Many are fighting for dignity and fair housing as the city vows to clear all Lake Merritt encampments.
As the sun rose on October 24, a large group gathered at the tent encampment under the bridge on East 12th Street. A few weeks prior, the city had notified the people living there that it would be clearing the encampment. They now had two choices: move into the city’s newest Tuff Shed camp—in the Henry J. Kaiser parking lot—or set up camp elsewhere. But many people living at the 12th Street encampment did not want to leave.
“I’m calling on the mayor to sit down with us elsewhere, and leave us alone today,” said homeless activist Nino Parker. “Remember, if you’re not taking care of us you’re not taking care of yourselves. We get sick, you get sick. We’re all one family.”
Supporters gathered around Parker as he prepared for the city to arrive. Advocates strategized, activists served coffee and bagels, and concerned community members stood in solidarity. Many of the candidates running for local office in the November 6 election also came out in support. Four mayoral candidates made an appearance: Cat Brooks, Pamela Price, Saied Karamooz, and Jesse A.J. Smith. They are all running for mayor against incumbent Libby Schaaf. Nikki Fortunato Bas and Kenzie Smith, who are running for Oakland’s District 2 City Council seat, were also in attendance. Media flocked the scene, with microphones switched on and cameras aimed at the day ahead.
Around 9:00 a.m., Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries arrived with Public Works employees and police officers. Nino Parker stood guarding the tents under the bridge. As DeVries approached, Parker demanded the opportunity to sit down with the mayor and discuss alternatives to eviction for those uninterested in moving into the Tuff Sheds.
News cameras rolled. DeVries implored Parker to enter Alameda County’s Coordinated Entry Program—the federally-mandated system for connecting homeless people to resources, implemented by HUD in January. Parker objected, saying that he has filled out similar paperwork in previous years to no avail.
“We are coming together and forcing the city to come up with something different.”
DeVries eventually left, as did the police and Public Works employees who were meant to clear the encampment. Nobody was evicted that day.
“Wednesday was a big deal because it’s the first time people really stood their ground with a lot of support and media attention. And it didn’t go forward,” said homeless advocate Angela Shannon. “Our point is that the sheds are just one option, and they don’t work for everyone. Choosing not to move in does not amount to refusing services.”
The planned eviction was part of the city’s masterplan to clear all the encampments around Lake Merritt before the start of the new year. Mayor Libby Schaaf has been steadily working on clearing encampments all over town, and building Tuff Sheds to house those who are evicted. This is the strategy of Oakland’s “geographic intervention model,” the process by which the city builds a Tuff Shed site near an encampment before evicting people from it.
So far, there are three Tuff Shed camps. Each consists of 20 converted garden sheds, which house two people apiece. Between the three of them, they currently house 120 homeless Oaklanders. The camps also provide social workers to help unsheltered people seek long-term housing.
But there are a number of reasons why Oakland’s unhoused citizens don’t want to move into the Tuff Sheds. Veterans have described fear of living in a claustrophobic space without privacy—According to Oakland’s 2017 point-in-time count, 36 percent of the city’s homeless population experiences PTSD. LGBTQ individuals—who make up at least 14 percent of the city’s homeless population—have expressed fear of sexual assault by roommates. Severely disabled people may not be able to live comfortably in the small, shared space. And because eviction notices are often only written in English, non-native speakers struggle to understand the fact that they are being asked to move in the first place.
Despite these concerns, the city’s Tuff Shed program is taking off. At the end of October, the Oakland City Council approved an $8.6 million emergency fund package to build three new Tuff Shed camps, along with four sanctioned RV campsites for homeless people.
“The the hard part is that if people refuse to move into the community cabins, they can’t stay [where they are]. I know we’re making people move. And there’s no way around that,” DeVries told Street Spirit.
There are unhoused people living around the lake who do want to move into the Tuff Sheds. According to the city, 28 people have already moved into the sheds by the lake, and two of those people have graduated to transitional housing.
But Angela Shannon says that some people who have approached the city asking for a spot have been turned away or given misleading information.
“There was one woman who was living under the 10th Street Bridge who wanted to move in, and they were giving her the runaround, or saying there wasn’t space, or saying she was on another list. Things that were very unclear,” Shannon said.
Part of this confusion could have to do with a disconnect between the groups that facilitate the Tuff Shed programs, and the people who they are intended to serve. To run the Tuff Shed camps, Oakland contracts with Operation Dignity—a non-profit that does mobile street outreach in Alameda County, amongst other services. But advocates say that many unhoused people only know these mobile outreach workers as the people who post eviction notices.
“These programs are always run by other people outside the community. People who don’t look like me. Right off the bat, folks are already going to be weary of talking to them,” Parker said. “If people don’t want to go in, there should be another option. If there’s not, people should be able to stay in place,” he said.
DeVries says that while the city may not make its original goal of removing all the Lake Merritt encampments before the new year, they plan to continue with the evictions.
“At some point, we’re going to have to shut it down. We’re hoping to go back and peacefully work with people one-on-one and give them the opportunity to move in[to the Tuff Sheds],” said DeVries.
In the absence of alternative solutions from the city, Oakland’s unhoused residents are continuing to claim public space as their own. On October 27, a group of unhoused people claimed a plot of city-owned land in East Oakland, at Elmhurst and Edes Avenues. In partnership with East Oakland Collective—a member-based community organizing group—residents dubbed the new encampment the Housing and Dignity Village. It is intended to be a sober community space for unhoused cisgender and transgender women, their partners, and their children. It will also be a hub for other curbside communities in the area, and a place where housed and unhoused neighbors can share resources.
“I don’t think they’re going to stop the evictions. But I think it’s a really exciting moment in the movement,” said homeless advocate Talya Husbands-Hankin. “We are coming together and forcing the city to come up with something different. We are not backing down. This is an emergency.”
Alastair Boone is the Co-Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.