Inside One of Oakland's 'Tuff Shed' Homeless Communities

7 min
Joe DeVries, assistant to Oakland's city administrator, stands in front of one of the cabins where the city has created a community for homeless residents to help them get shelter while they get back on their feet. (Brian Watt/KQED)

They look like tool sheds, but in two spots in Oakland, they're serving as temporary homes.

The city of Oakland has been experimenting with using Tuff Sheds as transitional housing for people who've been living in tents on the streets. Joe DeVries, assistant to Oakland's city administrator, prefers to call the sheds "cabins." People began moving into the first cabin community in Oakland, between Castro and Brush streets, in the first days of 2018, after what DeVries says was some pretty heated discussion.

"It was not as readily accepted at first because no one knew what we were doing," DeVries says. But since then, he says the place has served at least 57 homeless people and gotten more than 20 into more stable housing. DeVries says one participant recently moved into a transitional housing center and told him, "I'm ready for walls. I don't want to go back to living in a tent."

The second cabin community is now about a month old. Twenty cabins were built under Interstate 980, where one of Oakland's largest and most dangerous homeless encampments had grown. The cabins are insulated, with double-pane windows, to keep out cold, heat and noise from nearby BART tracks. Priority was given to people who had been camping out in the area the longest.

One resident, who would identify himself only as "Jermaine," lived on the streets in the area for four years. During that time, he says he was never ready to enter a program, never ready for walls.

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"I wasn't ready for the drug programs. I just wasn't ready," he says.

Oakland's Tuff Shed homeless community, at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue, beneath Interstate 980 and BART tracks. (Erika Kelly/KQED)

But he says three weeks of living in the community changed his outlook. When he recently became very ill, his fellow residents urged him to seek medical treatment.

"I was sick, very sick. I didn't realize how many people still loved me," Jermaine says.

So, is he finally "ready for walls"?

"I'm still arguing with my god about it, so to speak," Jermaine says. "But he'll let me know something when he's finished playing with me. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."

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