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In January 2021, a wind storm toppled tents and shredded tarps at the Athol Plaza encampment. This week, unhoused people are bracing for the effects of a rainstorm. Credit: Amir Aziz

“It’s like a lake over here, people,” said John Janosko.

Livestreaming on New Year’s Eve, the Wood Street encampment resident trudged through some two feet of water, filming half-submerged cars, soaked duffle bags, and debris floating down the road.

Update: An emergency shelter will be open through Friday morning at 9175 Edes Ave., accepting walk-ins. More info here.

Unhoused people in Oakland and those who advocate on their behalf are bracing for more damage from the downpour and strong winds in the atmospheric river storm starting today. 

“Getting cold and wet for that many days and not having any way to dry off and warm up is very dangerous,” said Talya Husbands-Hankin, advocate with Love and Justice in the Streets. “This creates a life and death emergency, which exposes the extreme circumstances of people living outside—it’s just not safe.” 

There are an estimated 5,055 unhoused people in Oakland, the vast majority of whom—3,337—are unsheltered, meaning they live in tents, vehicles, or sleeping bags. A recent analysis by Alameda County found that homeless residents die at an alarming rate, more susceptible to every cause of death than housed people are.

Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Husbands-Hankin was preparing to hit the streets with “hundreds of ponchos and as many tarps as I can access.” She and Janosko are among those calling on the city of Oakland to take emergency measures to protect homeless people living exposed to the elements this week. 

So far, the city doesn’t appear to be offering any additional shelter spaces for unhoused residents during the storm, though officials say they’re considering doing so.

On Tuesday, the city put out a statement saying beds were still available that night at St. Vincent de Paul, a year-round emergency shelter in West Oakland. Residents seeking shelter can call the facility at 510-638-7600. Some beds at longer-term facilities, like the “community cabin” sites, are also available, according to the city’s statement. 

St. Vincent has 70 shelter beds, and another shelter, Crossroads in East Oakland, adds 10 first-come, first-served beds during the winter (most are reserved for long-term stays). The Crossroads phone number is 510-532-3211. 

The county maintains a list of emergency shelters open each winter, but the list has shrunk during the pandemic out of concern for outbreaks in large group shelters. 

City spokesperson Jean Walsh told The Oaklandside that Oakland is “offering available shelter and identifying additional sites where residents can go, should they desire, to find relief from the severe weather, including public libraries, recreation centers, and other facilities.” It was not clear whether those additional sites would have extended or overnight hours. 

“The City is continuing to identify and secure additional resources to increase shelter capacity to support the needs of the unhoused during this time,” Walsh said in an email Tuesday night. 

The Oaklandside asked the city for more details on whether any shelter beds have been added to the system so far, or will be added in the coming days, and we will update this story as more information becomes available. Oakland also has protocols allowing for the city to open emergency shelters and warming centers when certain low temperatures and wind levels are reached, but those thresholds are not based on rain levels.

MACRO, Oakland’s new non-police emergency response system, has outreach workers visiting encampments and offering shelter and support during the storm, Walsh said. The city is also activating its “Emergency Operations Center,” allowing different city departments to better coordinate on crisis response. 

Many unsheltered people and supporters want more.

“It should be all-hands-on-deck right now,” said Husbands-Hankin. “The city should immediately open warming centers and shelter spaces where people can come and bring their animals and belongings—and provide people with water and food.” Group shelters like St. Vincent do not typically allow pets or storage of large amounts of possessions.

Several people tweeted at Mayor Sheng Thao Wednesday, asking her to open vacant properties and sites with fewer restrictions.

Inclement weather can create many safety hazards for unhoused people beyond exposure to the rain and cold, said Husbands-Hankin. Some only have access to clean drinking water by buying it at stores, and the storm could prevent travel to those sites or prompt shops to close. Meteorologists and government officials are advising people to stay put and inside Wednesday afternoon and evening, as strong winds combined with saturated soil could cause trees to fall, obstructing roads and harming people.

In his video, Janosko filmed his Wood Street neighbors securing tarps over their tiny homes and shelter structures. They’d also cleared a storm drain, and water was rushing eagerly into it. But the video also showed extensive damage to many people’s structures and belongings at the West Oakland site, which was inundated with muddy, unsanitary water littered with debris. An area where the community had, just days earlier, hosted a holiday party was partially submerged.

Many of Oakland’s homeless camps are located in low-lying areas prone to flooding, near highways, creeks, and under bridges.

Wood Street is scheduled for closure by the city starting next week, and multiple other encampment closures—around 30th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and around Foothill Boulevard and High Street—are on the schedule for this week. Walsh said weather conditions could postpone those plans, but as of now they’re still on the docket.

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.