Converted Oakland Jail Could House Homeless

For just $1 of rent per year, the city of Oakland could provide housing to more than eight hundred  homeless people. The catch? The homeless shelter would be in the city’s former Glenn E. Dyer Jail, which permanently closed in June. The Alameda County Sheriff closed the building and transferred inmates to the Santa Rita Jail to cut costs. At an Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting in July, mayors proposed converting the old jail into a shelter.

However, the moral dilemma is clarified by the state of California’s housing crisis. Oakland should use the jail as a shelter. However, many stakeholders view it as inherently problematic to house the homeless — a large percentage of whom are mentally ill — in what was once a jail, when America primarily treats mental illness by arresting sufferers in lieu of providing them with adequate healthcare. The largest mental health facility in the United States is not a psychiatric ward, but rather Cook County Jail in Chicago. This practice extends even to children. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “70.4 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness.”

Many people are also uncomfortable with the homeless shelter being in a former jail since a large proportion of homeless people are African American, and the US has a dark history of incarcerating black people in large numbers. The NAACP reports that 56 percent of incarcerated people in 2015 were black or Hispanic, yet together, they only represent roughly 32 percent of the country’s population. This overrepresentation of minorities in US prisons is the reason many are concerned by the image of sending these homeless people to a place where 

Yet paying $1 per year to provide shelter to more than 800 people is an absurdly cheap price in the Bay Area when the average rent for a home in Oakland is $3,000 per month according to the real estate company Zillow. The average rental list price per square foot is $2.69 and Glenn E. Dyer Jail is 234,00 square feet. A space this large would therefore cost $7.5 million each year, not $1. It is no secret that resources for the homeless population in the East Bay are lacking, so it is crucial that this opportunity is taken advantage of.

California is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis which has led to a surge in homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night in 2018, for every 10,000 people in Alameda County, 33 were homeless. Nationwide, there were only 17 homeless people per 10,000 people.  

Additionally, much of California’s homeless population is without shelter, on the streets with no protection from the elements. According to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, “Almost half (47 percent) of all unsheltered homeless people [in the US] are found in the State of California.” 

The extremity of California’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis is the reason that strong efforts must be taken to alleviate the issue. It is essentially impossible to find a $1 per year, 800-person building anywhere else in the Bay Area. It’s definitely not ideal that the shelter is in a former jail, but housing the 5,496 people who were homeless on a given night in 2018, in Alameda County (National Alliance to End Homelessness), takes precedence over that. 

That being said, the City of Oakland should thoughtfully renovate the jail so it’s less stark and depressing. It is unclear what entity would run the homeless shelter since it is currently just a proposal, but the money saved on rent could provide some funding for this. Furthermore, Oakland and the state of California could help fund the project as an investment in alleviating the homelessness crisis.

…resources for the homeless population in the East Bay are lacking, so it is crucial that this opportunity is taken advantage of.

U.S. prisons and jails are overcrowded. Many metropolitan areas of the US have large homeless populations; California in particular has a large unsheltered homeless population. As criminal justice reforms are made, such as reducing prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, it is only right that the government starts funneling money which has been overspent on prisons into areas which benefit society, especially those communities which have been most affected by both mass incarceration and the homelessness epidemic. This means increasing funding for affordable housing and homeless shelters.

Many of America’s institutions are reactive rather than proactive. Homelessness reveals this, as do jails. Being incarcerated or on the street is the bottommost point of an unstable journey. To become proactive, the US must significantly increase its social safety net. The government can prevent these terribly unfortunate outcomes by increasing public school funding and creating a universal healthcare system. This type of policy would help eliminate homelessness by providing essential resources to those typically denied them. In the meantime, meaningful action must be taken. Providing 800 more beds to the local homeless population is a step in the right direction, but more policy is needed to truly address the housing crisis.


We provide the opportunity to comment in order to foster a healthy debating environment and reserve the right to reject comments that stray away from that objective. Read our full policy →