Even though Cob on Wood was built without a permit on land belonging to the state’s transport agency, the city has no plans to remove the structures.
A charming refuge for the unsheltered in Oakland has taken form under a highway overpass in West Oakland thanks to a coalition of organizations and members of both the housed and unhoused community. The structures are made of “cob,” a mixture of organic materials including sand, subsoil, water, and straw, which gives the makeshift neighborhood its name: the “Cob on Wood” center.
The Cob on Wood center features many useful amenities for the unsheltered, including a hot shower, a fully stocked kitchen, a health clinic, an outdoor pizza oven, and a free “store.” You can navigate the area via stone and gravel paths while admiring the flowers and vegetable gardens that line them.
The center developed in response to the homelessness crisis in Oakland, which has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Guardian reports that more than 4,000 unhoused people live in the city, a figure that has increased by 86 percent over four years. A disproportionate percentage of the unhoused community is made up of Black Oaklanders— despite making up only 24 percent of the general population, they constitute 70 percent of the unhoused population.
Ashel Seasunz Eldridge, co-founder of Essential Food and Medicine, one of the organizations behind Cob on Wood, says “[Covid] exposed those pre-existing cracks in the infrastructure of how we take care of our people, our communities, our neighbors.”
The organizations hope that their approach to dealing with homelessness will influence how the city responds to the growing unhoused population. In 2018, the United Nations reported that the treatment of the homeless in the Bay Area was “cruel and inhumane.” They reported that the unhoused community endured unsafe conditions such as a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and health services. As of now, the strategies the city has in place to address these issues are subpar and don’t confront the underlying causes of housing instability.
In fact, some critics of city programs such as the “tuff shed” project, which provides clusters of small structures as housing solutions, claim that they actually give the city more political leeway to increase sweeps, a grim experience for the unhoused community as they may lose the few possessions they do have.
In contrast, the Cob on Wood center not only provides solutions to health and sanitation, but empowers the unhoused community through educational opportunities that help them learn how to make their own cob structures, and teach them life skills like how to maintain a nutritious diet or further their careers.
Even though Cob on Wood was built without a permit on land belonging to the state’s transport agency, the city has no plans to remove the structures. The group behind Cob on Wood hopes that the council will recognize the positive impact of their efforts, and has also started a GoFundMe that has already raised more than $50,000 that will go towards expanding the cob community.
Community resident Leajay Harper lost her housing after losing her job at a non-profit during the 2008 financial crisis. Now she serves as the kitchen manager at Cob on Wood. She speaks highly of the experience she has there, saying that it “is empowering us and making us feel good about ourselves again [by] helping us earn our living, and not have to beg for it, or steal it, or commit crimes.”