When Patricia Smith landed a spot in a new tiny house community in unincorporated San Leandro, she thought her four years with homelessness had come to an end.
The tiny house village was billed as a stop on the way to permanent housing. And Smith, 66, was eager to find a place to afford her monthly Social Security income on $1,388.
But after a little more than two months there, Smith says she was told her time was up and she would have to move on after Thanksgiving. Now she is back in her car.
“For the first time in a long time, I thought wow, I can be a normal person again. And then just to get the rug out from under me…” Smith retorted, remembering his disappointment.
Smith is one of many who say he was informed that his stay had expired and was asked to leave or threatened with removal before he could find alternative accommodation. The Alameda County Department of Housing and Building Opportunities for Self-Reliance – the nonprofit that manages the site – blames the trouble on communication mistakes, kinks in a new model, and the lack of affordable housing options in the Bay Area. There is a shortage. They say everyone who is gone A place was offered at another shelter – a claim denied by some program participants.
The complaints highlight a wider challenge in the small home village that opened three months ago: Even as Bay Area cities and counties are increasingly coming up with new ways to get people off the streets, Those temporary solutions lead to longer periods. Housing is difficult.
With the COVID-19 pandemic came a new push to move immigrant residents – who experts feared would be particularly susceptible to the virus – into short-term shelters with private rooms where they would be protected from infection. Bay Area hotels opened their doors to nonresident residents last year. New tiny homes arose in Oakland, and San Jose created modular communities with private apartments.
But now, as hotel programs come to an end, counties are scrambling to move residents to permanent housing. Alameda County has found spots for more than 1,100 people who were in hotels and other temporary COVID shelters, but there are always people who fall through the cracks. And San Leandro’s new schedule shows that smaller home venues won’t be immune to that struggle.
The project, located on the County’s Fairmont campus, is actually two programs in one. Nineteen of the tiny houses are for those waiting for permanent housing. As long as they are actively working with employees on a housing plan, they can stay until they find housing, according to the county. The other 15 tiny homes are short-term medical relief units for people recovering from illness or medical procedures. They usually have 45 days.
Diabetic Sandra Erskine, 74, went to one of the medical relief homes after passing out from extremely high blood sugar and ending up in the hospital. Although she was offered an affordable apartment in Oakland, Erskine said she later learned she was not eligible because she was not an Oakland resident.
She was asked to leave on November 19, and she left in her car, she said. Now, he is in a convalescent hospital recovering from a kidney problem.
“As soon as they stabilized us medically, we went out into the street,” Erskine said, “and I ended up in the hospital.”
Smith also landed in a medical relief unit, though she says she didn’t know when she moved into the tiny house. She has unbearable back pain, which she suspects was caused by years of being in her car. Smith said it didn’t get better while he was on the program.
Donald Frazier, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, said as staff members are working on improving their messaging, participants will have clear expectations about the program going forward.
“Of course our partners and all concerned need to do better with that communication,” he said.
Smith was sent to two different homeless shelters, she said, but both declined and told staff she would move in with a friend.
“We don’t take people out on the streets,” Frazier said. “That’s not what we do.”
But Smith said he never received a referral to a shelter. She occasionally sleeps on a friend’s couch, but doesn’t want to spoil his welcome, so she mostly stays in her car at the San Leandro Marina.
Kerry Abbott, director of the Alameda County Office of Homeless Care and Coordination, said staff members are re-examining the program to see how it can be run better. Ideally, she said, those who recover from their medical problems would be transferred to the housing side of the program. The problem is that there aren’t enough tiny houses for them.
Nor is there enough permanent housing. Frazier said employees have applied for housing vouchers for residents in non-medical homes, which should start coming in over the next few weeks. But the county is having trouble finding enough landlords to rent to the homeless, Abbott said.
Donna Ohnstedt, 53, and Kevin West, 46, say they were told they had to leave their tiny home earlier this month. After questioning by this news organization, both were given extension at the last minute. West, who is recovering from a hip replacement, said he would have gone back to a tent on the railroad tracks. Ohnstedt said she was offered a shelter in Richmond, but couldn’t accept because she couldn’t take her beloved cat, Booger.
Ohnstedt and West hope the relief will give them enough time to find housing.
Abbott is hopeful, too.
“We are very confident that we will … take the kinks out of the system,” she said, “and expects the site to lead to a lot of successful, happy housing placements.”