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Photo: Courtesy City of Oakland

For the city’s homeless, Tuff Sheds may be a path to permanent housing—or an excuse to displace people already living on the margins

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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Paulette Stanfield sits on a folding chair outside a few wooden Tuff Sheds in Oakland, just off Telegraph Avenue, where the city hosts regular gallery-walks that lure thousands of visitors each month.

A heavy-set woman in her early fifties with caramel and black braids, she has lived along the margins for most of her life, and takes no joy in that. She developed a nasty addiction to crack and heroin that’s taken years to kick. She spent time in and out of prison, occasionally worked as a prostitute for drugs, and has been homeless since 2013, living in a tent four blocks away. Over the years, she’s slept in cars and on sidewalks, sprawled across two chairs, and over old couches left out for the trash. In those days, sometimes she would trade a small amount of crack to sleep on someone’s floor. Sometimes she went days without a shower.

Two months ago, after one of her sons was murdered and she was shot in the leg during a robbery, Stanfield moved into one of 20 wooden Tuff Sheds on a little sliver of land under Interstate 980 at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue. This temporary community, set up by the city of Oakland, opened in May to house some of the city’s desperate and displaced.

Like backyard storage units used to stash tools or sporting equipment, the Tuff Sheds are simply designed—about 10 by 15 feet with insulation, a few windows and a door that locks, painted forest green with white trim. Stanfield at least now has a roof over her head. She sleeps in a cot that she shares with her husband, and gets breakfast and dinner delivered daily through Operation Dignity, the non-profit organization that manages the site along with Bay Area Community Services. There is low-watt electricity for charging cell phones and basic rules: no violence, no illegal drugs, alcohol or weapons on the premises. Two people share each shed, and guests are only allowed to visit during the daytime, when they’re confined to a designated location.

Most of the people who live here are expected to work with case managers to line up other housing within six months. But Stanfield hopes she can move into more permanent housing much sooner, even if that means leaving her native city for Sacramento, 90 miles away, where it’s easier to find an affordable apartment for those who earn little to no income.

Rising housing costs in the Bay Area have not just pushed people out of the region, but out of stable homes altogether. In Oakland, San Francisco and other cities, homeless counts have ballooned during the past few years. Oakland’s homeless population grew more than 25 percent in three years. No one questions that a problem exists, but consensus on a solution is more elusive. The Tuff Sheds, used in other California cities with some success, are one attempt to patch a threadbare safety net.

However, some homeless advocates say the city is more focused on clearing unsightly and unsanitary encampments—groups of tents, tarps and ramshackle cardboard structures in public parks and under freeway overpasses—than ensuring everyone has a safe place to sleep and store their belongings.  

Lara Tannenbaum, the health and human services manager for the city of Oakland, acknowledges the Tuff Shed shelters aren’t a permanent solution, but rather a stopgap measure to deal with a growing crisis. “These are not intended to be permanent housing. They’re not tiny homes on HGTV,” she says. “This is an emergency intervention until we get additional housing units. Housing is really the only solution. But we couldn’t just do nothing.”

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Paulette Stanfield sees the Tuff Sheds as a first step toward stability: "If you want to do something better, this is a start right here." Jonathan Jones

Not everyone is a fan of the new Tuff Shed camps. Candice Elder, founder and director of the East Oakland Collective, a grassroots organization that regularly distributes thousands of lunches and hygiene kits to unhoused people in Oakland, says an essential part of addressing homelessness involves building leadership and agency among those who live in street encampments. She says the limited access to the Tuff Sheds for those who aren’t residents adds a dehumanizing aspect and segregates them from the surrounding community.

“From the outside, they kind of look like prison units,” Elder says. “You know you have barbed wire and very strict rules and security. Advocates can’t bring in food. There’s no kitchen or outdoor area for people to cook.”

At 27th and Northgate, where a constant rumble emanates from the nearby BART tracks, the Tuff Sheds are obscured behind tarps and barbed wire fencing, isolated from the rest of the ever-gentrifying neighborhood and nearby tent clusters. That’s what Stanfield says she likes about it.

“I think people would be crazy not to take advantage of this, especially when you’re out here on the streets,” she says. “If you want to do something better, this is a start right here.”

