Pieces of tarp and fabric fly in the wind. A tent is in background.
People who live outside experience the worst of the cold, rain, and extreme winds, like those that hit this Lake Merritt camp in January. Credit: Amir Aziz

When an “atmospheric river” drenched the Bay Area in late October, some residents welcomed the heavy rain during a so-far dry and fiery fall. But the thousands of people living outside in Oakland were in for a tough couple of days and nights.

The Monday after the storm, people who sleep in tents and RVs told The Oaklandside about leaks in their vehicles and pool-sized puddles obstructing their encampments. 

“I had 4 [inches] of flooding at my doorway,” wrote Derrick Soo in a text message the Monday after the storm. Soo, who lives on 77th Avenue, strung up a heavy-duty tarp to protect his structure from the rain, but said the others in his camp had a harder time managing the storm.

In previous years, unhoused people could seek temporary refuge on particularly cold or wet nights at one of several winter emergency shelters open throughout the county. Last year, those options were scaled back significantly after public health experts warned about the serious COVID-19 safety risks posed by “congregate” group shelters, where numerous beds are squeezed into one large room, with no option to social-distance. 

This year, some of the new or expanded alternatives to traditional winter shelter set up in 2020—offering hotel rooms, or providing housing counseling to help encampment residents find transitional housing—will continue. At the same time, some shelters are aiming to add more beds to their facilities. 

Over the last year, new permanent and temporary non-seasonal shelters—like the Clifton Hall senior housing and family shelter, Lake Merritt Lodge shelter, county Roomkey hotels, and the Eastlake tiny-home village—have also expanded indoor options for people previously living in tents and cars in Oakland. These and other new programs have added more than 1,000 emergency beds in Oakland since 2019, according to city staff.

“However, the number of unsheltered people still far exceeds capacity,” wrote city Human Services Department staff in a recent memo. Thousands will still have to weather another COVID winter outdoors. 

Balancing the need for shelter with housing

St. Mary’s Center launched a mobile food and housing program last year in lieu of the typical winter shelter. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

On Nov. 16, the City Council will decide what to do with more than $300,000 available for winter relief efforts, including $140,000 from the county.

City staffers are proposing to distribute the funds among organizations that provide shelter and housing services, as well as outreach organizations that hand out hotel vouchers and winter supplies like blankets and jackets.

The proposal would give St. Vincent de Paul, on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland, around $133,000 to add a second room of shelter beds from December to June 2022. In the past, St. Vincent de Paul offered seasonal shelter, but it recently converted to a year-round facility. However, there is only room for 45 beds to socially distance in the current space, according to the city. The expansion could accommodate between 25 to 55 additional beds in a separate room, depending on how COVID-19 guidance evolves.  

The East Oakland Community Project would also get $67,000 to add 10 beds at the Crossroads shelter on International Boulevard. Those would operate on a first-come, first-served basis each night during winter, but prioritize people living in encampments in East Oakland near the shelter. 

The St. Mary’s Center, also on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland, would receive $100,000 to expand its housing services for seniors, and provide hotel vouchers.

St. Mary’s overhauled its winter programming last year, shifting away from a traditional congregate shelter model and launching a mobile housing and food program through which case managers visited homeless camps and worked with a set group of seniors to get them medical help and move them into transitional housing. In several cases, residents were able to obtain permanent housing placements from there. Dozens more people living in camps received supplies, meals, and other services.

The center recently published an evaluation of its winter “pivot,” finding that 20 seniors who received case management landed in stable housing—roughly the same number of people who received housing placements through their stays at the traditional winter shelter the year before. 

“The emergency food distribution allowed us to build trusting relationships with people, then move to create intensive case management plans, then get people into stable housing,” said Sharon Cornu, St. Mary’s Center executive director.

Cornu said the experience prompted St. Mary’s to examine how it might permanently shift its model toward one focused more on housing than shelter.

“As proud as we are of the winter services, there is a year-round need, and it’s for housing—a home of your own,” she said. “We think that traditional housing or SRO-style housing is a better fit for many than congregate shelter.” Emergency shelter is too often seen as the final stop in the system, she said.

Other winter shelters remain focused on providing homeless people with temporary relief from exposure to the elements. At Crossroads last winter, 62 people slept in the shelter. Sixteen of them received a year-round bed at the facility, according to the city, but just one got permanently housed. At the same time, those residents received refuge during cold nights, an often urgent need not necessarily addressed while someone’s working for weeks with a case manager.

Soon Alameda County will post its master list of winter shelters and warming centers across the region. Like last year, it’s expected that the list will be shorter than usual because of the ongoing pandemic. So what happens when another rainy forecast threatens to soak encampments?

“We’ve given ourselves a little wiggle room, if we need to do some alternative stuff,” said Domingo Cabrera, senior emergency services coordinator with the county. 

He said there is no concrete plan yet for opening additional temporary beds or daytime centers on an emergency basis, “but we have to consider it, especially dealing with the demographic we’re dealing with, which can experience exposure-related illnesses and deaths.” 

“Let’s say a flood happens. That’s something we can explore,” he said.

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.