West Oakland homeless camp trades tents for sheds

Oakland city officials began a weeks-long project Tuesday to remove a homeless encampment that has grown for more than five years under Interstate Highway 980 in West Oakland.

About 100 people currently live at the encampment around Northgate Avenue and Sycamore Street, according to city officials. The city sweep will make way for the “Community Cabin,” a “Tuff Shed” shelter, with room for 40 individuals.

As of Tuesday afternoon, city workers and homeless shelter officials were not able to give a comprehensive headcount of how many people would be displaced.

City workers began cleaning up the area of south Northgate Avenue Tuesday morning, making room for public works employees to paint a red curb in front of the entrance to the “Community Cabin” and install Lava Mae shower facilities.

The entire process will take more than a month, according to Joe Devries, assistant to the Oakland city manager. Ten residents will move into the Tuff Sheds each week, and residents will be given priority based on how long they have lived at the encampment.

Devries said:

“It won’t be a perfect process, but it will be a dramatic improvement.”

Devries described the Northgate encampment as one of the city’s oldest and most dangerous tent cities.

Notably, 34-year-old Dominic Jarvis was shot and killed at the encampment on Sept. 5, 2017, and Devries said many people living in the tents have been hit and killed by passing cars.

The nearby St. Vincent de Paul shelter in Oakland will accept people from Northgate. Blase Bova, the shelter’s executive director, said the winter home has a capacity of 65 and about 55 people regularly spend the night.

This leaves 10 to 15 spots open for more than 60 people who would be displaced from the Northgate encampment, but Bova said many of them might not seek shelter vouchers due to a “mixed bag” of reasons.

The shelter does not have capacity for pets that aren’t service animals, for example, nor does it have room for large amounts of personal possessions that could include shopping carts and tents.

Bova said many people who currently live in tents worry about losing their possessions if they move into a shelter. Because the shelter has a low barrier for entry, however, residents are not disqualified if they bring substances or drugs into the home.

The shelter will close in mid-June after receiving a nearly two-month extension due to the ongoing homelessness crisis, Bova said. He isn’t certain where people will go when the shelter closes for the year.

The Tuff Shed shelter is the second to open in the city. The first one sprung up at Sixth and Castro streets in early December. The city says the newest development at Northgate will include low-voltage electricity in each home, larger windows, coffee and breakfast in a common area, dead bolts and more storage space.

Residents at the shelter, represented by advocacy group Feed the People, have alleged “inhumane and substandard” conditions in the temporary housing structures. Their grievances included limited electricity, unnecessary police presence, unfair evictions, poor maintenance and the limiting of outside visitors.

Some advocates have also said that people are forced to pay 30 percent of their income, if they receive any, to the city to live in Tuff Sheds.

Devries said the anecdote was a blatant lie, and the Tuff Sheds are entirely free to residents.

Devries said:

“[Activists] think we’re ruining people’s lives, when we’re trying to help them move forward.”

Responding to the visitor limitations, he said people were allegedly cutting wire and sneaking into the camps, and the city closed the camp to visitors for a couple days to get a hold of the situation.

The Northgate camp removal is one of several planned in the next few months, according to the city of Oakland’s clean-up schedule. Another is scheduled to begin today at Mosswood Park’s amphitheater, along the Kaiser building and playgrounds. Workers will also begin a closure at Sixth and Franklin streets Wednesday.

Next week, an encampment at Union Point Park is scheduled for closure on May 15 and one at 5840 Harmon Ave. on May 16.

The Tuff Shed accommodations are backed by large donations from Kaiser Permanente, the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Sutter Health, Alameda County, Tuff Sheds and several municipal and architectural organizations.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement:

“Cities all along the West Coast are facing an encampment crisis … Our Tuff Shed shelters are a quick and temporary fix, and they help prepare unsheltered residents for their next step in housing.”