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Many unhoused people have covered their tents with tarps in an attempt to protect themselves and their belongings from the ongoing storms. The county is distributing some these supplies to encampments that are in need. Credit: Daniel Danzig

In a sign of the devastating impact of the relentless rainstorms on homeless residents, Alameda County officials are distributing 500 tents to those whose belongings have gotten soaked and destroyed. 

While the county’s street health workers often supply tents to individuals in need, this “larger-scale distribution is unique to this storm response,” said Neetu Balram, a spokesperson for the county’s health department.

Health Care for the Homeless and the Social Services Agency are coordinating the distribution of the tents, along with tarps, cots, and rolls of duct tape. Oakland will receive 100 tents, and 100 each of the other items, and outreach workers will supply them to encampments, Balram said. The rest will be divided equally among four other geographic regions in the county, she said. 

“It’s just really tough right now,” said Candice Elder, executive director of the East Oakland Collective, one of the groups receiving tents to distribute.

“People’s belongings are not protected,” she said. “RV- and car-dwellers and tiny homes have leaks. That’s why heavy-duty tarps are crucial. And there’s the high winds, so stuff is getting blown away, so it’s important to have duct tape and rope so people can tie things down.” 

The three-person tents from the county would ideally be larger, Elder said, as many unhoused people need more spacious structures to protect all their belongings from the rain, or to house their partners or pets too.

The East Oakland Collective is also in the middle of its annual winter items drive, collecting high-demand essentials like jackets, gloves, toilet paper, and underwear, and giving them out, both to people who request them and those who they encounter during outreach.

Laundry services are also in demand during the storm. The continual rain has forced some residents to wear cold and molding clothing that they have no ability to keep dry. 

While the state has some mobile laundry buses, Alameda County has been unable to acquire those to use this month, officials said.

“We have located one portable wash/dry station, which we plan to place in a mid-county homeless location, and continue to locate other wash/dry resources,” Balram said in an email.

The new tents are “better than nothing,” especially for people whose previous tents were destroyed by wind, rain, or falling branches, said James Vann, an advocate with the Homeless Advocacy Working Group and Oakland Tenants Union.

But “anyone who lives in a tent is risking their life,” he said. “The warmth of their body is not sufficient to withstand the falling temperatures. We’ve been preaching and clamoring for the fact that unhoused people need a roof, not a cot. A place where they can call the space their own and lock the door.”

The city of Oakland has a range of emergency shelters and transitional housing programs, from large group spaces to tiny-house programs and RV parks. Leading up to last week’s atmospheric river storm, advocates and unhoused people noted that the available beds at these sites could serve only a tiny fraction of the thousands of people living on the streets in Oakland. And some don’t accept pets or enough belongings to allow guests to feel comfortable abandoning their tents and leaving their possessions vulnerable to theft.

The city ultimately opened a large, all-ages group shelter in East Oakland, providing meals and offering kenneling for pets. The two-night shelter was announced after heavy rains and winds were already flooding some areas and knocking trees down.

“Policymakers approach the problem like these are people who can jump in a car and go wherever they want to go—like they can,” Vann said.

City staffer Scott Means (left) and City Councilmember Treva Reid pictured last week at the Ira Jinkins Community Center, the site of a temporary emergency homeless center. Credit: Daniel Danzig

After the city’s emergency group shelter closed, the North Oakland community space Omni Commons opened a volunteer-run and -funded shelter for several days. That program, which was hosting around 20 people nightly, closed Wednesday. 

“For the majority of us it was the first time organizing a shelter,” said Silver, one of the volunteers. “We hope this experience will have us more equipped for the next emergency.”

While the city is not opening any temporary emergency shelters for the coming rainy days, “there is currently plenty of capacity” at the year-round St. Vincent de Paul shelter in West Oakland and other sites like the “community cabin” program, said Jean Walsh, city spokesperson. Call 510-638-7600 to check availability at St. Vincent.

Oakland Animal Services will continue to shelter pets. MACRO, Oakland’s new crisis response crew, is visiting encampments to offer support and transportation to shelter, Walsh said. People who know of a location that needs assistance should email macro@oaklandca.gov.

The National Weather Service is forecasting rain in Oakland for another week.

While these consecutive weeks of storming are not typical, local governments could do better to prepare for the winter, Elder said. 

“We might not know the severity of it, but we know the wet season is coming,” she said. Authorities could be “sourcing these items well in advance of December, distributing them earlier, and opening up shelters and expanding the number of beds.”

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.