Security and theft continue to be a concern even in this highly fortified environment. There are frequent arguments, and pepper spray has been fired more than once, Stanfield says. But it’s better than the homeless encampment where she had been staying. There, rats chewed holes in her tent and ate her food. There were frequent fights and stabbings. People were constantly shooting up and regularly overdosing. Fires were common and led to at least one death.

Inside her snug wooden shed, Stanfield has hung woven straw hearts and put out a glass table. She has a spot for her creams, gels and other beauty products. She’s draped blankets over the windows as curtains to make it feel warmer, and put up pictures of her children. She spends most days watching shows on a small portable television, and says her grown children now feel more comfortable visiting and sometimes even bring the grandkids.

Located at the edge of the city’s Uptown district, with its proliferation of restaurants, music venues and construction sites destined to become upscale condominiums, the Tuff Shed shelter also serves as a stark reminder of the growing gulf between the Bay Area’s affluent and the thousands of Oakland’s residents who live on the streets.

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Like many cities on the West Coast, Oakland has been grappling with a homelessness crisis. Between 2015 and 2017, the city’s homeless population grew by 26 percent, now conservatively estimated to be 2,761, according to the Alameda County’s most recent census. At least 1,900 people live either on the streets or in places like cars, abandoned buildings and under overpasses, as opposed to shelters and other temporary accommodation. Homeless advocates and city officials expect the number of homeless people to double by the county’s next survey in 2019.

Joe DeVries, an assistant to the city administrator who is in charge of homeless outreach, says the city has seen a spike in residents’ complaints about the unsanctioned tent cities, which have become magnets for illegal dumping and drug use. On any given day, you can find couches, mattresses and old bookshelves dumped there, not to mention lots of used needles.   

Homeless encampments are the least safe for the homeless living in them,” DeVries says. “And then they’re also not safe for the surrounding community. You have fires. We’ve had a dozen fires in homeless encampments in the last week. You have people cooking, using fires to cook, using fires to keep warm, using fires to settle disputes. And then there’s the traffic. We had at least two people killed after being hit by cars.”

Three years ago, as the number of people living on the streets began to surge, the city teamed up with the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, to explore alternatives to the unsanctioned encampments.

In Yuba City, about 40 miles north of Sacramento, county officials were also struggling with how to deal with the growing number of camps popping up along river banks, behind businesses, in vacant lots and along railroad tracks. When they surveyed residents about why they weren’t accessing county shelters, people cited the mandatory drug testing, the requirement to stay sober and being forced to leave their pets behind, according to Chaya Galicia, Yuba County’s homeless project manager.

“You couldn’t ask these people to give up their animals,” Galacia says. “Their dogs and cats were like family for them. It was like asking them to give up their child.”

The rules at Camp One are no racism, no violence and no drugs. Jonathan Jones

In 2016, the county opened 20 Tuff Sheds on a one-acre plot on 14th Street, calling the community, “Fourteen Forward.” Residents are initially taken in for a 21-day assessment, and allowed to stay longer if they show progress. No visitors are permitted, and occupants are expected to do some chores and participate in group counseling sessions. There is an on-site host manager who lives in a trailer, but no full-time security.

In the last two years, the sheds have housed 225 residents, Galicia says, including some who have stayed there more than once. About a third have moved on to more permanent housing, another third have returned to the river banks, and the remaining third have entered into other transitional housing or a rehabilitation center.

“Considering the population we were serving, I’d say that it’s been quite successful,” Galacia says. “The case managers are really key in all of this. They’re not just helping them navigate services. They’re also motivating them. This is a population that struggles with self-worth.”

Following Yuba’s example, Oakland officials began plans for the city’s first Tuff Shed shelters in 2017. They had hoped to open at Sixth Street and Castro, home to one of the largest tent camps in the city, by the end of the year. Instead, they found strong resistance among leaders in the camp, who were mobilizing against the new shelters.  

DeVries says they worried about storing their belongings securely, didn’t trust the city and felt excluded from the planning. “[T]hey felt like we didn’t ask them, that we were just doing it to them or for them,” he says.

In response, the city delayed the project, opening the first Tuff Shed shelter in early 2018. In its first eight months, the shelter has housed roughly 60 residents. Twenty people have moved on to more stable housing, DeVries says, and five have been kicked out for rule violations.

