1022 GMT February 17, 2020
Eric Clark did not know if he would survive the sheds.
As the city of Oakland, California in the US, began clearing homeless communities off the streets last year and placing them into sheds under a freeway, the 51-year-old reluctantly moved in and quickly had problems. One day, another occupant pulled a gun on him during an argument, theguardian.com reported.
He thought it could not get much worse than fearing for his life in a new home that reminded him of jail. But then the program kicked him out — without justification, he said — and he no longer had a street encampment to join or even a blanket to sleep outside. He had nothing.
“My life was turned upside down,” said Clark, who subsequently slept alone by a park under a piece of tarp. The lifelong Oaklander now lives out of a banged up green truck with his two dogs and has little hopes of finding permanent housing: “I’m worse off. I feel like I never should’ve moved into that place. It ain’t right.”
The controversial ‘tuff shed’ experiment, which involves housing homeless people in makeshift structures that resemble basic toolsheds, has become a visible symbol of the obscene housing crisis in a region home to staggering tech wealth, rapid gentrification and widespread displacement of black residents. City officials have presented the sheds as an innovative, emergency tool to combat homelessness — giving people a safer form of shelter and security, while working to get them services and housing.
But critics say the sheds can be cruel and dysfunctional and have given the city cover to mass evict homeless people living in sidewalk encampments that were community-run and preferred by some. The destruction of tent communities can tear apart groups of the homeless, and people like Clark who do not last in the sheds sometimes find themselves out of options. Some end up in remote locations where they may be less vulnerable to police harassment but more vulnerable to violence.
Placed in sheds, then evicted
Oakland’s fourth site of tuff sheds, which officials now call ‘cabin communities’, is scheduled to open this month on a city lot that housed a burned-down library. Standing outside one of the 120 square feet sheds on a recent morning, Sara Bedford, the city’s director of human services, said she was initially skeptical about the idea of housing people in these structures.
But given the ‘humanitarian crisis’, the city had to try it.
“It is better than nothing,” she said.
“It provides hygiene and safety. It creates a space in which you can engage people.”
Living in the sheds is voluntary, and the city tries to have minimal rules — allowing pets and permitting residents to come in and out 24/7, with security signing them in.
But some have said they felt forced into the program when authorities told them they would soon be removed from their camp sites.
“We gave up our place,” said Michael London, 51, who started living in a shed last year, before the city dismantled his encampment. With two individuals placed in a single shed, there were quickly problems, he said: “A lot of us were put into rooms with people we were having issues with on the streets.”
London, born and raised in Oakland, emotionally recounted the program’s decision to later kick him out, after an altercation: “My life is in somebody else’s hands.”
He said the institutionalized nature of the sheds was difficult for him: “If you’ve been incarcerated like I have … you don’t want to be in a situation like that again when you’re a free person.”
People who can’t make it in the sheds have now been forced to sleep in hidden corners of the city, because their encampment communities are gone, said London, who eventually got into a housing program.
Eric Clark first became homeless in 2012 after losing a trucking job. He said he did not have many problems living on the streets, but agreed to move into a shed because he was promised housing. But on his shed site petty arguments quickly escalated and he felt threatened by other residents, eventually filing a police report against one who he said pointed a gun at him. (Police showed up, but did not make an arrest).
He said he was ultimately kicked out due to a small fire that was near his shed, but that he did not start, forcing him to try and rebuild a life on the streets without support or basic supplies: “I feel like they just left me hanging.”
People can end up distraught and hopeless if their camps are raided and the sheds then reject them, said Gwen Wu, an attorney with the Oakland-based Homeless Action Center.
“It promises to house people and provide a safe space, but that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case,” said Wu, who has assisted Clark and London in the aftermath of their removal from the sheds.
“They’ve been stripped of their community in the streets they were living on.”
Blair Hippolyte, another tuff shed resident, said authorities had destroyed a structure she was living in during street crackdowns and that it was one of the worst moments of being homeless: “I sat there and cried. They tore my house down.”
She said she appreciated some aspects of the sheds, but felt unsafe with her roommate. She was also skeptical that she would ever be able to find stable, affordable housing.
