Oakland women aim to ‘eradicate homelessness’ by fundraising to build cabin communities
on September 18, 2019
One day last January, as Olivia Smartt was driving back to her new home in Oakland after making a supply run to the Home Depot in Fruitvale, she couldn’t stop thinking about the sprawling homeless encampment in the store’s parking lot.
“Here I am—comfortable, successful, in a safe car, with enough money to do a remodel—and I’m ignoring the people right outside my window,” she recalled thinking. As she drove past a cluster of tiny wooden dwellings on the corner of Northgate Avenue and 27th Street, she said, “something inside me just shifted.”
That’s when, she said, she realized she “wanted to help eradicate homelessness in Oakland in her lifetime.” Smartt, who is a professional wedding photographer with no previous background in political organizing, said she’d never even walked through a homeless encampment before. But she did some research and realized that she had driven past what city government officials call a “cabin community”—a group of emergency shelters made out of Home Depot’s trademark Tuff Sheds.
In Oakland, these communities are set up by city officials, funded by a mix of private and public donors, and run by the Alameda County nonprofit Operation Dignity. Inside, each cabin is equipped with two tiny cots, a place to charge a phone, and a door that locks. Operation Dignity provides on-site social services to help residents find permanent housing.
This summer, Smartt set a goal of raising enough money to house 30 people in cabins—the number of people she estimated live in the encampment nearest her home.
Smartt reached out to her councilmember, District 1 representative Dan Kalb, who put her touch with Mayor Libby Schaaf, who finally put her in touch with Stacey Wells, the Director of the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation—the city’s philanthropic arm.
During June and July, Smartt worked on fundraising while Wells figured out where the money should go. Teaming up with two other women in her neighborhood, one of whom she met at a White Awake, a multi-month workshop designed to educate white women about their privilege, Smartt decided to name her campaign “Almost Home Oakland.” She launched an online fundraiser on Facebook, made calls to her neighbors, and put on a big fundraiser at her home at which Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator in charge of homelessness-related issues in Oakland, spoke about the tiny cabins.
In one month, they raised $30,000, all of which they donated to fund construction and operating costs at the city’s newly opened, fifth site cabin site on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland.
Initially, Wells said she was surprised by Smartt’s idea. “A lot of people give,” Wells said. “I think it’s an a extra step when somebody says they want to fundraise and ask their friends to give.”
Smartt turned out to be only the first of several Oaklanders to have this idea. Right now, there are three active Kickstarter campaigns that aim to fund the construction of cabins at Oakland’s sixth site, which is scheduled to be built within the year near Jack London Square on 6th Street and Oak Street.
A campaign run by Kris Vann and her neighbors in Redwood Heights have raised $6,078, beating their initial goal of $6,060, which, according to Wells, would cover the cost of one cabin.
A second campaign run by Ivy Calhoun from Piedmont has raised approximately $2,000.
And Smartt has launched a new campaign, which as of September 17 had raised $22,000 towards a $100,000 goal.
Like Smartt, Vann said she felt “depressed and a bit hopeless” driving past the city’s homeless encampments, and wanted to do something concrete to help. The idea of sponsoring a cabin came out of a meeting she and her friends had with Schaaf at her neighbor Justin Berton’s house—Berton happens to be Schaaf’s spokesperson. During their talk, the mayor mentioned Smartt’s campaign, and the group liked the idea immediately. “There are a lot of individuals in Oakland who want to feel like they’re part of the solution.” Vann said.
Wells said she is impressed with the women’s efforts, calling them “amazing.”
“They are charitable and warmhearted and willing to take this on,” she said. “It’s inspiring.”
But some advocates for the homeless don’t think that funding more city cabins is a good idea. Needa Bee, a leader in the grassroots homeless organizing group, The Village, said she thinks the “good intentions of these women being misdirected and misguided towards something that is not a solution at all.”
Candice Elder, founder of the East Oakland Housing Collective, a community organizing group, argues that the Tuff Sheds end up displacing more people then they help. As soon as a cabin community is built, she said, the city clears the surrounding “large size” encampments and enforces a strict “no camping zone.” Unsheltered residents who don’t make the 40-bed cut, or who don’t want to live in one of the cabins are displaced, Elder said. “It’s sweeping the unhoused under the rug,” Elder said. “It’s like, okay, problem gone! We don’t see them anymore. But then people are just further displaced, once their six months is up.”
According to a count conducted in late January by EveryOneHome, a nonprofit that organizes a yearly, volunteer-led count of the homeless population in Alameda County, Oakland has a homeless population of 4,071 people. Right now, the cabin communities can only offer beds to 195 participants. The newest site near Jack London Square—slated to open by the end of this year, according to Berton—would add another 40 beds.
But according to the data on the mayor’s website, the community cabin program appears successful. Data collected by service providers—previously the Bay Area Community Services nonprofit, now Operation Dignity—shows that 66 percent of past participants in the program managed to obtain permanent housing once they left the cabins. DeVries said Operation Dignity employees use software provided by the Alameda County Homelessness Management Information Center to verify the status of the participants’ residency.
Rather than funding the city’s cabin project, Bee thinks the most helpful thing that well-intentioned citizens could do would be to talk to homeless people about what they need. “This approach of not talking to the people who are the most directly impacted by the crisis—it’s like men never talking to women about sexism or misogyny and then making the decisions on how to solve the problems that impact women’s lives,” Bee said.
But Wells disagrees. She thinks the cabins are the best temporary shelter option Oakland has, and points out that every $7,200 these volunteers raise allows two more people to sleep in them.
Furthermore, she believes Oaklanders do not need to be experts on homelessness before they decide to donate. “A lot of people give to the American Cancer Society without ever having cancers. People are motivated to give, they have a variety of altruistic reasons and I’m not going to question those. If someone doesn’t like a cabin community, that’s their prerogative,” Wells said.
When Smartt found out she’d started a bit of a movement by inspiring two other Kickstarter efforts, she was elated. “That’s exactly what we want, for people to know that they can get involved and help,” she said.
Advocates take serious issue with the city’s data. “We have
questions and would actually like to see the real data. Where are people really
going? Are they going to transitional housing, are they shipping them out of
state? Most of the cases we know of people are going right back to the next
street corner,” Elder said.
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