Facade of Crossroads, housing facility for the houseless community in Oakland, California.
The Crossroads shelter in East Oakland is the only site in the city offering emergency winter beds this year. Other shelters have closed because of COVID-19 concerns. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the cold and wet winter months, when it’s even more dangerous than usual to sleep outside, Oakland and neighboring cities typically offer additional homeless shelter beds.

This year, concerns around COVID-19 have prompted service providers and local governments to scale back those emergency shelter options.

“There are significant changes given the global pandemic,” said Autumn King, a city of Oakland spokesperson, in an email. 

In 2019, there were 11 winter shelters and warming centers operating in Alameda County in addition to the year-round shelter options. This year, there are only four sites on the county’s emergency shelter list, and no warming centers. Warming centers are shelters that open only on nights when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, or when it’s raining.

The only emergency option in Oakland is the East Oakland Community Project Crossroads shelter, which offers an additional 10 beds—first-come, first-served—nightly throughout the winter. (St. Vincent de Paul, which served as a winter shelter in the past, now runs year-round.)

Alameda County did not respond to a request for information about how and why decisions were made to reduce winter shelters this year, and whether any warming centers would eventually open. King had said in November that Oakland was discussing the possibility with the county, but didn’t provide any more information about those considerations in response to questions this week. She told The Oaklandside that the city and service providers worked together to decide when to open or modify winter shelters, based on state health guidance. 

Across the country, including in nearby San Francisco, there have been large coronavirus outbreaks at homeless shelters and in other congregate settings like nursing homes. The risk can increase at temporary emergency shelters, where the guest lists change each night. But closing winter shelters removes a refuge that many unhoused residents, who are more likely to have chronic illnesses, rely on annually to avoid the additional health risks associated with sleeping in the freezing cold and getting soaked in the rain.

Where to find emergency shelter this winter in Alameda County

  • The East Oakland Community Project Crossroads shelter, at 7515 International Blvd., in Oakland, has 10 additional beds nightly through April. The site is geared toward adults in East Oakland, who will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, starting at 5 p.m. Dinner provided.
  • The Fremont Winter Shelter, at 39770 Paseo Padre Pkwy, in Fremont, has space for 30 guests nightly through March 28. This site serves adults from the Tri-City area. Call 510-574-2222 to register. Breakfast and dinner provided.
  • The First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, at 2490 Grove Ave., in Castro Valley, has cots for 50 guests nightly through May 15. Call 510-634-4750 for availability. Dinner and breakfast provided.
  • The South Hayward Winter Warming Shelter, at 27287 Patrick Ave., in Hayward, has 17 mats nightly through May 15. Call 510-634-2229 for availability. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided.
  • Any night in Oakland, you can call 510-638-7600 to request a bed at St. Vincent de Paul, or 211 for general shelter information.

Sharon Cornu, executive director of the St. Mary’s Senior Center in Oakland, said her organization made the “painful” decision to forgo their winter shelter this year. Typically St. Mary’s offers 25 shelter beds from November to April for people over age 55. But the center doesn’t have the capacity or layout necessary to keep guests and staff safe in a pandemic, Cornu said.

“An old high school gym is our community center,” Cornu said. “We had concerns about maintaining distance, and the frailty and healthcare needs of the people we serve.” In fact, the shelter last year closed a few days early in April, after staff agonized about how to serve the seniors without putting an already vulnerable population at greater risk of contracting the virus. 

Throughout the pandemic, St. Mary’s has provided a hot meal program. This winter, the center is also delivering groceries and PPE, as well as sending outreach workers around town to connect unhoused seniors with general case management. According to Cornu, St. Mary’s is typically able to place about 20 of its roughly 100 winter guests in transitional housing, which the center also operates. Cornu hopes to see the same success through the outreach program, and to continue providing other services that make it easier for clients to secure a place to live, like helping seniors compile and store personal identification documents that can get lost when you’re constantly moving around.

Dr. Coco Auerswald, a public health professor at UC Berkeley and UCSF, said cities and counties don’t have to sacrifice winter shelter altogether just because they can’t safely establish communal sites.

“Putting people in danger, or leaving them in danger—those can’t be our only options,” Auerswald said. “I think we need to have more temporary housing that has a door and a bathroom. And to figure out ways to use city land for temporary shelters that are appropriate for human beings.” 

Back in April, Auerswald and her colleagues released a report that detailed the coronavirus risks at both congregate shelters and homeless camps. Some of the concerns outlined in the early-pandemic report have come to tragic fruition repeatedly: Just a few days ago, the city of San Diego reported 80 positive COVID-19 tests at one homeless shelter.

“Even if beds are placed the recommended six feet apart, they are still within range of heavy droplets emitted through coughs and sneezes,” the report said. “In addition, as people inevitably get off of their bed or mat to access bathrooms or leave for a walk, they would instantly be within one to four feet of other people.”

Oakland faced a similar decision earlier this year during the fall fire season when smoke caused the air to become unhealthy, and community members and elected officials implored the city to provide unhoused people with a clean place to breathe. Staffers eventually set up clean-air respite centers, and drew up protocols for cooling centers, putting safety measures in place. However, those sites weren’t set up for overnight stays.  

Auerswald’s report recommended hotel, dorm, or SRO-style shelters and housing, where residents have their own private spaces. Alameda County has taken advantage of state and federal relief funds to open several hotel shelters for people who test positive for the virus, and those who have medical vulnerabilities. Unhoused residents and activists have also raised money to put people up in hotels on their own. Oakland has also secured state grants to buy and open new, permanent, supportive housing sites for formerly homeless seniors, families, and veterans

But some of the hotel programs are ending, and even that rapid expansion of the local affordable housing stock still leaves thousands of people without a permanent place to sleep. Many more are newly at risk of becoming homeless, too, with the pandemic taking a financial toll on countless workers and families. Meanwhile, coronavirus case rates are higher than they’ve ever been in Alameda County, making the need for safe shelter all the more urgent.

The April report also urged expanded access to hygiene and sanitation facilities for people experiencing homelessness. The city of Oakland gave more handwashing stations to camps at the start of the crisis. Reviews have been mixed, with some unhoused residents telling The Oaklandside that maintenance of those fixtures has been reliable, while others say they’re left empty for days or insufficient in number. King, the city spokesperson, said the city has also ordered warm clothes and supplies, like blankets, ponchos, and hand warmers, to deliver to people living outside this winter.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.