Photo by Meg Shutzer
Michael London, 50, sits at the Homeless Action Center in Oakland, waiting to find out if he will be able to return to the Tuff Sheds on Northgate Avenue. He is holding a toy basketball hoop that he has owned since age 13.
A miniature basketball hoop is currently Michael London’s only possession.
He has been carrying it with him for years, but holding onto it with greater intensity over the last few days. Sitting in the waiting room of the Homeless Action Center last Wednesday, London ran his fingers up and down the contours of the toy net, anxiously waiting to hear whether he would be able to return to his home and his possessions.
“I never shoulda moved into those sheds,” he said. “I lost everything I had, and even though it wasn’t much, now it’s gone”
In May, London was one of 40 people to move into the Northgate Avenue Tuff Shed camp, a pilot program by the City of Oakland to provide temporary shelter to people experiencing homelessness. The Northgate camp is the second Tuff Shed site to open, and the city is planning to open a third. According to a recent city report, the two existing sites have collectively helped 41 people find more permanent housing.
After an altercation on Sept. 7, London joined the ranks of those who have lost their place in the Tuff Shed camp since the site opened. One resident estimates that the camp has evicted 10 people during that period.
London said he misses the relative security of the Tuff Shed, and he no longer has the tent he gave away when moving in.
The experience of London and others who have lost their place at the camp is raising questions about what responsibility — if any — the city has to ensure that participants in the Tuff Shed camps do not leave worse off than when they arrived.
Heather Freinkel, a managing attorney at the Homeless Action Center, a nonprofit located just blocks from the Northgate Avenue camp, said she was concerned about those evicted from the Tuff Sheds. “They said [moving in] was voluntary but the alternative to moving into Tuff Sheds was displacement,” she said, noting that when the city opened the Tuff Sheds, the nearby encampments were issued notices of removal.
For London, getting back into the Tuff Sheds has been the only thing on his mind for over a week.
Immediately after getting kicked out on Friday, Sept. 7, London went to the Homeless Action Center to file a grievance with Operation Dignity, the nonprofit that the city contracts to run the Tuff Shed camp.
Gwen Wu, an attorney at the center, has been working with London for more than a year and has been waiting to hear back from Operation Dignity on whether he can return. “They haven’t really pinned down the grievance process,” she said. She had been expecting a response within 72 hours, however, Operation Dignity has since clarified that they respond to all grievances within three business days of filing. “It’s supposed to be 72 hours and they didn’t say business hours. People are still homeless on the weekends,” Wu said.
More than 10 days after filing a grievance, Wu still hasn’t heard from Operation Dignity, and London is still sleeping on the street. He is without his license, phone, or a change of clothes — all of which he left behind in his Tuff Shed.
“I don’t even dress like this,” London said. “That’s so disgusting,” he added, pointing to his dirty clothing.
Wu called London a “hopeful” client, but this experience worries her. “When everything was happening … he was just breaking down,” she said. “When we called Operation Dignity, we were saying, ‘Please make a decision, please make a decision soon. We’re very worried. He is in such a fragile state.’”
Operation Dignity declined to comment on London’s case or the number of people who they have been evicted from the Tuff Shed camp, directing all questions to the city.
However, citywide Communications Director Karen Boyd said that the city is not involved with specific rules and their enforcement at the Tuff Sheds. “We hired the service provider to manage the sites,” she said. “We help them define what ‘safe’ means, and they handle implementation.”
Boyd did say that the Tuff Sheds have strict policies to make the camps safe. “The number one rule is no violence,” she said. “The idea was to create a safer and healthier environment than living in a tent on the street, but you have to have community norms to keep a community safe. When people don’t comport … it isn’t a safe environment.”
According to London, the incident that resulted in his ouster occurred when London was having difficulty with his roommate in the Tuff Shed. Residents of Tuff Sheds share a space that is 120 square feet — roughly half the size of a one-car garage — with an assigned roommate. London said he raised his voice and threw his bicycle on the ground after staff had assigned him a new roommate. And while he admits he was upset, he said he wasn’t a danger to anyone.
After several nights on the street, London is desperate to get back to the relatively safe environment of the Tuff Sheds.
Keysha Boyakins, 33, also prefers the security of the Tuff Sheds but she has given up hope of returning. Boyakins recalled her problems with the Tuff Sheds beginning when staff assigned her a male roommate. “They think you’re gonna give them some,” she said, referring to men’s expectations about sex.
Boyakins said she was getting dressed after a shower when her older male roommate assaulted her. “I didn’t give him any, so he came at me with a hammer,” she said. Boyakins admits to pulling out a knife in defense and, consequently, staff removed both Boyakins and her roommate from the camp.
“I don’t think they gave me a fair chance,” she said.
Photo by Meg Shutzer
Keysha Boyakins, 33, looks for a safe place to stay after getting kicked out of the Tuff Sheds in Oakland. She is one of several Tuff Shed residents who have had to leave the site on Northgate Avenue.
Unlike London, Boyakins did not file a grievance when the camp staff kicked her out several weeks ago. “I didn’t know who to ask for help,” she said. Now, Boyakins is unsure where to sleep at night. The community where she once found protection and friends no longer exists, as the police cleared all encampments in a several-block radius of the Tuff Sheds within days of the camp opening.
Advocates say temporary respite from the streets can be dislocating for those forced to return. Residents who fail to follow the Tuff Shed rules find they no longer have a familiar community on the streets to return to.
“On an emotional level, it toys with your sense of safety,” said Wu. London’s sudden loss of security is resurfacing past trauma, she said.
Wu and Freinkel both expressed concern about the lack of contingency plans for those unable to stay in the Tuff Sheds. Already a vulnerable population, people experiencing homelessness may find themselves worse off after living there.
This is the case for London. With only his toy basketball hoop and no shelter to speak of, he fears what the future holds outside the Northgate camp — a sign that, despite the challenges, the security of Tuff Sheds can still be preferable to the streets.