County offers Oakland jail as homeless shelter for $1 a year; critics say proposal is 'inhumane'

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors told mayors of 14 cities this week that they can lease Oakland's now-defunct, hulking, gray concrete jailhouse and use it for a homeless shelter  – an idea that supporters say is innovative but critics say is inhumane and isn't what the cities had asked for.

In a Tuesday letter to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Alameda County Board of Supervisor President Richard Valle wrote, "given the crisis we face," the county would offer the 834-cell, six-story Glenn Dyer jailhouse at a "nominal cost of $1 per year for 25 years." 

Schaaf and the mayors of 13 other cities in the East Bay have been meeting for the last several months on how to address homelessness, and using the jail for shelter had been one of many ideas suggested to the county. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin told KTVU on Thursday that Valle's email, with no further discussion, however, came as a surprise and isn't enough. The county closed the jail in June as a cost-cutting move. 

"We were perplexed," he said. "We appreciate the gesture but we need more. We asked for more shelter beds and social services." The list that the mayors sent the county also included more money for mental health outreach, safe parking, cleanup and more navigation centers. 

In a statement, Valle said he is working with the county administrator to invite all the mayors in the county on a tour of the jail so that they can see firsthand the condition of the facility and "be better informed about the potential use of the facility." 

Arreguin could be intrigued by the idea of turning the jail at 550 6th Street into a shelter – something that tried in Seattle last year – but he said he needed to know much more: Specifically, how much would it cost to renovate a building with built-in bars and slatted, narrow bulletproof windows into a livable space? 

And emotionally, several homeless advocates said that going to sleep in a former jail cell might trigger traumatic experience for the homeless, a population that is 10 times more likely to have been incarcerated, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. 

"I wouldn't go there," said John Jones III, who served 14 years in two prisons in connection with a homicide and assault, who was homeless for 18 months, and who is now the director of community engagement for Just Cities. "Shelters are not humanizing. There is no place for dignity. And there are just so many problems with Glenn Dyer." 

Candice Elder, founder of the East Oakland Collective, a nonprofit devoted to racial and economic equity, also said she is " in huge opposition into turning this jail into shelter. I understand why the county and the city of Oakland and neighboring mayors think it's a good idea because of the infrastructure in place. But the jail would have to be completely renovated before you put people in there."

She noted the huge "prison-homeless" pipeline, and putting people who have been incarcerated back in a jail setting is "inhumane and sends the wrong message," she said. 

Elder acknowledged that living on the streets is also inhumane.

"But there are other solutions," she said. "Anything is not better than nothing."

Many homeless don't even like temporary shelters and are seeking more permanent solutions like apartments and homes, Elder said. And a shelter in a former jail setting? "I'm assuming they'd opt out of living there anyway. Everyone I've talked to has already said ‘No."  

One thing everyone agrees on is that there is a homeless crisis in the region. 

The homeless population in Alameda County rose by 43 percent since 2017, and all cities in the county saw significant increases, according to EveryOne Home. The latest numbers put the county's homeless population at 9,300. 

Oakland made up nearly half of the county's homeless population with a 47 percent increase. Berkeley's homeless population increased by about 13 percent. Emeryville and San Leandro had a steep growth with 513 percent and 283 percent, respectively.  

The jail-turn-shelter idea was considered in Southern California at the Santa Ana City Jail, but a report commissioned by the City Council found that using the facility as a shelter wouldn't be feasible. 

But in Seattle, about 100 homeless began receiving shelter in an unused wing of a jail after doing an extensive $2 million remodel. 

Elder said she'd like to see the homeless moved into other vacant publicly owned land. She suggested some BART-owned and Oakland Unified School District properties, specifically the now-closed Edward Shands Adult Education Center at 2555 Church Street, as a few examples.

In fact, research conducted by Just Cities and the UC Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning, shows that there are 50 publicly owned properties in Oakland, mostly empty vacant and parking lots, that could be turned into about 7,500 units of housing.

As for Arreguin, he and his mayoral colleagues, are open to almost any and all ideas that would shelter the unsheltered.

But no matter what the proposal, Arreguin said the solution "has to be a place that's safe and welcoming and dignified."