One of the "co-governed" camps will be built on a vacant lot owned by the California Department of Transportation at Peralta and Third streets. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Forty unhoused people could soon move into new tiny structures in West Oakland, at a “co-governed encampment” authorized by the City Council this week. 

The site would be one of the city’s first “co-governed” camps, where homeless residents and a service provider, in this case Housing Consortium of the East Bay, operate the location in a partnership. Because Oakland currently has no co-governed encampments, it is not yet clear how the new site will function, but the general idea is to empower residents of the camp to devise their own policies—around substance use at the site, guests, shared responsibilities like clean-up, and so forth—and to help manage the program. 

The camp will be built on a vacant lot owned by the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, at Peralta and Third streets. The city plans to lease the land from Caltrans for three years and purchase the shelter structures from Pallet, which makes aluminum huts equipped with electricity and heating that are designed for use as emergency housing. The city will pay Housing Consortium of the East Bay $850,000 for the first year of operations. 

“We’ve been arguing for the longest time that people need solid walls and roofs and a lockable door,” said James Vann, an advocate for unhoused residents, who applauded the design plans. “Once they begin to feel secure, other parts of their social and medical needs can begin to be addressed.”

The program will serve people who are homeless in District 3, which includes West Oakland, downtown, and the Jack London District, and is represented by Councilmember Carroll Fife. Justin Tombolesi, an aide to Fife, said the council office pursued the Peralta camp as a solution to a conflict that arose recently when Caltrans ordered people who were living in tents on the agency’s property to leave, raising concerns from a local church that the camp would relocate near its building. 

The people living in those tents will be prioritized for the new Pallet structures, Tombolesi said. 

The City Council’s decision Tuesday caps a month-long search for sites where Oakland could spend an excess $3.9 million identified in the city budget for emergency homeless services, thanks to programs that were unexpectedly delayed or closed last year. Some councilmembers have long implored city staff to act more quickly in launching homelessness services on public and vacant land. Staffers pointed to a lack of easily available sites, and asked the elected officials to propose locations and programs in their districts. 

In May, councilmembers released their list of proposed sites—some more realistic than others—for immediate, emergency shelters, like tiny homes, sanctioned tent camps, and RV parks. The Peralta site, a fenced-off lot behind the West Oakland post office, was not discussed at that council meeting.

“It’s already pretty developed and paved, and it’s got utilities,” said Tombolesi. “As far as a quick solution, this one seems like a good start.” He said he was told that the site could be up and running by Labor Day.

The City Council’s decision this week means that virtually all of the available funds will likely be used on the new Pallet shelter site in West Oakland as well as a large, grassy, city-owned parcel on E. 12th and 2nd Avenue, across from Lake Merritt. The council voted in June to authorize two Pallet shelter programs on the E. 12th parcel, the contentious site of a planned, yet long-delayed, housing development. The councilmember for the area, Nikki Fortunato Bas, along with activists, have pushed the city to open a temporary shelter there in the meantime.

The E. 12th camp could accommodate as many as 60 residents, including housing and addiction treatment services. Housing Consortium of the East Bay will operate that site as well. Separately, but on the same lot, Tiny Logic will help run a co-governed encampment for 15 people who lived at Union Point Park until recently.

Vann said he’s pleased to see co-governed camps come to fruition after many months of discussion. Vann is active with the Homeless Advocacy Working Group, which released guidelines for the leadership structure and operating procedures at such camps in January. 

He said co-governed sites can be more “economical” than typical shelters run exclusively by private organizations that receive expensive city contracts. One of the ideas with this alternative is to have residents elect a representative who communicates the group’s needs to a non-profit partner and to the city. 

If the city further embraces co-governed camps “we could ultimately get all the informal encampments off the streets and out from under freeways, into these more uniformed and managed and orderly encampment processes,” said Vann.

Despite the theoretical cost-saving opportunities, the city approved pricy contracts with not just Housing Consortium of the East Bay, but also a company that will ready the sites, for these programs. 

Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods will prepare both parcels for the co-governed camps and to purchase 113 Pallet shelters for a total cost of up to $2.4 million. 

Most of the $3.9 million excess funds will be spent on the E. 12th site, with the Peralta program relying on Measure Q money as well. 

Tombolesi said that although his office sought out the Caltrans site for the new shelter program, he still sees it as a “small stop-gap” in the broader pursuit of places to permanently house people—whether on other public land or in private housing.

“There’s an abundance of empty units available in [District] 3,” he said. “We’re going to need a more expansive plan.”

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.