“They can do everything but give us a place to stay.”
The sight of massive encampments adjacent to high-end coffee shops has become commonplace in Oakland. The camps have grown in neighborhoods that suffered through decades of racist housing policies, where a high pace of evictions has devastated communities in recent years.
The birthplace of the Black Panther party, Oakland has an international profile as a haven for arts and activism, but it is also home to an estimated 2,000 unsheltered homeless people, a 26-percent increase in two years.
The encampments are often dismissed as a nuisance and eyesore, and they can be prone to life-threatening hazards, health problems and conflicts.
“It’s the complete wild west when it’s unregulated,” said Joe DeVries, an official in the city administrator’s office, describing an encampment fire that he said was started by a lab in which illegal drugs were made.
City officials have argued that closing unauthorized encampments is a matter of urgent public safety and have claimed in court that they offer alternatives.
But some occupants said the camps function better for them than sheds or overcrowded shelters, which can have a range of restrictions and complications.
“We have a system that actually works,” said Benjamin Royer, a 33-year-old local homeless man who has been part of a group that camps outside and has been repeatedly raided by authorities.
“They don’t want to help us. They just want to enforce laws that make no sense.”
Royer, who uses a wheelchair and has bipolar disorder, said shared living arrangements in shelters or programs do not work for him and that his tent group in the city of Berkeley, on the border of Oakland, has basic rules that are effective.
“You have a support group that’s able to help you in your worst moments,” said Royer, who filed a complaint against the city after authorities took his property, including a therapy tool, during a raid.
“It’s just the homeless shuffle game.”
His camp would function well if police just left them alone, Royer said.
Many do not have the capacity to deal with the fallout when they lose a tent or sleeping bag during a sweep, said EmilyRose Johns, a civil rights attorney who has challenged Oakland’s treatment of homeless people: “It’s really atrocious.”
Needa Bee, a 47-year-old mother, said she became homeless after her previous landlord demanded an exorbitant rent hike she could not afford. When she and other unsheltered women set up an encampment they called the Housing and Dignity Village, she felt safe, she said.
“It’s a sanctuary we created for ourselves,” said Bee, whose daughters are ages 16 and 21.
“I’m trying to protect my kids as best I can … There is literally nowhere for us to go.”
The city, however, evicted her group last month, resulting in them moving into cars and tents. The court battle and eviction process wore them out, she added.
Bee and her 16-year-old have been staying in a camper vehicle, regularly moving spots to try to find safe locations that are not too far from a bathroom or her daughter’s school.
The city’s shutdown of her campsite made her lose trust in any government efforts, she said, adding she would never consider living in a shed.
“They do not want the working class in Oakland anymore.”
The city also said that out of 133 people who lived in the sheds, 93 of them (70 percent) have gone into some form of housing. The city declined to comment on individual cases, but said that people are removed if they violate rules prohibiting violence, weapons, drug sales and other activities.
DeVries said the program gives people ‘multiple chances’ if there are problems, and that officials do not toss people’s belongings and will give them tents and other supports after they are kicked out. He said some voluntarily move out: “We do lose people who aren’t ready. I’ve been heartbroken about a couple people.”
Alone on street
Clark’s son, a 32-year-old teacher in Oakland who asked not to be identified, said his removal from the sheds made his father deflated and angry in a way he had not seen before. It was hard to even think about him forced back on the street: “Honestly, I just kinda numb myself. It’s not easy to see him like that. There is so much potential lost.”
It was especially painful since the sheds initially seemed to be a positive force in his father’s life, the son said: “In retrospect, it may have been better if he never went.”
These days, Clark spends many hours in his car with his energetic pitbulls, Pree and Shay, hanging out in the front seats. He often passes the time by playing Total War, a strategy game on his computer that takes his mind off everything else.
Clark would love to get back into trucking, but if the city does not help him get a roof over his head, he does not know how he will turn things around.
“If I had a place,” he said, “it’d be a lot easier to start.”
* Sam Levin is a reporter for Guardian US, based in San Francisco, the US.