living there would have access to electricity, bathrooms, a kitchen, a small dog park, and a mobile shower service.
Residents could only stay for six months to a year, but the city was offering an on-site social worker to help them get permanent housing.
Only 40 residents from the encampment would be able to move into the sheds. Everyone else — about 60 people — would have to gather up their belongings and move on. In late April, Emory and Moses were unsure if they’d be among the lucky few.
Marcus Emory said that he didn’t know who would be picked. “But I pray that I’m one of the lucky few,” he said.
A new approach
Assistant to the City Administrator Joe DeVries says officials have struggled to address the city’s nearly 200 homeless encampments. The city had tried just clearing them away, but that didn’t accomplish anything.
“What we found was we spend a lot of money, a lot of resources closing an encampment down, and literally just pushing problem a block down a street,” he said.
In 2016, the city began experimenting with a different strategy: sanctioning certain encampments, starting with a site in West Oakland.
“We did allow people to be in a certain area,” said DeVries. “We provided porta-potties and wash stations. We also provided a full-time case manager.”
Instead of removing residents, the city would provide some help. Only one site received a social worker, but others got the porta-potties, hand-wash stations and trash cleanup.
Flash forward two years to today, and a total of 14 sites are overseen in this fashion. The city now has its own “encampment management team” that meets regularly. Other cities like Seattle and Portland have found success with similar policies, and DeVries said the model is working in Oakland too.
“What we learned from that is if we provide some basic services, and case management, we can navigate people to housing faster,” said DeVries.
Then, in December 2017, with $650,000 in funds from the county and donations from local businesses like Kaiser Hospital, the city embarked on its first experiment with Tuff Sheds.
The site chosen was a large homeless encampment near downtown Oakland, at 6th and Brush streets. Public works employees cleared the camp, and 40 residents were moved into 20 sheds at the new site, along with access to bathrooms and showers, meals and a social worker.
Choosing who gets a shed, and who has to move on
DeVries said the city uses a formula to determine who gets a spot in the Tuff Shed communities.
“The first group of people will be the people that we have documentation that we know are living there the longest,” he said. “After that, everyone else will be ranked for coordinated entry model, which ranks people based on need.”
Factors the model considers include: the presence of a chronic health condition, mental illness, substance dependency, age and length of time living outside. Those not chosen would have to move on.
“To be fair, we will not get everyone housed in the area. So it’s gonna be tricky to figure out how to manage and close the encampment surrounding facility,” said DeVries.
So where will those other 60 people go? There aren’t many options.
A long wait list confronts any applicant to one of Oakland’s transitional housing facilities — and the city has offered beds at the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter. But many 27th and Northgate residents aren’t interested.
Shelters have restrictive rules about coming and going. Living outside, for all its hardships, offers more freedom. So, as residents learned that the city was clearing the encampment, many said their plan was to move on to a different one.
Early in May, word spread around 27th and Northgate that the city was clearing the encampment, to prepare for the move to the Tuff Sheds. In response, activists planned a protest. The morning of the clearance, about 50 people showed up with coffee, pastries, and bottled water.
An organizer named Blake, with a group called People’s Breakfast Oakland, said he and the others were there to keep an eye on the police and support the residents of the camp who were being displaced.
“How do you evict people who don’t have homes?” he said. “The people in government, they don’t see the humanity of people.”
Some advocates for the homeless criticize the Tuff Sheds approach. They say the city is simply moving people out of sight, without investing in permanent, stable housing for its 2,700 homeless residents.
Oakland has committed $7 million to a new transitional facility, and tens of millions more to affordable housing.
But for the protesters who showed up and met city staffers with anger, there was no justifying the displacement of people living at the camp.
In the end, the city decided only one block would be cleared that day. More would be done gradually throughout the month. Cops would wake residents up and tell them they had to move on. Sanitation workers would remove tents and dump trash into garbage trucks. Power washers would sweep away the last traces that anyone had ever lived there.
There were a lot of unknowns: What would shelter in the Tuff Shed community mean to individuals living there? The city’s first community, at 6th and Brush streets, offered clues.
The intersection is in an out-of-the-way corner of Oakland, close to the I-880 freeway. It’s a dirt lot, enclosed by a barbed wire fence, that hosts 20 blue and red sheds.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a security guard sat at a shaded table, checking residents in and out. A young woman named Kristen volunteered to talk outside the gates.
She said she had been living at the site for six months, since it opened in December of 2017.
Before that she had been on the street for five years. She said the on-site social worker has tried to move her into a transitional facility called Henry Robinson, but she hasn’t gone because her boyfriend, currently in jail, wouldn’t be allowed to join her.
“I been with him 11 years. I’m not gonna not live without my dude,” she said. “So I can’t live in the Henry.”
But just living in the sheds, she says, does feel better than in an encampment.
“When I was in a tent it sucked,” she said. “It’s a lot better in the sheds. When it rains you have a roof over your head. Get fed every morning, get dinner every night. A lot of people are more healthy now.”
Health is important. But the real goal is permanent housing. And that’s been trickier.
The city claims eight individuals have moved on from this tuff shed community to transitional housing. But critics point out that two of the eight individuals who’ve left are already back on the street. Kristen, for her part, was hopeful she’d find a solution in time.
“Yeah I think it’ll happen,” she said. “Like, they promised us — first the city forced us off the streets. So it’s like, now I’m in the sheds, you guys should help me. I’m trying to help myself. I can’t do it all alone.”
Finally, in early May, good news came for Marcus Emory and Shawn Moses. They learned that they would receive spots in the Tuff Shed community at 27th and Northgate.
“It’s a relief,” said Emory. “A relief from all this anxiety.”