City eyes use of Caltrans properties to expand Tuff Shed program

Oakland city staff are eying a 39,000 square foot Caltrans property off Mandela Parkway in West Oakland as the next potential Tuff Shed site.

Oakland city staff are eying a 39,000 square foot Caltrans property off Mandela Parkway in West Oakland as the next potential Tuff Shed site.

With a camel-colored scarf wrapped around her head like a hat, Latasha Hardman gives a tour of her West Oakland home. It’s in the middle of a homeless encampment under the I-580 freeway near 36th and Peralta Streets. The space consists of two camping tents with flaps facing each other. Draped over the two canvases are nearly half a dozen blankets. Below, two wooden pallets keep out the rain and rats. The 47-year-old says she’s lived at the intersection for two years. She greets those who enter the encampment with a smile and a handshake, but quickly admits that she doesn’t want to live in the camp she and others call Tent City.

A new law—signed last month by Governor Jerry Brown—may move Hardman out of her tent and into a Tuff Shed on land owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The law, which goes into effect January 1, allows the city of Oakland to lease up to 10 properties owned by Caltrans for $1 a month to help house and feed the homeless. Currently, California requires Caltrans to lease properties at market rate, but the new law will eliminate that requirement.

“This saves us a lot of money,” said Joe DeVries, the assistant city administrator who manages homeless outreach for Oakland. While Caltrans and the city are still working out the details, DeVries believes the law will allow the city to lease three or four Caltrans properties and expand its Tuff Shed program.

Oakland already has two existing cabin community sites in the North Gate and Castro areas with a third near Lake Merritt set to open this week. The sites are a cluster of tiny homes, 120-square-foot cabins that are used to house the homeless as they transition to permanent housing. So far, the response to the program has been mixed. Mayor Libby Schaaf calls the Tuff Shed program a success, citing a 55 percent placement rate from both camps into permanent housing, meaning more than half of the former residents are no longer homeless. But critics have frequently criticized the use of the sheds, pointing out that they do not have running water and those living in the sheds are required to have a roommate.

While city and Caltrans staff have not officially agreed which properties may become new Tuff Shed sites, reactions to the idea are already varied. “Hell no, I wouldn’t mind. I would love it,” said Hardman about the prospect of moving into a Tuff Shed. Hardman, who describes herself as courageous, said she’s been getting depressed lately, and she believes a cabin would be “a stepping stone to help me to feel better, to move forward.”

Hardman, a Stockton native, said she became homeless three years ago. She said she started living outside after she got into an abusive relationship and lost her job. Now, she said, she tries to keep up her morale. She does push-ups and tries to stay clean, showering at a nearby relative’s house when she can. She also keeps her signature style, a tan scarf wrapped around her head like a crown, “because I’m a queen. I’m still a queen, no matter what.”

But Hardman’s 61-year-old neighbor, who calls himself Spicy Mike said he would refuse the city’s offer. He said he wants to leave—“but not there,” referencing a Tuff Shed. “Are you serious? You know what kind of camp that is. That’s a concentration camp. That’s all that is. No water. No toilet. All you’re getting is a wooden tent,” he said.

The Caltrans property that may house a “wooden tent” for Spicy Mike and Hardman is about a half mile from the existing camp on Mandela Parkway near the border of Emeryville. The lot sits southeast of what’s known as the “Maze” where the I-80, I-580, and I-880 intersect next to Granite Expo. DeVries said the lot has 39,000 square feet of usable space and could likely sustain 40 new cabins, enough to house 80 people.

DeVries said city staff are seriously considering offering the first new Tuff Sheds built there to those living in Tent City, because the camp “has been a real problem spot for us and the community has been hoping we’d implement something.”

DeVries said the city and Caltrans have already a drafted lease for this property and are just waiting for approval by the California Transportation Commission, an independent group of appointed commissioners who advises Caltrans on financial and legislative issues.

City officials initially considered putting a Tuff Shed site on Mandela Parkway last year, but DeVries said at that time it was too expensive. He said Caltrans staff offered to lease a 49,000 square foot site—across the street from the one city staff are eyeing now—for $8,500 per month. With this new law the slightly smaller piece of land the city wants to lease is “practically free,” he said at $1 per month.

State Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) is one of the people behind the push to lower the cost of Caltrans land for the city. He sponsored AB 3139 but said he can’t take credit for the idea. The law was inspired by a nearly identical piece of legislation passed by state lawmakers last year amending state law to allow the City and County of San Francisco to lease Caltrans land below market rate.

