Lie to Me: the true story of Oakland’s Tuff Shed program

Posted on June 22, 2019


Oakland City Council has a deal with the City Administrator’s Office. Lie, omit, and misdirect about Tuff Sheds, and we’ll give you everything you ask for.



Assistant City Administrator’s misleading presentation on the Tuff Shed re-housing rate, May 7, 2019.

In early 2019, the Oakland City Administrator’s Office faced several unanticipated obstacles to its Tuff Shed program. The CAO had presented an ambitious vision of homelessness management in late 2018 as the legislative year closed. The CAO, as represented by Assistant City Administrator Joe Devries, proclaimed they’d come up with the latest in homeless encampment “resolutions”–a process of wiping out the city’s highest profile homeless encampments disguised with Orwellian jingles and catchphrases. Devries’ oral and published reports of record boasted a vigorous phase of planned RV and vehicle encampments in East Oakland and additional Tuff Shed camps that would also snake further East and West. Council placed great faith in the CAO’s vision, granting it wide-ranging powers and full control of an 8 million dollar Alameda County homelessness HEAP fund—all without having to return for legislative permission.

But as a new legislative season opened in early 2019 with a new Council, things weren’t going as planned. The highly touted city-run RV and vehicle encampments weren’t legally zoned, it turned out. And in some cases, some of the newly planned Tuff Sheds might not be either. Devries had promised the stars with a new 80-bed Tuff Shed encampment/RV combo that would “resolve” the Wood Street, Magnolia and Emeryville-border Home Depot encampments in West Oakland—but it turned out that Caltrans, which owned the land and planned to lease to Oakland, had a much higher standard for Tuff Sheds than the city was willing to pay for.

The April deadline came and went for the RV encampments planned across the street from Coliseum BART as well as for the city-owned land adjacent to East Oakland’s Home Depot. The new 40-Shed Mandela Parkway camp, under the canopy of the 880-580 interchange at the Oakland-Emeryville border also stagnated. The CAO would have to do a new round of legislative asks at council to make their homelessness management scheme come true, which meant Devries had to take to the city council podium again.

On paper, most would agree Devries had a tough row to hoe. He had to convince council to okay an awkward on-paper down-grade of human habitations, lower than that recommended by the state of California. Devries would have to boast that a 2-bed tool shed with usb-power and no heat was not only the best the city could do, but that camps full of such structures were an unprecedented success in countering Oakland’s geometrically increasing homelessness problem. Devries also needed to persuade council to agree to give him carte blanche to put RV’s and Tuff Shed camps in industrial areas so that the city could place it’s RV encampments [with possible Tuff Shed additions] anywhere in the city the Administrator’s office saw fit—especially the out of the way industrial areas where RVs congregate.

This was no problem for Devries, a devil’s hand at softening, bending and hiding the truth. And Devries was in luck, because the elected officials responsible for awarding him this legislative treasure chest have an extremely low-bar for veracity. Council and the City Administrator’s Office have a deal as old as time—lie, omit and misdirect and we’ll give you anything you want. That continues to be true regardless of the body’s composition.


At an April 23 Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, Devries proceeded predictably. Because asking to inscribe unheated tool sheds into the city’s building code naturally brought up questions about the city’s standing cold weather protocols, Devries assured the Community and Economic Development Committee that the city followed a strict cold weather standard operating procedure for Tuff Shed dwellings. Devries even promised he’d include the SOP in the report for the full council vote on the standards in the following week.


Since the May 7 report given to full Council mentions only optional blankets, this must have been something Devries knew he could not do. A subsequent public records release acknowledged that at the time Devries had made the statements, the city did not have any such protocols, and didn’t require them from their Tuff Shed contractors. The city is purportedly still creating them as of this writing. But witnessing Devries get caught in a lie did not diminish the city council’s trust in Devries.




At the same May 7 meeting [02:35:00], Devries spoke eloquently about the apparent success of the Tuff Shed program. Devries boasted that the program had placed 116 Tuff Shed residents into permanent housing and 39 into transitional housing—Devries said this 72% success rate was higher than even San Francisco’s navigation centers. If there was any question from City Council members about the veracity of the figures, none inquired. But subsequent public records requests suggest that Devries warped the truth about the figures. Rather than an unprecedented success, Oakland’s last two Tuff Shed programs have shown increasingly disastrous results.


From a table generated by the City; Tuff Shed rehousing numbers begin to fail in the most recent geographic programs.


From the same city-source, the most recent Miller Library Tuff Sheds are an unmitigated re-housing failure.

The documents themselves still lack hard original data, such as demographic information and geographic placement that would offer real evidence for re-housing claims. Even so, the city’s own numbers show the total success rate is no greater than 59%. More importantly, the records show that the most recent Tuff Shed camp at Miller Avenue in East Oakland has an abysmal 23% re-housing rate. While Devries boasted to City Council of the Tuff Shed’s re-housing success, 77% of homeless people in the city’s most recent Tuff Shed camp were returning to the streets.

Rather than this necessary information to evaluate the efficacy of the Tuff Sheds going forward, the city received a misleading report, all but fictional. Nevertheless–and despite unmistakeable evidence that Devries had misled them on extremely important issues–the Council voted to make unheated tool sheds Oakland’s de facto building code model for emergency homelessness housing.

There was even more being kept from the Council–omissions that may yet come back to haunt the body. The Mandela Parkway lease with Caltrans will require the city to post signs everywhere warning residents that the area is toxic. Journalists arriving to do the Mayor’s busy work of claiming yet another victory against homelessness will need to studiously control their camera-work to avoid this embarrassing juxaposition. In an unimagineable outcome, some may actually report on it.


Indeed, as part of its lease, the City had to excavate and contain the current substrate and pave it over—and was advised by the state to consider the excavated earth “hazardous waste”. Though made aware of the lease language and the toxicity of the area, the Council nevertheless applauded Devries as he assured them that there were absolutely no problems.


All this is not to say all of the Council members pretend to see no Evil. Both Larry Reid and Noel Gallo make no bones about the fact that they applaud the Tuff Sheds real function—as a way to do away with homeless encampments. Reid has been clear about his thirst for the RV encampment designed to wipe out RV parking at 85th/Edes in his district. For his part, Gallo couldn’t wait for the Miller site and wants either RV, Tuff Sheds or some combination of both to rid his district of the encampment at East Oakland’s Home Depot. But other Council members have not been as honest about their support for the homelessness tool sheds. And for them, the city’s lies are providing ample cover.

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