On Monday afternoon, during the last dry hours before another storm hit Oakland, two star-shaped balloons fluttered in the wind by Lake Merritt, anchored by a bouquet. Next to the flowers were two portraits of a man, the frames resting against the broken trunk of a tree that fell the previous week onto the man’s tent. He was discovered dead inside of it, trapped under a limb.
A week after the tragedy, the tent and other possessions that had seemingly belonged to the man, whom NBC identified as Louisiana native and music-lover Tyrone Butler, were still scattered about the grassy area on Perkins Street and Bellevue Avenue.
Butler is one of five known fatalities in California from the “bomb cyclone” the week of March 20. Some of the others died when trees fell on their cars. For people who live outdoors, it’s not a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but rather a case of constant risk and exposure to the elements—which have been particularly severe this winter.
“It’s frightening,” said Gary Holmes, who lives in a tent just a couple of blocks away from Butler’s. Holmes’ tent is now tied down with ropes, and he has a tarp to cover it in the rain, although it “blew loose” the other night. The rope is the product of a lesson he learned the hard way last year, when he left home for the day and returned to find his tent in the lake.
On rainy nights, Holmes takes shelter in his “emergency tent” under the freeway, where he can stay dry and protected from stray branches.
Exactly a mile away from where Holmes lives is St. Vincent de Paul, the city’s primary emergency shelter. On even the rainiest nights this winter, there have been empty beds at the West Oakland facility, just waiting for people to take refuge. On Tuesday, March 21, the night that Butler was killed, there were over 30 available.
So where does the disconnect lie between people living outdoors, in harm’s way, and services theoretically at the ready? Why do resources go unused?
What more can and should be done to help prevent tragedies in the extreme weather that’s returned this week, will likely come back in the summer, and is expected to get worse in approaching years?
Many unhoused people avoid shelters, even during hazardous weather
“You feel uncomfortable because you don’t know anyone,” said Holmes, explaining why doesn’t stay in shelters during storms. He’d rather risk getting harmed by the weather than by the other people he’d be cooped up with, in a facility where he said the rules can make it feel like “jail.” He’s tried it before and doesn’t plan to go back.
Talya Husbands-Hankin, an advocate with the organization Love and Justice in the Streets, said the city should hire unhoused consultants to devise an emergency plan “that actually takes into account the real needs of people living outside.”
When the city opened a two-night emergency shelter in East Oakland just as one of the bad January storms was getting underway, it was “too little, too late,” according to Husbands-Hankin. Nobody showed up. She said the city should open the same sites—say, the same few public libraries—every time there’s extreme weather, so people know what to expect and where to go, and neither staff nor residents have to scramble.
Blase Bova, the director of St. Vincent, believes more people would use her shelter if there was better outreach informing residents of the option.
“There’s a misconception that we have no beds,” she said. The shelter could also be difficult to reach for people living in other parts of town, like East Oakland, without a vehicle. However, Bova acknowledged that many people are aware of the shelter and simply choose not to come, including dozens of people sleeping in tents on the blocks surrounding the facility.
Bova said there’s political pressure on Oakland to expand the number of shelter beds—and many homelessness funding sources are contingent on the city adding beds. After all, there are far more people living outdoors than the number of shelter slots available. But the focus might be better placed on encouraging people to use the existing facilities or improving them, Bova said, noting that a recent audit didn’t reflect well on the way many programs are run.
St. Vincent, which has provided social services and meals out of its Oakland facility for decades, first opened a winter shelter about eight years ago, then converted to a year-round emergency shelter three years ago. Over that time, the organization made changes to address several of the main reasons people avoid these programs, Bova said.
“Pets, partners, and possessions are the three main ones,” she said. St. Vincent now allows couples to move their beds next to one another. And while pets still aren’t allowed inside, for sanitation reasons, there’s an option to have your pet stay with Animal Control overnight and pick them up in the morning, though nobody has taken advantage of this option. Each guest gets a rubber bin to store belongings, too. Many unhoused people say their things get stolen if they leave their tent area unattended for even a couple of hours.