Randy Quezada of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said his city already used the law to open two navigation centers—30-day shelters aimed at transitioning homeless people into housing—on Caltrans properties. The Division Circle Navigation Center opened in August, and the Bryant Navigation Center will open later this year.

“We’re really grateful that this law is in place and were able to use the land this way,” said Quezada. “It’s been a helpful resource for us.”

In addition to Oakland, during the 2018 legislative session, bills granting the same Caltrans land privileges to San Jose and Los Angeles also passed the legislature. Assemblymember Bonta said these bills are all about the “city and state working together.”

“The homelessness crisis is something owned by all of us,” he said. “I think cities shouldn’t have to face these challenges alone.”

Now it’s up to staff from each city to decide how to use the law. In Oakland, that’s already proving to be a challenge. There are hundreds of state-owned Caltrans parcels in Oakland along the freeways, according to an online database of Caltrans right of way property maps. DeVries said he and Caltrans staff met last Thursday to narrow down the list of usable properties, but “the list of potential sites is very limited.” Caltrans staff offered five possible parcels, including the one on Mandela Parkway.

Devries said he thought there would a larger list of potential sites. He said the big reason for the limited options is because of Caltrans’ internal policy “not to use any under-freeway areas.” According to DeVries, Caltrans staff are adamant that Oakland not shelter people underneath an overpass due to seismic concerns; if a road collapses in a big earthquake, it may kill those living below.

“On the one hand, I see what they’re saying. On the other hand, we’ve done so much retrofitting on our freeways, you want to believe that they’re not going to fall down in an earthquake,” said DeVries.

The assistant city administrator is hoping Caltrans will relax its “not-under-a-freeway” rule, opening up the potential to use at least half a dozen more Caltrans properties. He said staff in other cities “are also getting fed up with Caltrans not letting anything happen under the freeway, and I think there is going to be a concerted effort by [city] leadership to lobby at the state level to change that policy.”

Caltrans staff did not return Oakland North’s repeated requests for comment.

Even if city officials successfully negotiate the use of several Caltrans properties, advocates who work with the homeless in Oakland are unlikely to praise the city’s effort. Vincent Pannizzo, the founder and the director of the organization Mission for Homeless, called the idea of building new Tuff Shed sites on Caltrans land “not optimal, but it’s better than nothing.”

Pannizzo, a preacher, said he spends his days visiting the homeless, delivering food, offering people rides to detox and doctor’s appointments and even administering insulin. He said he’s been helping the homeless in Oakland and Berkeley for 20 years. Right now, he’s focusing his efforts on downtown Oakland. He said he doesn’t want to be unfair to the city and only offer criticism, but he’s not impressed with this plan—or any others, for that matter.

“So you’re going to put up these Tuff Shed communities? Whoop dee doo. How many are you going to erect? How many thousands and thousands of homeless are there in Oakland?” said Pannizzo. “We’re supposed to think this as something extraordinary? ‘Wow, Oakland is doing something really wonderful for the homeless.’ Bullshit.”

According to the latest point-in-time homeless count done in 2017 by EveryOne Counts!, there are an estimated 2,700 homeless people in Oakland.

“This makes me so furious,” said Heather Freinkel, managing attorney at the Homeless Action Center, about the city’s plan to use Caltrans properties to build more Tuff Shed sites. Freinkel has worked with the Homeless Action Center for seven years, helping those who are poor and often homeless secure public benefits like Social Security and food stamps. But recently she and her team have also started visiting Oakland’s homeless encampments. She said “AB 3139 as an idea sounds awesome” but the way the city is planning to use it “does not sound like it’s designed to help the homeless.”

Her issue is with the actual Tuff Sheds. She said calling them “cabins is a lie. It’s not a cabin. It’s a shed.” And she disputes the city’s assertion that moving into a Tuff Shed from a street encampment will be voluntary, contending that “it is under threat of forcible eviction, arrest and incarceration,” because residents won’t be allowed to remain at their former camp sites.

DeVries agrees with homeless advocates that the city’s ultimate goal should be to build more affordable housing, and acknowledges that Tuff Shed sites can’t shelter everyone who needs a home. Despite that, he argues that small steps cannot be discounted because “if we can set up four or five Tuff Shed sites,” each serving 80 people a year, that gets “400 people off the street. That’s a noticeable difference.”

“It’s just a step. I don’t think there are any game-changers in this crisis,” said DeVries.

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