Wednesday, January 27, 2016

First Person

Reflections on Homelessness
By Wanda Sabir

When I think about homelessness, I don’t know, it has happened to me so many times from childhood to the present, I am not immune, but I certainly have a higher tolerance and compassion than those who work with such populations without a clue as to what it means to have all of your possessions in storage and only what you can fit into a suitcase or a bag(s) with you at any time. I know what it means to lose huge chunks of life in one sweep—after a while the past gets heavy and you start leaving pieces of yourself behind in garages, garbage bins . . . on pavements. You never forget what is past, there is regret that you can’t carry it forward. There is no space, the new home is smaller, you don’t have enough money for a storage space or the storage space was inadequate and your belongings were ruined: water damage, rodents, mold. Sometimes you get bullied into letting the sentiments go. You are called a hoarder. Ten years with five storage spaces is a lot of money, but when your personal space, “home,” is in limbo, there is something steadying about having a spot, even if it is a glorified garage. I remember when my brother slept in his storage space when he couldn’t afford rent and pay for my father’s 24 hour in-home support care. He decided I would keep my apartment because I had two kids, and he would not have anywhere to live for a year while my father died.

What choices we make, right? My dad’s final months were sweet and full of love because of my brother’s sacrifice.

While a child, my father’s income was unstable so we would end up in motels in San Francisco a lot. I don’t remember how old I was when it happened the first time. I just remember being somewhere by the Cow Palace and not feeling terribly traumatized.  I don’t remember meals, but I don’t remember being hungry. I don’t know where our dogs were either. I went to school each day and before I knew it, we were in a house again.

I think we were evicted.

We were evicted quite a few times. My mother always had a job, and so we had income to pay for the motels. I don’t know why, if we could pay for a motel, why were couldn’t pay rent. Perhaps it had something to do with my dad’s heroin addiction or alcoholism.

When I got married, and moved to Oakland, I assumed temporary housing or housing instability would be a thing of the past, but the evictions continued one after another. I recall sitting up all night in a really nasty hotel on MacArthur Blvd. in January 1979.

Just after my older daughter was born at Alta Bates, we were evicted from our Alcatraz Avenue apartment. We’d paid our rent to an attorney and he didn’t give it to the property managers, so we were out on the streets.

The sheets at the motel were dingy and the pillow inside the thin pillow cases were black. I couldn’t lay my newborn baby on that nasty bed. I hadn’t even heard of bedbugs. My brother-in-law Rahim rescued us the next day and we went to live in his apartment on 14th Avenue by Highland Hospital for a month or two. He stayed with friends until there were no more sofas to crash on and then we had to go.  We had a VW Camper and moved into a better motel this time for a couple of months, while we waited for the apartment on 65th Avenue and MacArthur to become available. After two years there, once again we had to move.

The owner wanted to occupy it, so we had to leave.

That move took us to High Street where we stayed in Colonial Apartments or maybe we moved to Shafter or to Richmond or to Pleasant Hill or to Fremont or Harmon Avenue, back in Oakland. We moved so much we rented our furniture. I think every year or more than that, we were moving. We had a camper and would go to the regional parks to relax away from the motels.  Eviction followed eviction or if we weren’t evicted, we moved just before we had to.

There was always an urgency. I hate moving fast. You forget things and lose things you can never get back.

I remember thinking after I was divorced that I would not move again for a long time and I didn’t until, guess what? I was evicted, not for none payment of rent. I was evicted because I made too much money and the manager didn’t like me. She didn’t like anyone with more education than she and she evicted everyone with a bachelor’s degree or higher. I was in government subsidized housing. I knew the drill, more money rental increases, not eviction, but no one would take my case or help me from ACORN to Berkeley Community Law to City Council person Natalie Bayton.  My daughter and I were homeless for almost year after that. I went to work daily at Contra Costa College and Laney College and Chabot College. My younger daughter went to school, her first year at the California College of Arts and Crafts. It was hard, but perhaps the fact she is an artist gave her an outlet for her worries.

We were so happy to find the 14th Avenue Apartment, I slept on the floor for a year, took the bus to work. (My car stopped running). We didn’t have any furniture. Well, my daughter had a bed. She bought me a bed for my birthday present. It was a sofa bed. We moved from there into a house we purchased for too much money. We lost about $200,000 in a quick sale after being burglarized three years ago this year. People were buying houses for half the price of ours.

If there are any lessons here, one is that when I needed help the first time, all the agencies I knew told me they could not help me, that I made too much money.  The Oakland City council persons I contacted whom I had worked with in developing housing stock in West Oakland could not find any property for me to rent or purchase. There were no lawyers who could help me, though they had helped others I’d referred to them over the years. Something was fishy, but I left, turned in the keys so I had nowhere to return to.

