Oakland 'Tent Drive' for three dozen unsheltered people soon to lose makeshift homes

An Oakland nonprofit is collecting money and large tents in order to help unsheltered families have a temporary roof – or a tarp – over their heads as they will be soon lose their makeshift homes from their curbside community.

The families who live in 21 self-built dwellings, constructed of wood, metal, concrete and other materials, on San Leandro Boulevard between 81st and 85th avenues in East Oakland near the Coliseum BART must move because of fire code violations, the city announced.

There are as many as 30 people  - including a mother and young baby -- who live at this site, according to Candice Elder, executive director of the East Oakland Collective, who is leading the 'Tent Drive' fundraising effort. 

The residents were first going to have to move on Wednesday. Public Works crews posted signs saying that any structures in that area had to be taken down and removed by the residents, or they would be thrown out.

But Elder's group negotiated a compromise with the city and extended the dismantling of the makeshift structures to Sept. 11. She and city officials were also able to set up the mother and baby with short-term housing.

Crews will "clean and clear" the property, razing the structures and removing all debris, before allowing the residents to move back in, hopefully that same night, Elder said. Since their more permanent roofs will no longer exist, Elder said the residents will need the donated tents to sleep in.  

What's happened in the last few years, is that the city of Oakland has been offering a "cabin community," or Tuff Sheds, near the razed sites instead, as a temporary but more structured option for the unsheltered. It's unclear if such a program will be established in this particular spot.

Justin Berton, a spokesman for Mayor Libby Schaaf, added that this two-week extension should give the residents and Elder's group enough time to remove fire hazards, including propane tanks and other hazardous materials from the site, as well as collect tent donations by early next week.

Oakland city leaders have said they are especially cognizant of fire safety hazards, and not turning a blind eye, since the deadly 2016 Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people in an illegally converted warehouse.

Oakland city councilman Noel Gallo went even further, telling KTVU this week that he believes there should be more policing of these homeless camps and more arrests and citations issued when residents violate laws, such as sleeping on sidewalks and littering the streets.

He said city leaders have been too lenient with those who violate laws that are already on the books. The sprawling camps that were once called out in a United Nations report as "cruel and inhumane" scare away business and make it unsafe for children to walk to school, he said. "It's this anything goes attitude in Oakland," he said. "You don't see this happening in Alameda. In Oakland, our law enforcement doesn't enforce the homeless camps. They tell me they have a directive not to go near them."

In this particular case, Gallo said it's very important that there aren't dwellings and propane tanks that could start a fire directly under the BART tracks above. "But the homeless want to create their own rules and they want you to feel sorry for them," he said. 

Take a tour of the homeless encampment near the Coliseum

Elder sees the situation quite differently. And despite the negotiated comprise she was able to forge with the city earlier this week, Elder said she is not satisfied. 

"The city did not budge one bit on not destroying the self-built homes due to fire danger and safety concerns," she said. "The two-week delay simply allows for time to buy large family size tents, fire safety supplies and any other necessary supplies to help the residents move their belongings."

In her opinion, the better short-term solution would be to move the residents to new land that's sanctioned, safe and away from environmental pollutants like being under the BART tracks.

She said she understands the city's desire to make the property safe and free of fire hazards. She knows there have been several fires that have erupted at homeless encampments, some as a result of arson, others as a result of candles tipping over, as two examples.

But she said there are solutions other than eradicating people's dwellings. She suggested the city hand out fire extinguishers and smoke detectors and have fire marshals come out and speak to the people living there to educate them.

"I want to pressure the city to mitigate first," she said, "before rushing to destroy everything."

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: To learn more about the Tent Drive, click here.