Hidden beneath a freeway overpass in West Oakland, just past a graveyard of charred cars and thrown debris, lies an unexpected refuge.
There is a collection of beautiful little structures built with collected materials. There is a hot shower, a fully equipped kitchen, and a health clinic. There is a free “store” that offers donated items, such as clothes and books, and a composting toilet. There are stone and gravel paths lined with flowers and orchards. There is even an outdoor pizza oven.
The so-called “Cob on Wood” center has emerged in recent months to provide amenities to those living in a nearby homeless camp, one of the largest in the city. But more importantly, it is fostering a sense of community and dignity, according to the homeless and housed residents who came together to build it. They hope their innovative approach will lead to big changes in the way the city addresses its growing homeless population.
“It’s about bringing everyone together,” says Dmitri Schusterman, a close resident who helped organize and build the center late last year. Cob on Wood was brought to life with the help of local food and defense arts groups teamed up with Miguel “Migz” Elliott, an expert in the ancient technique of making cob structures. Together with teams of volunteers and residents, they built each component by hand.
Now, roughly five months since construction began, a community has rallied around the space that not only hosts events and workshops, but also offers food, hygiene, and skills exchanges to the roughly 300 people living in nearby camps.
“It’s working,” says Schusterman with a broad smile. “This is the vision we had and it is working like a miracle.”
Address a couple of crises
Cob on Wood was born out of parallel crises: Oakland’s rising homeless rate and the Covid pandemic.
The city is home to more than 4,000 homeless people, a number that has risen 86% in a four-year period, according to a 2019 report. Homelessness disproportionately affects black Oaklanders, who make up the 24% of the general population but 70% of the population homeless.
Xochitl Bernadette Moreno and Ashel Seasunz Eldridge, co-founders of Essential Food and Medicine, one of the organizations behind Cob on Wood, distributed food and hygiene products to those unable to “shelter in place” during the California closures. It was then that they learned how dire the situation had become.
“[Covid] It exposed those pre-existing cracks in the infrastructure of how we care for our people, our communities, our neighbors, ”Eldridge says.
Moreno adds: “Knowing that the problems faced by people in these communities around hunger and access to water, access to places to cook, these problems existed before the pandemic and will continue to exist after the pandemic.”
exist at least 140 homeless camps in Oakland, According to a recent city audit, which found that the city had mismanaged its response to the crisis. Based on the findings of the United Nations general assembly, which, after visiting the Bay Area in 2018, reported that the treatment of the non-housed was “cruel and inhumane,” the Oakland audit reported that they have Many unsanitary and unsafe conditions persisted, including lack of access to safe water, sanitation and health services.
City officials have tried to address the growing problems with new programs, including the “tuff shed” project that provides clusters of small structures as temporary housing solutions and so-called “safe RV parking” sites that include access to electrical connections, portable toilets, and security.
But critics, including some of the homeless participants, say the programs are plagued with safety concerns and do little to address the underlying causes of housing instability. Some have also expressed concern that the programs have given the city more political freedom to crack down on the camps and increase raids, an often traumatic process for the homeless who may end up losing their few belongings.
“People are not only being evicted from the houses they once owned, but they are also being evicted from the houses they create, communities that they have built for themselves when they had nowhere to go,” Moreno says.
After being frustrated with the city’s interventions, several other communities have tried to create their own solutions, including a group of women who started a safe camp on vacant lots and an advocacy organization called Village, which has built tiny houses in empty areas. of public land throughout the city.
Cob on Wood organizers also hope to empower homeless residents to solve problems they believe the city has not adequately addressed, from fire prevention to access to sanitation, while organizing to collectively interact with officials and limit the sense of “otherness” and disenfranchisement that residents say is an all too common side effect of homelessness.
They started building in December. Cleaning needles and trash from an area near Wood Street, a half-mile area littered with makeshift structures, RVs and tents, a team of volunteers and camp residents under Elliott’s guidance used trowels to frame the structures. They were isolated with cleaned materials before being covered with “cob”, a mixture made of organic materials including sand, subsoil, water, and straw.
Each structure is clad in a “living roof”, with a garden, which creates an attractive aesthetic while isolating the interior from the abrasive sounds of the city and the elements.
“There are cob structures that were built 700 years ago that still live on,” says Elliott. He hopes to show that the “cobins,” as he calls them, could serve as a quick and affordable addition to other camps, to offer shelter and host other services.
“I’m trying to demonstrate a structure that can be built in the cheapest way possible, in the most natural way possible, in the most beautiful way possible and as mobile as possible,” he says. “They can have a lock on the door, some shelves on the wall, a little garden on the roof, and the people who live in them can help build them.”
Cob on Wood organizers also plan to host educational opportunities, including nutrition and cooking classes, skills sharing, and professional development. “We believe this place can serve as a model.” Moreno says. “That this city and other cities can adopt in order to replicate these ideas and create workforce development programs.”
‘Making us feel good about ourselves again’
So far, the city has expressed its support for the project. Or at least interest.
Carroll Fife, a member of the city council, has been visiting the camp and meeting with residents. And while Cob on Wood was built without a permit on land owned by the state transportation agency, Caltrans, the agency says it has no immediate plans to remove the structures, though it has not ruled out doing so eventually.
Residents and organizers remain concerned. They have experienced sweeps by the city and Caltrans before, and there are rumors that cleanup crews could be deployed to clear the area in the coming weeks.
But they hope that this time things will be different. The group has already raised over $ 24,000 through GoFundMe, and plans are in the works to expand Cob on Wood. Elliott would like to build a chicken coop to house the laying hens, a pond full of water-loving plants to collect runoff from the shower, and a gray water system that will recycle the water so he can install a washer and dryer.
They would also like to build residential “cobins” that people can live in for the long term, that is, if the community can stay. Those involved say the project has already had a positive impact and they are determined to build a future for it.
Leajay Harper, who works as a kitchen manager, is among them. Born and raised in Oakland, Harper lost her home after losing her job at a nonprofit organization during the 2008 financial crisis. She sent her children, now 14 and 18, to live with their mother, hoping to protect them from life on the streets.
Since she started collaborating with Cob on Wood, she says, there is a place where she feels like they can spend time with her safely and comfortably. Her work here has also inspired her to seek new opportunities.
“It has been a journey and it has been difficult,” she says. “But being a part of this and doing this work motivates me.” She plans to launch a zine in the coming months, called From the Gutter, which she hopes will be a platform for the homeless to share stories and advice.
“This is empowering us and making us feel good about ourselves again,” she says. “Help us earn a living and not have to beg, steal or commit crimes.”
Above all, however, like Dmitri Schusterman, he says it’s about coming together.
“It’s like a big family,” he says. “We have to settle for what we have. And if we support each other, we can do it. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism