Finding housing during a pandemic
One of the two windows of 60 year old Donna Ewings’ home is covered in butterfly decals. Her home is a 9 x12 foot Tuff Shed, the length of a small sedan. It’s at the Oak Street Cabins, near Chinatown. She shares it with her Chihuahua Tazzie and a roommate who's around the same age.
“We act like little kids,” Ewing said. “We'll stay up till three, four o'clock in the morning talking, laughing, giggling. We drink tea at night.”
There's a few feet between Ewing and her roommates’ Twin beds. Stacked between them: a white orchid, hair curlers, a Pilates band, perfume, a copy of the Bible, a bag of dog food. There’s a succulent on top of a dresser she scored at a flea market. Ewing goes to flea markets and thrift shops most weekends looking for furniture for her future apartment. The one she fantasizes about moving into. “Hopefully it's soon,” Ewing said. “‘Cause I can put my new furniture and stuff inside my own place.”
Ewing has long brownish gray hair, a petite frame. Her dog Tazzie is almost always on her lap or at her heels. Ewing moved into the Oak Street Cabins in the summer of 2020, about six months after the site opened as Oakland’s seventh community cabin site. The site is managed by a local non-profit, Family Bridges. It’s under an entrance ramp of the I880 freeway: Caltrans is leasing the property to the city of Oakland for a dollar a month. The site is fenced off from the public. It has 19 Tuff Sheds with 38 beds, four porta-potties and a tent over a common area with couches, a table, toaster, microwave, and water coolers. Trucks with showers come twice a week.
“My life is not perfect, but I'm trying to live day by day. And, when I stress out, I want to use drugs. But then I think, look, I'm getting my teeth and my social security, my monthly income, my makeup, my clothes.”
Laura Tannenbaum, the city's manager of community homelessness services, said the sites weren’t designed to be permanent. The city launched the community cabins program, she said, as a response to the encampments - or tent cities, which aren’t healthy or safe for the people living in them. The program has many goals, like helping residents connect with a health care provider, or benefits they’re eligible for, like food stamps. But overall, the city wants residents to be able to leave, get housing, and end their unsheltered status. “It was always the intention that people would use them for an emergency kind of respite and then move on,” Tannenbaum says. “Our goal would be that the beds would turn over every six months.”
Six months is considered the best practice length of stay of an interim housing program by HUD, Tannenbaum said. “What people need is a little bit of time to catch their breath and stabilize, and then they need to be able to move to their own living situation. just like you and me.”
The idea behind the community cabins: move in, receive services, and move on - into housing. There are currently 6 cabin sites in Oakland. Oak Street is the newest. Since the program launched in 2017, it has served nearly one thousand people, the majority of them have disabilities. Fifty seven percent of those residents have made positive exits from the cabins. Meaning, they haven’t returned to the streets. Their average length of stay is 7.3 months.
The city doesn’t have data yet about how the pandemic impacted residents’ average length of stay. But the Oak Street Cabins Housing Service Manager, David Le, says since the Shelter In Place Ordinance was announced in March of 2020, many residents have stayed longer than intended, with a roughly estimated average of 9 months.
The Shelter In Place Ordinance made it difficult for residents to navigate housing options. That’s because before you can get housing, you need an ID, a social security card, a source of income - documents that many cabin residents don’t have when they move in. DMVs were closed during the first months of the pandemic. So were other government offices, like the County Clerk office and Social Security office. So, getting public benefits had to be done completely online or over the phone. But if you don’t have a home, and your city is shut down, hopping on the phone or computer can be nearly impossible.
Lara Tannenbaum said she thinks there was a fair amount of frustration among residents that government offices were closed. “People couldn't get their IDs because the DMV was closed and they couldn't sign up for benefits because the social security office was closed,” she said. “So I'm sure people felt somewhat frustrated and stuck.”
When Donna Ewing moved into the cabins, she didn’t have an ID or a social security card. “At that time COVID,” Ewing said, “we couldn't move. Nobody moved.”
Now, Ewing has been living in the Oak street cabins for almost 14 months.
Ewing’s been in and out of transitional housing since she was a kid. When she came to Oak Street, Ewing was living in a tent for seven years in a park near the water called Union Point. She said it wasn’t a good place for her. “The men would harass me, to have sex with them and everything. And I was not in the mood for it.”
Ewing lives with depression, addiction, kidney problems, and a seizure disorder. “I would have seizures and I would mess my pants,” Ewing said. “For 10, 15 minutes, I'd be blacked out. I didn't know what happened. And then one time when I had a seizure, this guy was on top of me when I woke up. I just wanted to get away from all the drama that's over there.”
