Abel’s eNews: Cabins for the unsheltered around Lake Merritt open

Cabins for Homeless around Lake Merritt Open - 
The 20 shelter cabins on the Kaiser Auditorium parking lot are up, with the electrical and insulation work now completed. Some of the new residents began moving in this week – 21 are there already. City staff are inviting the unsheltered around Lake Merritt to join the cabin village by zones and expect the cabins to be completely occupied soon.

City staff and service providers gave the community a tour of the cabins before the move-in.

The cabins do THREE important things to help Oakland take another small, emergency step to help people who have no shelter: (1) They provide emergency, temporary shelters that are safer, healthier places than tents in the park or under bridges. (2) They provide a central place that will help connect residents to support services, connections to health, mental health and addiction-recovery services, and job opportunities. The site will also connect mainstream services such as MediCal, food stamps, GA and SSI. (3) They offer a place – a temporary bridge – where we can help people get into more stable living conditions and permanent housing.

The site is completely voluntary, and residents can come and go as they please. The site includes basic sanitary services such as porta-potties, hand-washing stations and garbage service, access to mobile shower facilities, privacy (two people per cabin with a choice of their roommate; and peace of mind of a lock and key), electricity to each cabin, storage for personal possessions, site security and a community tent with TV, microwave and water.

This is the third such community site in Oakland, and will specifically serve people who are homeless near Lake Merritt. More than 125 people have been served by the first two sites since the 6th St. and Castro St. cabins in West Oakland opened last December, and many have gone on to more permanent or transitional housing, new jobs and been connected to healthcare and financial benefits. The second site, at 27th St. and Northgate Ave., open in May and has also improved public health and safety conditions.

The 63% success rate (exiting homelessness) is about double the positive exit rate at a traditional shelter (about 30%), and is closer to the 88% success rate achieved by the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, which is what we need to scale to really address this crisis.

An important element overlooked is that each site has approximately $150,000 in flexible housing funds to assist clients in overcoming any barriers to housing, including security deposits and a few months of rent subsidy, clothing for job interviews or a new job, and transportation assistance related to employment or reunification with friends or family. These flex funds contribute to greater housing outcomes through the cabin sites than would be possible for most people living in tent encampments.

The cabin communities have also received generous support from charitable partners and private funders who have collectively contributed nearly $1.3 million in monetary and in-kind support, including Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, the Oakland Builders Alliance, the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Jim Moore of Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods and Pyatok Architects.

Each site costs about $750,000 per year to operate, with these costs coming from Alameda County, the City of Oakland and Kaiser Permanente.

These cabins are about more than respite from the elements. We must also balance the diverse needs of all residents who use our parks, sidewalks and other public spaces. Oakland’s parks should be safe, healthy places for all residents to enjoy, recreate and relax. Our parks are not designed to be campgrounds, and we must practice higher progressive and humane values that go beyond simply leaving people alone to fend for themselves in tents and unhealthy spots scattered around the city.

The existing homeless encampments near Lake Merritt have had substantial negative impacts to this vital natural resource, including $500,000 in damage to the wetlands restoration area that the City is required to maintain by our permit with the regional Water Board.

It’s important that we see homelessness not as a single problem but as one point on the wider, interconnected spectrum of housing insecurity and a regional affordable-housing crisis. Oakland must build more housing and strengthen tenant protections to deal with homelessness and the housing insecurity experienced by so many of our neighbors. 

This week, I will be meeting with Alameda County officials to talk about how we can better coordinate delivery of services and increase support to combat homelessness. Learn more about the homeless crisis in Oakland, details about the City’s responses, and how you can help.

In service,

Abel