I even put my dilemma in writing and published it, still no help.

So I lost my community. I loved Oak Center Apartments and the Oak Center neighborhood. Unlike other HUD properties, like the one where my brother lives in San Francisco, it was not converted into a co-op where we could own our units (although we talked about it).  I had to move to East Oakland where I knew no one, and then when I bought the house, I still knew no one. Well I met a few people, drug dealers who were soon killed around the corner in shootouts on Seminary. Other people on my block had so many bars around their doors I could not see them, let alone have a relationship with them.

I am happy where I am now. I live alone for the first time in my life. My younger daughter got married and when we sold the house, we parted ways – yes, I was disappointed, but I am learning to live with the solitude. It isn’t too bad (smile).

The Oakland I once knew has changed a lot. West Oakland 26 years ago was a lot blacker. There were black people who owned their homes and when I rode my bike or walked around, I’d see others who looked like me on the streets too. I didn’t see a lot of police and that was okay.

The internally displaced persons living under freeways and in ditches and behind stores like Target in Emeryville is a new phenomenon. I remember the first time I saw all the tents lined up on San Pablo and West Grand Avenue last year on my way to an African Diaspora Bazaar. I was floored. Since when is being internally displaced normalized to the point that there is living room furniture set up for entertaining guests?

When I got out the car to talk to the people Monday, January 4, I just couldn’t. What could I say? How could I bring a bit of sunshine to these chilly streets, wet with a brisk wind-chill factor?

At another spot where I knew a few of the residents, I got out and walked around, checking-in to see how people were. It had been a week and I like to go by once a week to see how people are.  People are getting housing, others are making the situation work.  Two women were hospitalized. One woman I’d met, died. It would be easier if there was a bit more assistance like garbage disposal for illegal dumping. Access to toilet facilities and places to shower and wash clothes. If St. Vincent de Paul is the nearest place to wash up and do laundry for free, and they are closed on Monday, it might take all day to do this.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at the Oakland City Council a Shelter Crisis Ordinance was adopted by Council. This means that City Property like the Lake Merritt Garden Center can be turned into temporary shelter for those in need of such. Council person Desley Brooks recommended that the Garden Center be ready to go in 15 days. 200 beds will not serve the entire displaced community, but it would be a start. We could see the bureaucratic wheels turning slowly as the City Attorney spoke about agenda items and procedures, while people are freezing on the streets of Oakland. With the pending storms only getting worse, what does the City have in mind for those without permanent shelter?

January 19 at the Council Meeting after waiting for three hours for the housing item to be addressed, the Garden Center idea was on hold—no funds. The day after Martin Luther King Day, his legacy is at a stalemate, this despite the Oakland Citizen Humanitarian Award to Alex McElree, executive director and founder, Operation Dignity.  Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf awarded Mr. McElree the award just two days prior, Jan. 17, at the “In the Name of Love: 14th Annual Musical Tribute Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” If people know their history, then Martin King’s Poor People’s March on Washington completed after his death has not resulted in an American society where all citizens matter, especially black men, the majority of men seen on Oakland streets. Poor men are released from jail or hospitals without a place to go. Recidivism is often economic.

As Council members congratulated themselves on expanded contract agreements with shelters, by the time the body remembered to check the speakers list, 24 signed up, our time reduced to 1 minute each. I was so angry I could barely speak.  Such disrespect! Their prior conversation and banter did not indicate any urgency, despite the illusive or deceptive “Oakland Shelter Crisis."

Dr. King stated “the time is always right to do right,” and “[t]here comes a time when silence is betrayal.” What is legal is not always just. Everything Hitler did was within the law. Closer home, black people are still recovering from legislative lynchings.

King said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?”  Doing the right thing takes courage.  Council person Desley Brooks on Jan. 4 proposed immediate response to the crisis and her proposal was sent to committee. On Jan. 19, she again asked for an immediate action albeit temporary and voted for $500,000 to address the Housing Crisis, rather than the $160,000 (or so) proposed and once again was silenced.

“On some positions,” King continues, “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?  . . . There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but [she] must do it because conscience tells [her] it is right.”

My mind went to Èṣú-Elégbá and how this deity was thrown onto the trash heap and there became the friend of the hobo or homeless person. Èṣú-Elégbá is the keeper of ashay or the life force. When Obátálá took clay to make the human being, it was Èṣú-Elégbá who made the form animate. His totem is the rat, the scavenger who knows how to survive in the most harsh circumstances. In the Chinese Zodiac the rat is clever, sturdy, perhaps not the most pleasant all the time to hang out with, but then, if you have seen what it has seen or been where it has been, foolishness and hesitation where direct action is necessary, is not something it has time for.

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