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Oakland To Invest Millions In 'Tuff Shed' Program To Help House Homeless

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- Housing homeless people in backyard sheds sounds extreme, but Oakland officials say the exploding crisis calls for extreme ideas. Oakland plans to invest millions of dollars to expand the so-called Community Cabins program.

KPIX 5 talked to Mulaizum Coleman, a current resident who says the program helped him get off the street, but he now he fears he'll be right back where he started from.

We first met up with Coleman on the morning of this year's official homeless count in Oakland. He was volunteering as a guide, helping to locate encampments around Lake Merritt, an area he told us he camped in himself for eight years.

"I had a tent, four backpacks; two full of clothes, two with shoes. I used to live all through this lake area," said Coleman.

But last fall, city officials offered him a space in a newly opened cabin community just south of the park. 20 insulated Tuff Sheds there provide shelter for 40 people, two per shed.

"They they got TV, they got hot water, they got showers, they got porta potties, you can wash your hands, you got sanitizers," said Coleman.

Thanks to an onsite social worker, Coleman is back in school and working part-time cleaning up trash in the park. But he says there's one major downside: his time at the Community Cabins site at Lake Merritt is almost up.

Tuff Shed Homeless Housing Projects (CBS)
Tuff Shed Homeless Housing Project (CBS)

Oakland's homeless residents can only live in the city's cabin communities for six months. After that, they're on their own.

"These are very much designed to be temporary interventions," said Lara Tannebaum, who manages community housing services for the city of Oakland.

"The fact that you can put your stuff in a shed and lock the door the peace of mind that that gives people. You know where you are going to get dinner at night, you know where you are going to go to the bathroom, that is huge."

So far, 300 homeless people have stayed in the sheds. According to city data, 103 have moved on to permanent housing, which could include friends or family. 37 found transitional housing or moved to a shelter.

But city officials estimate as many as 5,000 homeless people are still living on the street.  Homeless advocates believe it's more like 9,000--and growing.

"It's a band-aid on a huge wound," said Candice Elder, founder of the East Oakland Collective, a non-profit that helps the homeless.

"The city calls them community cabins, but they are Tuff Sheds. They are backyard tool sheds that people don't belong in. You're supposed to put your leaf blower, your chain saw, your tools in, not people," said Elder.

She believes there are better options that can be set up just as quickly and as cheaply.

"Like container homes and tiny homes. Let's maybe even look at model tent communities where it's more structured, self governed and where you can actually put resources like sanitation where you have wrap around services, meet people where they are," said Elder.

For Coleman, new options can't come soon enough.

"Of course you worry. In six months, people are barely trying to get into themselves for six months. To get an income it takes three months," said Coleman.

He has a suggestion for the folks at city hall: "Why not give me a year and then you all can help me find somewhere to go, instead of just rushing me in and rushing me out?"

A fourth community cabin site is set to open in West Oakland in May. The city also has plans to open four RV sites with secure parking, toilets and garbage service.

Oakland officials say the six month limit for staying in a Tuff Shed is not set in stone. They will make exceptions for residents who are doing all the right things to get their life back in order.

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