Cabin employees disrupted a press conference led by residents; called them names

Current and former residents of the Wood Street Community Cabins speak at a press conference, February 26, 2024. Photo: Bradley Penner

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from the City of Oakland, which they provided after press time.

On February 26, 2024, seven residents of the Wood Street Community Cabins held a press conference to share their grievances about the housing program. At the conference, which was held directly across the street from the cabins, they described a dire lack of resources in the program and said they had witnessed multiple health and safety violations, as well as bad staff behavior at the site. However, the press conference devolved when a group of people—who identified themselves as employees of the cabin program—disrupted the event, yelling at the residents and calling them names. 

The Wood Street Community Cabins are operated by Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) under a contract with the City of Oakland. The city constructed the 100-bed shelter program at 26th and Wood Streets with an $8.3 million grant from the state. Advertisements for the site said it would include, “housing navigation, job placement support, case management, counseling, and other services,” as well as “restroom, shower, and laundry facilities, electricity, a community kitchen and eating space, limited secured storage for personal belongings, security, parking, and two meals per day.”

But nearly a year after the cabins opened, many residents say that they have not received housing vouchers, and that they experience regular threats to their personal safety due to lax security measures. They also claim that BOSS’s management of the cabin facilities is insufficient to meet the needs of those living on the site. 

Many of the people who live in the cabins are former residents of the Wood Street encampment, which was officially closed in May 2023. Many of them were ushered into the cabins, which sit on the land where they formerly lived unsheltered, adding to their frustration about the dysfunction at the site. At the press conference, residents said that basic supplies such as toilet paper, hot water, and laundry machines are either unavailable or out of order, describe an environment in which bad staff conduct and frequent staff turnover has created an unsafe living environment, and housing navigation resources have resulted in only five housing placements over the past year.

In a statement, the City of Oakland says eight individuals have accepted and transitioned into permanent housing since March 2023.

“We are demanding an audit of BOSS overseen by a committee. This investigation will look into the policies, the non-existent programs,” said Jared DeFigh, who first entered the city’s cabin program after a Caltrans-led sweep of the Wood Street encampment back in September 2022.

Soon after the press conference began, BOSS employees started aggressively interrupting residents’ statements. A video recorded by Street Spirit shows a man named Andre Wilson, who identified himself as a BOSS employee, revving a motorcycle and playing loud music. Tensions continued to rise as Wilson, alongside other self-identified BOSS staff, interrupted the press conference with questions and derogatory comments, calling residents “hoarders” and “junk bums” who “lost the war on drugs.” One BOSS employee asked, “if you don’t like it, why don’t you go somewhere else?”

As BOSS’s disruption continued to devolve into a cacophony of insults, members of the Wood Street community ended the press conference to deescalate the situation. 

“I don’t want us to be at war and fighting with the agencies that are supposedly trying to help us,” Janosko told Street Spirit as he regrouped with cabin residents down the block. “We all should be working together…so that we can create a better tomorrow for ourselves.”

When asked about residents’ claims regarding cabin programs, conditions, and the disruption of the press conference, BOSS CEO Donald Frazier said:

“BOSS has been an advocacy organization for over 50 years fighting for the rights and dignity of homeless populations at the local, state and national levels. That said, the fabrications made by the group in question are slanderous, libelous, and defamatory. BOSS reports to the City of Oakland on all matters of health, safety, security and programmatic efficacy on all of its City-funded programs. You can reach out to the City of Oakland Public Information Officer or Human Services Department for more details if desired.”

In a statement, the City of Oakland disputed the claim that disruptors were BOSS employees, and stated “no BOSS staff member spoke during the event.”

BOSS employees disrupt the press conference at Wood Street Community Cabins. Photo: Bradley Penner

‘Why don’t you go somewhere else?’

To the question posed by one BOSS employee at the press conference, many cabin residents share a common answer: we do want to move somewhere else. John Janosko, a longtime resident and advocate of the Wood Street encampment, moved into the cabins in March 2023 after a series of meetings with the City of Oakland. During those meetings, Janosko claims that city officials promised that residents would secure permanent housing through a 90-day rapid rehousing program, expediting placement for Wood Street encampment residents through Alameda County’s Coordinated Entry System. 

But after a series of housing matches that would’ve placed Janosko in local Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels—an uncomfortable option for an addict in recovery—as well as frequent staff turnover in BOSS’s housing navigation program, he became skeptical of the city’s promises.

“They did match me up with the Harrison Hotel,” Janosko told Street Spirit, “but that’s just another New Jack City,” he said, referring to the 1991 film in which a New York City apartment complex is converted into a drug house. “It wouldn’t be a smart choice for me to move back into an environment that I’m trying to get away from…You can’t put people back into the same environment you’re coming out of and expect different results.”

The City of Oakland denies that 90-day rapid rehousing was promised during meetings with Wood Street residents, stating that the “cabin program agreement references a 90-day commitment to the program on behalf of the participant. The City has not committed to rapid re-housing within 90 days.”

Ultimately, Janosko did find permanent housing, but only due to the diligence of another housing navigator at the Homeless Action Center (HAC). Janosko had been working with HAC since February 2023 to receive SSI benefits, who also enrolled him in their housing navigation program. Because the Coordinated Entry System operates county-wide, all service providers assigned to a client are alerted to potential housing matches when they arise. In October 2023 when Janosko was matched with a new one-bedroom apartment, HAC employees told Street Spirit they contacted BOSS to coordinate who would process his application, which BOSS employees agreed to compile and submit by the due date. 

On the morning the application was due, HAC employees told Street Spirit that they called BOSS’s housing navigation team and learned that employees had lost his paperwork. HAC says they then began the application process, and called Janosko to come in and sign the documents.

“Janosko would’ve lost out on a brand new one-bedroom apartment,” a HAC employee told Street Spirit, “He could’ve then waited six months to be matched with an SRO, which he would’ve denied. This could’ve kept him homeless for another couple of years.”

As of March 27, 2024, Janosko has secured a permanent, one-bedroom apartment of his own, but is worried about other cabin residents who are unable to advocate for themselves within BOSS’s housing navigation program.

“Some people aren’t at the same place that I’m in. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the community here [at the cabins] doesn’t deserve that same chance.”

Moving forward 

The community of cabin residents who held the press conference have compiled a list of five demands for the City of Oakland. Those include the formation of an independent oversight committee that includes impacted individuals; an audit of BOSS to investigate its policies, programs, and staff; and the implementation of a new confidential grievance policy, among others. 

“BOSS is only the implementer…they’re only doing what they’re being told to do,” Jessica ‘Freeway’ Blalock of Wood Street Commons and West Oakland Homeless Union told Street Spirit. “The City of Oakland needs to step up. It starts bringing us to the table to have conversations about policies that are being made about us. Not for us.”

Bradley Penner is the Editor and Lead Reporter of Street Spirit.