The second Tuff Shed site, where Stanfield lives, opened at 27th and Northgate in May. They changed the shed dimensions to 8 by 15 feet to create more personal space for each resident and added an extra window and insulation, more storage space, a proper deadbolt on the door, and a dog run. Now the city is looking to build a third location as they prepare to clear out encampments along Lake Merritt, which many consider the crown jewel of Oakland, DeVries says.

Anita de Asis, who also goes by Needa Bee, says the city shouldn’t be clearing encampments that hold hundreds of people without finding more suitable places for them to go.   

“It is the job and the responsibility of the city of Oakland to provide permanent housing for the people it is displacing,” says Bee, co-founder of The Village, a group of unsheltered residents and homeless advocates who built tiny houses in a self-governed encampment under the 880 freeway a few miles away in East Oakland.

“The only solution to this housing and this homeless crisis is permanent housing,” she says. ”And the city has the money, the land and the resources, and the relationship with developers to be able to provide that solution. So we’re saying let the community deal with the temporary stuff. They have zero commitment to permanent housing. It’s irresponsible.”

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A few miles south of the Tuff Sheds, on a vacant plot of land near Lake Merritt, sits a small homeless encampment overlooking construction of the city’s skyline. A dirt path, a few empty decorative wine bottles and solar lights mark the entrance. There are bicycles, chairs, a fire extinguisher, a chalkboard for messages, potted flowers and piles of clothes.

A few months ago, Nino Parker, a 64-year-old man with dreadlocks and a graying goatee, pitched his tent and planted a small community garden here. He’s been on the streets for five years since falling out with his girlfriend, and after being forced to move several times from various spots throughout the city, he’s become a homeless activist. Parker says he’ll take city officials to court if he has to move again.

Since setting up what he calls “Camp One,” about a half dozen others, all over the age of 50, have moved in, including a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran. There is an intake process, and anyone who stays must adhere to three basic rules: no racism, no violence and no drugs.

Parker says it’s unacceptable that the city is removing large homeless encampments to make room for 20 Tuff Sheds without finding a place for the others to go. “What are you trying to do? Make transients?” he asks.  

For Parker, it’s not about finding adequate funding. It’s about the city’s priorities. Too much attention surrounds affordable housing projects that won’t be completed for years when there are thousands of people living on the streets right now.   

“You see men destroyed after living their lives in a place called Oakland, that was the quintessential black town, and now they’re down to living alongside some building, and then they’re forced to move from there,” he says. “The taller they build these skyscrapers, the higher the homelessness number is going to grow.”

The city, he adds, should be looking for innovative ways to engage the homeless population by paying them to do landscaping, cleaning and building infrastructure to improve tent encampments and surrounding areas.

“If we were going to move from this area into a Tuff Shed program, we would want to run it ourselves,” Parker says. “We think we could do a better job than the city itself. We actually live out here, so we know what it takes to make it work.”

Self-governed shelters have also struggled. At the Village, the self-governed community in East Oakland, the area looks more like a slum surrounded by a jumble of tents plagued by gangs, violence and drug use. Parker says people now refer to it as “the Jungle” rather than “The Village.”

Bee, who is currently squatting, blames the problems on the city’s decision to shut down several other tent encampments, sending a large number of homeless—including rival gang members and predators—their way.

“There’s now a massive level of crime happening,” she says. “It’s ridiculous. First, we had gang violence, and they were fighting each other, and we were just trying to keep the peace. And then you had predators from the surrounding community, when they heard how many women were on site, coming in on the land. Our security could not deal with this mayhem. It’s not functional at all.”  

Bee believes the temporary Tuff Shed shelters are just an easy way for the city to move large numbers of people out of the biggest homeless encampments, even if that leaves some people with nowhere to go. She’s skeptical that municipal efforts will lead to large numbers of homeless people finding more permanent housing.

Tuff Shed resident Stanfield says she’s ready to leave Oakland. She’s hoping that moving away to a two bedroom apartment in Sacramento will provide her with a fresh start. If living in a tool shed and working with case managers can make that a reality, she’s all for it.

“It’s not where I want to be,” Stanfield says. “But it’s better than being in a tent. I want my own place. I want to be off the streets. I’m tired of being on the streets. This is my start right here.”