Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Housing Crisis Ordinance Passes at City Council Meeting

Tuesday evening, Kheven, RJ and I attended the City Council Meeting where the Shelter Crisis Ordinance (7.3) was addressed and passed. There were several comments made; however, RJ and I were first up. Before we spoke, Councilperson Desley Brooks spoke about going out over the holidays to various encampments and seeing first hand the squalor, cold and other challenges these internally displaced citizens face daily (especially when illegal dumping is added to an already difficult situation).

We arrived at 5:30; however, the Housing Crisis issue wasn't raised for another two hours.  At that time, Ms. Brooks suggested using the Garden Center as a shelter and said she wanted this to be up in minimally 15 days. She also recommended that the city look into the Tiny House Movement as alternative shelter options.  Her recommendation for the Garden Center was met with a legal stalemate, rather than support.  Just an hour earlier Public Works spent a lot of time telling us about the storms approaching Oakland, and what measures Oaklanders should take in case of flooding. They were speaking about major flooding, evacuation plans, shelters . . . . Their talk addressed those who lived in houses, not those people who live in tents.

With this in mind, why then the delay in addressing the needs of people on the street, under freeways, bridges. At the encampment we visit frequently, the sidewalk is uneven and when it rains, the tents fill with water.

Monday late morning, early afternoon, Kheven and I saw people with tents on unpaved roads where the rain combined with loose dirt will make such an encampment a muddy mess. This encampment was around the corner from a Doggy Daycare Center. I'd not know there was such a thing.

Closer to downtown Oakland there is a Dog Hotel and a Cat Cafe, (the first in the US). The dog hotel is less than a 5 minute drive from another encampment on San Pablo and West Grand Avenue. We saw a police man writing a ticket. I don't know if he was noting the illegal dumping mess that needed to be cleaned up or about to harass one of the occupants. At the council meeting there were speakers who were concerned whether or not the evacuation plans (in the case of flooding) included pet welfare. Hurricane Katrina photos were shown. What was not shown were the hundreds of human beings left stranded on these same roofs. All life is valuable; however, the owner has to secure his or her oxygen mask first, right?

People are being displaced by animals. It would be funny, but remember what happened in George Orwell's Animal Farm.  Napoleon (the pig) killed the other animal leader, put on pants, started negotiating with the other farmers and sold out his friends. The twist is not that we are becoming more compassionate or forgiving, characteristics of the pets we love. The opposite is true, the new Oaklanders are self-centered in prioritizing an animal life over that of a person, especially a person in need. Similarly, when Napoleon and the other pigs begin to emulate the humans, the humanistic values which set the animals apart from the farmers (intent on exploitation of the labor class) evaporate.

RJ spoke before me, he said he had to speak for the men whom he was an ally. As I looked around the room, I didn't see any of the men I'd met, nor did any of the speakers have the experience of the people they were advocating for.

The next meeting to discuss the Garden Center proposal is Tuesday, January 19, 5:30 p.m.

This is what I shared:

Internally Displaced persons in Oakland

Hi, my name is Wanda Sabir, and I have been homeless in Oakland. I was teaching at Laney College and my younger daughter was in her first semester in college. This was over ten years ago, but there are many Oaklanders like me, who were displaced through policies or politics. I have friends who couch surf and have week to week contracts for rooms. One friend, a nurse, was injured at Kaiser and could no longer work. Too young for SSI, she was under-housed for years until she reached 65. I met a woman at a Kwanzaa Ceremony last Friday, who at 65 lost her home in Oakland. She had three children she was responsible for. She lived in her car for 9 years. She is almost 80 now.

On Christmas, some friends and I prepared breakfast for an encampment of internally displaced persons. One of our group, Minister in Training Tracy Brown, put together a list of services in Oakland, my friend Alicia and her 18 year old son set up the clothes give-away, Kheven passed out fliers about today's meeting. Another friend played live music on his tenor sax. RJ introduced me to the men; we return weekly to check-in, including yesterday to remind the men to come to the Council Meeting today. I hope they are here. In talking to the two leaders: Mr. Robert and Mr. Lee, I asked what they would like to see regarding housing. Would they like to be moved into shelter as a community?

There is a quiet strength within these public spaces. I met a young man, Kenneth who was kicked out of his home at 12 and has been on the streets for 12 years. When I went back, Dec. 31, he was gone. His employer had picked up his belongings. We call ourselves The Auset Movement: Loving Humanity into Wholeness. If you know the story of Auset or Isis, then you understand the metaphor.

Robert told me that when his wife died he lost his will to survive. This was two years ago. Since then he has made it on these streets. He says what is most disheartening is the stigma attached to homelessness or being internally displaced. He said he is looked upon as if he isn't human.  The UN Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to shelter, safety, dignity, gainful employment, healthcare, education. In California there is a law governing citizens right to shelter as well.

The City Council is to be commended for taking such a necessary first step. We would like to see a series of Townhall Meetings 2-4 in the areas affected most by displacement, especially West Oakland and East Oakland. There are models for shelter + care. One model I read about recently in the Atlantic Monthly, used in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, is called "Breaking Ground."

I started down this road back when no one wanted to live in West Oakland. I served on commissions like CWOR or Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, back when David Glover, OCCUR founder, was alive.  The Private Industry Council (PIC) was formed then too. Aleta Canon was council person for District 3 and Bernard Ashcroft was her Chief Aide. I remember when Frank Ogawa was alive and Oakland did not have anything like these encampments.

Now, black men are becoming extinct right before our eyes. Displaced and unwanted, it was okay for them to live on the peripheries, but now there are no more edges to occupy and the blight is personal, like the African drumming. Black bodies are taking up too much public space, so where do we put them seems to be the question.

Let's have a public conversation with these men and women who live on the edges of town, unwanted and unwelcome. This should be top priority. There plans and structures still operating like the transitional housing shelter on 16th Street near Telegraph Avenue, because these facilities were developed with the affected communities' input.

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