“I think the next level, which I certainly understand, is privacy,” Bova said. “When you’re in a tent, it’s easy to come and go as you please, bring what you want, and do whatever you like, including some behaviors we really don’t allow here.” St. Vincent guests are permitted to stay there while intoxicated, but they can’t use substances on site.
Husbands-Hankin said city efforts must also focus on “supporting people who are going to stay in place,” which she said has “fallen on volunteer efforts.” Advocates like her travel from camp to camp, letting residents know about approaching weather, and handing out supplies like tarps, filling in a “missing piece” in lieu of a city- or county-wide warning system. “And after the fact, when the tents and tarps are tattered, they need new everything,” she said.
In an unusual step this year, Alameda County also distributed 500 tents, along with tarps and duct tape, to people impacted by the January storms. Oakland got 100 tents—more than it typically receives, but enough for only a small fraction of the more than 3,300 people estimated to live outdoors here.
“We don’t force anyone”
The city’s new non-police emergency response program, MACRO, has also taken on outreach work before and during storms and severe heat.
Last summer, the crews distributed water bottles, checked for dehydration, and offered transportation to cooler places. “Then when it started getting cold, we made sure people had blankets and knew where the shelters were,” said Elliot Jones, the MACRO program manager. If people have set up camp in a particularly dangerous spot, MACRO gently advises them to relocate.
Jones said the responders make a point to approach their interactions with unhoused residents with empathy and “understanding people’s humanity.” Often, trust needs to be built over time before someone feels comfortable accepting support.
“The happy challenge is that everything is voluntary and we don’t force anyone—they have a role in their own care,” said Jones. “These folks are not unaware when [extreme weather] is going on. They’re doing the math: Do I want to leave all my things? If they had one bad experience at one point, that could turn them off to shelter forever. What we’re searching for, as MACRO, is that one moment where they say, ‘Hey, I’m ready.’” He said MACRO has transportation available if someone agrees to take shelter.
When Jones spoke with The Oaklandside on Tuesday, he’d stepped out of an Emergency Operations Center meeting. When the city’s EOC is activated, like it was for this week’s storm, several different departments coordinate to respond.
MACRO, still a pilot program, only has 12 responders—six EMTs and six “community intervention specialists,” who travel in pairs, mostly in East and West Oakland. The program has made 11,000 “contacts” in its first year of service, one of which was Butler.
“He was on our radar,” Jones said. “It kind of hit us. These are lives, and all life deserves dignity and care. You hope this is just going to be a small part of their lives. Your hope is that you’re going to get to talk to them again the next day.”
The Oaklandside asked three city departments whether there are plans to clean up the scene of the tragedy and none responded.
On Thursday, after publication, city spokesperson Jean Walsh said crews have now cleared Butler’s tent, but are leaving the items placed there since his death for now.
“We are treating the area as a shrine at present, and will be engaging as best as possible with the community to set an eventual end date to the informal display while giving respect to the person who passed and those who knew him,” she said in an email.
Bova said she’s a “little bit of an outlier,” in that she thinks the city and community members should more strongly encourage people to use shelters like hers, saying it “doesn’t help to make encampments more like cities or communities,” by providing supplies like tents. “It’s like abandoning them to their vices and demons,” she said.
Talking with The Oaklandside, Holmes and his friend Cosmos “Mr. Universe” Ozonsi described the internal work they’ve done to psychologically withstand the storms, the looks of hatred they receive from people walking around Lake Merritt, and past instances of the city making them pack up and leave.
Ozonsi said he has a philosophy of holding onto “joy” and “letting go of anger,” which he considers a health hazard.
“A lot of people give up out here,” Holmes said. “We are smiling to keep from laughing.” He said he frequently cooks for 15 people at a time and lets people crash in his tent even if he thinks they might steal something. “We accept donations” of clothes and food, he made a point to say.
“Most people here help each other,” Holmes said. “I saw a girl lying in the grass in the rain, wrapped up in blankets, and I went to her. When I see a brother in need, I don’t wait.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Talya Husbands-Hankin is proposing that the city of Oakland hire unhoused residents to serve as consultants, not consultants who don’t have experience being homeless.