Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Homeless Oaklanders were tired of the housing crisis. So they built a ‘miracle’ village.

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Gabrielle Canon has an interesting article (with more photos) in the Guardian. It begins:

Tucked under a highway overpass in West Oakland, just beyond a graveyard of charred cars and dumped debris, lies an unexpected refuge.

There’s a collection of beautiful, small structures built from foraged materials. There’s a hot shower, a fully stocked kitchen and health clinic. There’s a free “store” offering donated items including clothes and books, and a composting toilet. There are stone and gravel paths lined with flowers and vegetable gardens. There’s even an outdoor pizza oven.

The so-called “Cob on Wood” center has arisen in recent months to provide amenities for those living in a nearby homeless encampment, one of the largest in the city. But most importantly, it’s fostering a sense of community and dignity, according to the unhoused and housed residents who came together to build it. They hope their innovative approach will lead to big changes in how the city addresses its growing homeless population.

“It is about uniting everybody,” says Dmitri Schusterman, a nearby resident who also serves as the Director of Innovation for Artists Building Communities, one of the organizations that helped build the center at the end of last year. Cob on Wood was brought to life with help from local advocacy arts and food groups who 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 they broke ground, a community has coalesced around the space that not only hosts events and workshops but also offers food, hygiene and skill-sharing to the estimated 300 people who live in nearby encampments.

“It is working,” Schusterman says, smiling broadly. “This is the vision we had and it is working like a miracle.”

Tackling a pair of crises

Cob on Wood was born of parallel crises – Oakland’s rising rate of homelessness and the Covid pandemic.

The city is home to more than 4,000 unhoused people, a figure that has jumped 86% over a four-year period, according to a 2019 report. Homelessness disproportionally affects Black Oaklanders, who make up 24% of the general population but 70% of the unhoused population.

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 who couldn’t “shelter in place” during California’s lockdowns. That’s when they learned about just how dire the situation had become.

“[Covid] exposed those pre-existing cracks in the infrastructure of how we take care of our people, our communities, our neighbors,” Eldridge says.

Moreno adds: “Knowing that the issues people in these communities face around hunger and access to water, access to places to cook – these issues existed before the pandemic and they will continue to exist after the pandemic.”

There are at least 140 homeless encampments in Oakland, according to a recent city audit, which found the city had mismanaged its response to the crisis. Building on findings from the United Nations general assembly, which, after visiting the Bay Area in 2018, reported that treatment of the unhoused was “cruel and inhumane”, Oakland’s audit reported that many unhealthy and unsafe conditions have persisted, including a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and health services.

City officials have tried to address the growing issues 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 electric hookups, portable toilets and security.

But critics – who include some of the unhoused participants – say the programs are plagued with safety issues and do little to address underlying causes of housing instability. Some have also expressed concerns that the programs have given the city more political leeway to crack down on encampments and increase sweeps, an often traumatic process for unhoused people who can end up losing their few belongings.

“People are not only being evicted from homes they once had, but then they are being evicted from the homes that they create – communities they’ve built for themselves when they had nowhere else to go,” Moreno says.

After growing frustrated with the city’s interventions, several other communities have attempted to create their own solutions, including a group of women who started a safe encampment in vacant lots, and an advocacy organization called the Village, which has built tiny homes on empty areas of public land across the city.

Cob on Wood organizers are also hoping to empower unhoused residents to solve the problems they think the city hasn’t adequately addressed – from fire prevention to sanitation access – while organizing to collectively engage with officials and limit the sense of “otherness” and disenfranchisement which residents say is an all-too-common side-effect of homelessness.

They broke ground in December. Clearing needles and trash from an area near Wood Street – a half-mile area lined with makeshift structures, RVs and tents – a crew of volunteers and camp residents under Elliott’s guidance used pallets to frame the structures. They were insulated with scavenged materials before being coated in “cob”, a mixture made from organic materials including sand, subsoil, water and straw.

Each structure is lined with a “living roof” – featuring a garden – that creates an attractive aesthetic while insulating the inside from the abrasive city sounds and the elements.

“There are cob structures that were built 700 years ago that are still being lived in,” Elliott says. He hopes to prove that “cobins”, as he calls them, could serve as a quick and affordable addition to other encampments, to offer shelter and house other services.

“I am trying to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

More on cob construction.

Written by Leisureguy

14 May 2021 at 3:30 pm

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