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Homeless people in Oakland are fed up with the housing crisis. So they built a ‘miracle’ village

Beneath a freeway, beautiful structures offer food, health care, showers and a free “store” – along with a strong sense of belonging to the Cob on Wood homeless community in West Oakland. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian Hidden under a highway overpass in West Oakland, just beyond a graveyard of charred cars and dumped debris, is an unexpected refuge. There is a collection of beautiful and small structures built from forage materials. There is a hot shower, a fully equipped kitchen and a health clinic. There is 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 is even an outdoor pizza oven. The so-called “Cob on Wood” center has sprung up in recent months to provide amenities for those living in a nearby homeless settlement, one of the largest in town. Most importantly, it fosters 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 approaches its growing homeless population. Xochitl Bernadette Moreno and Dmitri Schusterman in front of the Cob on Wood community clinic. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian Miguel ‘Migz’ Elliott points to Cob on Wood expansion plans, including a new sauna, fruit trees and ‘cobins’ that can house community members. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian “It’s about uniting everyone,” says Dmitri Schusterman, a nearby resident who helped organize and build the center late last year. Cob on Wood was created with the help of local arts and restoration groups who partnered with Miguel “Migz” Elliott, an expert in the ancient technique of making cob structures. With teams of volunteers and residents, they built each component by hand. Today, about five months after their introduction, a community has gathered around this space that not only hosts events and workshops, but also provides food, hygiene and skills sharing to the approximately 300 people who live in nearby settlements. “It works,” Schusterman says with a broad smile. “This is the vision we had and it works like a miracle.” Dealing with a Pair of Crises Cob on Wood was born out of parallel crises – Oakland’s growing homelessness rate and the Covid pandemic. The city is home to more than 4,000 homeless people, a figure that has jumped 86% over a four-year period, according to a 2019 report. Homelessness disproportionately affects Black Oaklanders, who make up 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 who could not “shelter in place” during lockdowns in California. It was then that they learned how dire the situation had become. “[Covid] revealed these pre-existing cracks in the infrastructure of how we care for our people, our communities, our neighbors, ”Eldridge says. Elliott, an expert in the ancient technique of building cob structures, helped bring the vision to life. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian Moreno shows how the Cob on Wood pizza oven works. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian Moreno adds: “Knowing that the issues people face in these communities regarding 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 settlements in Oakland, according to a recent city audit, which found the city had mismanaged its response to the crisis. Building on the findings of the United Nations General Assembly, which, after visiting the Bay Area in 2018, said the treatment of those who were not housed was “cruel and inhumane,” the Oakland audit revealed that many unsanitary and dangerous conditions persisted, including lack of access. drinking water, sanitation and health services. City officials have attempted to address growing problems with new programs, including the “tuff shed” project which provides groups of small structures as temporary housing solutions and so-called “Safe RV Parking” sites which include access to electrical hookups, portable toilets, and security. But critics – who include some of the homeless participants – say the programs are plagued by security concerns and do little to address the underlying causes of housing instability. Some have also expressed concerns that the programs have given the city greater political leeway to crack down on settlements and increase sweeps, an often traumatic process for homeless people who can end up losing their few. goods. “People are not only evicted from the homes they once had, but they are then evicted from the homes they create – communities they built for themselves when they had nowhere to go.” , says Moreno. A “cobin” model, built for a long term life, neglects the materials used to build new ones under the overhang of Interstate 880. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian After growing increasingly frustrated with the interventions of town, several other communities attempted to create their own solutions, including a group of women who started a safe camp in vacant lots, and an advocacy organization called the Village, which built tiny houses on empty areas. of public land across the city. Cob on Wood organizers also hope to give homeless residents the means to tackle problems they believe the city has not properly addressed – from fire prevention to access to sanitation – while s ‘organizing to engage collectively with civil servants and limit the feeling of “otherness” and denial of the right to vote. residents say it’s an all too common side effect of homelessness. They started in December. Removing needles and trash from an area near Wood Street – a half-mile area lined with makeshift structures, RVs, and tents – a team of volunteers and camp residents under the direction of Elliott used pallets to frame the structures. They were isolated with salvaged materials before being coated with “cob”, a mixture of organic materials including sand, subsoil, water and straw. Each structure is lined with a “living roof” – featuring a garden – which creates an attractive aesthetic while isolating the interior from the abrasive sounds of the city and the elements. “There are mud structures that were built 700 years ago that are still inhabited,” says Elliott. He hopes to prove that “cobins”, as he calls them, could serve as a quick and affordable addition to other camps, to provide shelter and host other services. “I’m trying to demonstrate a structure that can be built as cheaply as possible, as naturally as possible, as beautifully as possible, and as mobile as possible,” he says. “They can have a lock on the door, shelves on the wall, a little garden on the roof, and the people who live there can actually help build them.” Cob on Wood organizers also plan to host educational opportunities, including nutrition and cooking classes, skill sharing and career development. “We believe this place can serve as a model.” Moreno said. “That this city and other cities can embrace so that they can replicate these ideas and create workforce development programs.” “Make us feel good about ourselves again” So far, the city has expressed its support for the project. Or at least the interest. Carroll Fife, a member of city council, visited the camp and met 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 – although she did not rule out doing so eventually. Residents and organizers are still worried. They have already experienced sweeps conducted by the city and Caltrans, and there are rumors that cleanup crews could be deployed to clean up 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 underway to develop Cob on Wood. Elliott would like to build a chicken coop to house laying hens, a pond filled with water-loving plants to collect shower runoff, and a gray water system that will recycle the water so that a washer and dryer can be used. installed. They would also like to build residential “cobins” that people could live on for the long term – that is, if the community is able to stay. Those involved say the project has already had a positive impact – and are determined to build a future for it. Leajay Harper is the Chef at Cob on Wood. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian Inside the Cob on Wood Kitchen. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon / The Guardian Leajay Harper, who serves as chef de cuisine, is one of them. Born and raised in Oakland, Harper lost her home after losing her job at a nonprofit during the 2008 financial crisis. She sent her children, now 14 and 18, to live with her mother. , in the hope of protecting them from life on the streets. Since she started collaborating with Cob on Wood, she says, there’s a place where she feels they can spend time safely and comfortably with her. Her work here has also inspired her to seize new opportunities. “It has been a journey and it has been difficult,” she says. “But being a part of that and doing this job motivates me.” She plans to launch a zine in the coming months, titled From the Gutter, which she hopes will be a platform for homeless people to share stories and advice. “It empowers us and makes us feel good about ourselves again,” she says. “Help us earn a living and not have to beg, steal or commit crimes.” Mostly, however, like Dmitri Schusterman, she says it’s about coming together. “It’s like a big family,” she says. “We have to be content with what we have. And if we support each other, we can do it.


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