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In a moment when Oakland is grasping to find new opportunities to house its growing homeless population, the city has closed down a transitional housing site that served 40 people at a time.
The Lake Merritt Community Cabins—a cluster of small sheds modified to house two people each—closed last week, but not for lack of funding or support. The city had to leave the temporary site in the parking lot of the Kaiser Convention Center to make way for construction that’s set to begin on the historic building. According to city staff, they could not find a new place to relocate.
“When we stood up the site, we always knew it was on a time-limited piece of property. We have no beef with that,” said Lara Tannenbaum, community housing services manager for Oakland. “But when we know we have at least 3,000 people—probably more—living unsheltered every night, to lose 40 beds out of our system is a blow.”
The Lake Merritt “cabins” opened in October 2018 in the Kaiser Convention Center’s parking lot because Orton Development, the company the city picked in 2015 to refurbish the historic building, was not ready to begin construction. The developer received an extension on its construction timeline last year, buying the cabin program more time. But beginning around November 2020, the city started looking for a place to move the Lake Merritt cabins, and in December the city officially entered into a lease with Orton, which says it plans to start construction in April.
The nonprofit Housing Consortium of the East Bay, which was on a contract to operate the cabin program through the end of June, would have continued to do so at a new location if the city had identified one.
A parking-lot site at Laney College was under consideration, but didn’t pan out, according to the city. (The college is across the street from the cabins, and partnered with the cabin program in numerous ways.) Other city-owned properties were evaluated too, Tannenbaum said.
“We were unable, in conversations with multiple councilmembers, to find a site,” she said.
The former cabin site was in Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas’ district. Her office did not respond to questions about the closure of the shelter.
Activists and some elected officials have also suggested for several years now that the city could set up transitional or affordable housing on the one-acre, city-owned vacant lot located about one block away from the cabin location, on E. 12th St. But last month, the city administrator gave the developer UrbanCore another of several extensions it’s received on its plans to construct an apartment complex there, meaning that UrbanCore would have to agree to use the land for temporary shelters.
Unable to relocate the cabins, staff turned toward finding alternative housing for the Lake Merritt cabin residents. “We had a hard date where we had to make a decision,” said Talia Rubin, who manages the cabin program for the city. “You have human lives in your hands that you have to plan for.”
Some of the residents have moved into other Community Cabins and other city-run transitional housing. Others have relocated to hotel rooms that the city is paying for, and some have qualified for the “deeply affordable” apartments at the newly opened Brooklyn Basin development. Two people declined to be relocated, according to the city, and will find new living situations on their own.
Billy Joe Trent, a former Lake Merritt Community Cabin resident, said he and his wife enjoyed their year-long stay at the site. “They have real good staff, and the service was great,” he said.
He’s now living in The Holland transitional housing hotel on Grand Avenue, and likes it less, mainly because there’s a curfew. “It feels like you’re locked up,” he said.
Oakland’s first Community Cabins opened in West Oakland at the end of 2017. Several other sites followed soon after, often, as was initially the case with the Lake Merritt cabins, serving people who came from nearby encampments that the city shut down. The cabins are designed to be “low-barrier,” meaning residents can bring partners and pets, and there are no curfews, unlike the strict rules common at homeless shelters.
Not everyone is a fan of the cabin program, though. Unhoused residents living in tents have often told The Oaklandside they’d feel a loss of independence living in a tiny structure with a roommate they might not know, under the watch of staff.
The program is a relatively small part of the city’s array of 1,645 shelters, transitional housing, and RV parking spots for homeless residents. Some of the city’s shelter and housing programs come with significantly more funding than the cabins to support residents moving into housing after their stays, and to work with them in the following months. The city has said that half of the cabin residents move directly into permanent or temporary housing—last year 28% left for permanent housing—and advocates have raised concerns about how many end up back on the streets soon after.
But Trent, who’d had been living in his truck before snagging a cabin spot, said he thinks Oakland should invest in more cabins.
Marichelle Alcantara, the homeless programs manager with the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, said the Lake Merritt location was unique. Many of the cabin sites are under freeways or in industrial areas, but this program was “by the lake, and there was a resort-like feel to it,” she said. “The clients could find solace, and peace and quiet. They could take walks. There were trees everywhere, the library was there—so many resources around the site.”
Neighbors and nearby community organizations, like the Oakland Museum, the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church, and Laney College, “supported us from day one,” said Alcantara, by dropping off donations, allowing cabin managers to use their kitchens to cook meals for residents, and helping out with security around the site.
Tannenbaum said the city’s goal with its shelter programs is to “maintain what we have, then add to it,” so the cabin closure was disappointing. But, she said, “there are other models out there and this”—meaning the cabin program—“is not the only thing we should be doing.”
Facing a massive budget deficit over the past year because of the pandemic and police department overspending, Oakland has been poised to slash programs across departments, including large cuts to housing and homelessness services and facilities. Many homelessness programs currently rely on emergency COVID-19 aid money that’s poured in from the state and federal governments over the past year but is set to run out.
But the city said this week that it expects to receive up to $192 million more in federal aid, thanks to the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill, possibly negating the need for those cuts.
Correction: This story has been updated to say that half of the Community Cabin residents move into permanent or temporary housing—not exclusively permanent housing, as previously stated—after their stays.