OAKLAND, Calif. (BCN) - A new city of Oakland-operated village of Tuff Sheds to temporarily house homeless people near Lake Merritt is expected to open this week, and shortly thereafter the city will begin enforcing a camping ban around the lake, city officials announced Tuesday.
Mayor Libby Schaaf hosted a news conference today at the third shed village the city has constructed in the last year. The roughly 136-square-foot plastic sheds have been renovated to sleep two on narrow cots with a curtain separating the roommates.
City staff are putting the finishing touches on the camp, including adding a green screen to the chain link fence surrounding it, and once complete will begin inviting homeless people camping by the lake to move in. If they don't, they'll eventually be told to move anyway.
"I'm excited. I can go back to school. I can go back to work," said Dexter Gary as he stood by his tent. he lives under an overpass not far from Lake Merritt.
The camp holds about 40 people -- fewer than are estimated to be camping near the lake -- so some won't be able to get a place right away. Assistant to the City Administrator Joe DeVries said that people will rotate out of the Tuff Sheds once they find more stable housing.
"We don't consider this housing, we consider this moving from a tent to a bed," DeVries said.
So far, two other Tuff Shed camps in West Oakland have had 55 percent of people who enter transition into housing. The camps remain mostly full because more people have moved in.
The city hopes to have more transitional housing for homeless people soon. In April, Oakland bought a building, a vacant single-room occupancy hotel at 741 W. Grand Ave., to supplement the existing Henry Robinson Multi Service Center at 559 16th St.
The new building would add another 70-90 beds to shelter homeless people once it opens, but the city is still seeking funding for its operation from the state and county, DeVries said. He said Oakland is still aiming to open the shelter by the end of the year.
Even then, Oakland is a long way from housing the more than 2,700 people estimated to be homeless in the city as of the most recent homeless count from last year.
As the first rain of the season arrived in Oakland today, DeVries said that the city's winter shelter with about 100 beds will open at the St. Vincent de Paul Community Center in November.
He said the city is looking into having that shelter operate year-round, but they have has found that the approach of that shelter, with a single large room where everyone sleeps, is unappealing to many homeless people and may be less effective than the Tuff Sheds.
DeVries pointed out that the same winter shelter was only at 78 percent capacity even on the stormiest nights two years ago.
Schaaf also said that the Tuff Shed approach may be better than housing people in a single large room or tent, as has been attempted in other cities like San Francisco or San Diego. Mayors from other cities have reached out to her seeking information about the success of the Tuff Shed program,
She pushed back on perceptions of the Tuff Shed camps as having onerous rules or that the city is forcing people to live there.
"The residents of this community can come and go as they please," Schaaf said.
She said that few services for homeless people will simply accept them "as they are" and offer improved conditions.
Plus, most people moving into the Tuff Shed villages aren't strangers, Schaaf said.
"Because it's geographically based it does keep existing encampment communities together," she said.
DeVries said the camp is not just designed to help the homeless people around the lake, but to help keep the lake and surrounding parks clean, and limit the impacts of the city's growing homeless population on other residents.
Camping at the lake has led to needles, garbage and human waste being disposed of in the lake and parks, destroying the wetlands and irrigation system the city has been working to improve.
"These aren't just designed to help the homeless community, they're designed to help the entire community," DeVries said.
Oakland says other cities, including Santa Rosa and Sacramento have inquired about the Tuff Shed plan.
San Francisco says it has been pursuing other plans, including opening navigation centers. San Jose says it is focusing on building its own small housing units.
"I think they are impressed with its cost effectiveness as well as its initial outcomes. Some cities have other types of restrictions in place that make it a less practical solution for them," said Schaaf.
KTVU's Rob Roth contributed to this story