Oakland considers jail conversion for homeless housing

on September 5, 2019

Earlier this summer, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern decided to permanently close the Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility, the hulking downtown Oakland jail, in a cost-saving measure in response to declining inmate populations. The building on the corner of 6th Street and Clay is now empty and without use. So during a July meeting with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, mayors from 14 cities made a proposal: convert the former jail into a homeless shelter.

But in the weeks since the July meeting, advocates have criticized the proposal for its insensitivity to many homeless people’s experiences with incarceration, and county officials and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf have acknowledged that the facility needs a major overhaul.

Schaaf took a tour of the jail on August 20 with a group of other mayors and county officials, and is still open to the proposal, but “it would take quite a bit of investment and remodeling to make it an appropriate facility,” according to the mayor’s director of communications, Justin Berton.

Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Richard Valle, who represents Hayward, Union City, Newark and portions of Fremont and Sunol, said he was pleasantly surprised by the visit. “I was expecting it to be dark, I was expecting it to be bleak, I was expecting it to be dark and dreary. You know, like a jail,” said Valle. “But there’s considerable natural light throughout the facility.”

According to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office website, the building contains six floors of housing. There are 576 cells in the housing area, plus two more on the hospital floor, for a total capacity of 834 people. Each cell is around 80 square feet.

Some remain unconvinced about the facility’s potential future. Alameda County Board of Supervisors Vice President Keith Carson, who represents much of Oakland as well as the cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont, said he immediately felt the proposal was not a good idea and believes that an incredible amount of money would be needed to even attempt to change the building.

“I was in that building years ago, and no matter what money was spent to rehab it, reshape it, it would be virtually impossible to turn it into a place for anyone to live,” said Carson.

For Candice Elder, executive director of East Oakland Collective and an advocate for homeless people, her concerns are as much about the building’s physical issues as they are with the connotations of its former role. Elder estimates that about 30 to 40 percent of Oakland’s unsheltered people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. After speaking to some of the people she works with, she said only a few said they would consider living in the facility, and only then if it was torn down and rebuilt—which, Elder said, “kind of defeats the purpose.”

Elder said building on vacant land would work better and that there are many vacant parcels still left in East Oakland. “There are plenty of more creative, innovative and easy solutions right in front of our faces,” said Elder.

East Oakland Collective’s Urban and Regional Planning Officer Marquita Price said that urban planning and design takes everything into account, including the social experience of the people being put in that building. Being within those walls can be a psychological trauma for some people, and there’s just no way to address it, said Price.

The only real option, she said, would be to completely demolish the jail and build something new. Price said she would like to see it become some type of mixed-use entertainment space for the downtown community.

But some downtown business owners feel that rehabbing the facility would be better than doing nothing. For Gustavo Loza, the owner of The Shoe Spot, a store operating directly across from Dyer on 7th Street, the proposal is “long overdue.”

Loza said he had occasional contact with the residents of the homeless encampment that was kitty-corner to his shop at Jefferson Square Park until Oakland authorities recently cleared it out. Sometimes people would charge their phones in his outlets or use some toilet paper from the bathroom, he said. “We’re supposed to take care of each other,” he said. At Dyer, “there are 900 beds in there, just sitting there.”

After their facility tour, the group of county officials and mayors agreed to discuss the issue further. Valle said the item will most likely be added to their agenda when they reconvene later in September.

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