So she came to the cabins. At first, she wasn't so sure about the program. After living outside for seven years, she was not used to being inside. So, Ewing sometimes would leave, sleep on the streets and come back. That’s not unusual, David Le, who manages the Oak Street site, said. “I do have residents who will come in,” Le said. “And they would prefer to sleep out on the street.”
“When shelter in place hit it kind of stopped the clock for them, so that means like it's an indefinite stay.”
Le, who helps residents navigate their journey towards permanent housing, says it can take time for residents to get used to sleeping inside. “A lot of the people have been homeless for so long that when they come, they are still trying to get comfortable in living in a structured environment,” Le said.
The cabin has a policy that residents can come and go as they please. There's no curfew, but if they're away for over 72 hours, they can forfeit their bed.
Typically, when new residents move in, the staff’s priority is to help them get their public benefits like an ID or income from social security. But at the time Ewing moved in, during the Shelter in Place ordinance, Le said documentation was very hard to get. “Especially like IDs,” he said. “The DMV closed at some point, so that's kind of like a standstill.”
For Ewing, this unwelcomed delay came with - what she feels - is a tiny silver lining. As she waited on her documents to come through, she started seeing a doctor who made regular visits to the site. She made him her primary care doctor. She began her journey to sobriety. Four months in, Ewing got new clothes. She said it made her feel better about herself. On days when the shower truck isn't there or she misses the truck, Ewing takes bottled water into one of the Port-a-potties on site.
Six months into Ewing’s stay, a dentist began visiting the site. “They pulled out some teeth,” she said. She’s awaiting new dentures.
This past April, Ewing’s application for supplemental social security income was accepted. “And so now I get an income,” Ewing says. “It took me nine months to get back on social security.”
Ewing now gets around $1000 each month in disability benefits. It goes into a debit account that was set up when she was awarded the payment. And since then, she’s been saving up.
“My life is not perfect, but I'm trying to live day by day,” Ewing says. “When I stress out I want to use drugs. But then I think ‘look, I'm getting my teeth, my social security, my monthly income, my makeup, my clothes.’”
Had Ewing had to leave after six months, she says she'd probably be back in a tent, trying to figure out how to survive.
While the Covid delay has given residents like Ewing some extra time to stabilize their lives, David Le says for other residents, it’s become a little too stable - almost stagnant.
“When shelter in place hit, it kind of stopped the clock for them,” he says. “And when that happened, some of them thought, Hey, I'm gonna be here permanently.”
The residents, Le said, have seen few of their co-residents move to permanent housing. “And so they get complacent,” Le said. “And as you know, the cabin is not built for long term living. It's a tough shed with no running water, under the bridge, where debris falls every day and every night. They get dirty.”
Ewing got sober, got her papers in order, and built some savings. And by now, the constant dust falling from the overpass, the drama amongst the residents, the swarms of flies in the common areas… It’s getting to her. Ewing is ready to move on.
She says some residents are hoarding water. “And this is drinking water for everybody to drink,” she says. “I'm just sitting here, like, like I'm sitting here like dead time.”
Ewing’s frustrated with the cabins program - with the city - for not getting her permanent housing. But finding housing in the Bay Area is easier said than done.
Le spends a lot of time searching for SROs - single residence occupancy housing, one of the least costly affordable housing options not subsidized by the government. He said the cheapest SRO rent he's found in the Bay Area is around $850 per month. “I can get her in,” Le says. “But what happens after that? Most of her SSI will go to rent. What's she going to have left, maybe 200 bucks? … 200 bucks a month for food, utility, personal expenses... 200 bucks in the bay area?”
Le fears Ewing would be back on the streets again. “If I were just thinking about me in her shoes, I mean, I would feel discouraged.” Le said.
As of June 15, when California’s Shelter In Place Ordinance officially ended, the clock is back on for residents at Oak Street to meet the 6-month move-out goal. Since then, 4 residents have moved into housing.
Three of them moved into permanent supportive housing, where residents receive supportive services like case management and mental health care. The rent is heavily subsidized by the Oakland Housing Authority - renters pay around 30% of their income, and the rest is covered by the Housing Authority. So in Ewing’s case, rent could be as low as $300 per month. Others pay even less. Ewing is on a list for this kind of housing.
City of Oakland’s Lara Tannenbaum says there’s simply not nearly enough units of deeply affordable housing like this for unsheltered people in Oakland.
As for Ewing’s wait, Le and his staff will welcome her at the cabins until she finds a better alternative.
For the time being, when Ewing lays her head down in her Tuff Shed, she dreams about the future. “I just can't wait to get my own place,” Ewing said. “I want to live in a place way high up so I can see everything, take a shower every day, watch the TV with no flies on you. I want to lay there in my underwear and be with my dogs and be happy.”
Until then, she waits.