Wednesday, February 24, 2016

First Person

Kheven LaGrone

By Kheven LaGrone
In an open letter to San Francisco city officials, a tech worker, who had only been in San Francisco three years, wrote:
“What are you going to do to address this [increasing homeless and drug] problem? The residents of this amazing city [San Francisco] no longer feel safe. I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.”
The tech writer’s letter was as heartless as a computer program.  He was clueless.  Such lack of empathy is a problem for any society—especially one that claims to value its “diversity.” As Oakland city officials have stated in the past, San Francisco’s gentrification problems are flowing over to Oakland. Because the tech writer believed he was writing for the residents of San Francisco, Oakland officials must officially and publicly address this letter.
The tech writer’s “free market society” was naively based on equal opportunities in life.  He incorrectly concluded that San Francisco’s homeless chose not to work hard or get an education.  In reality, some people were homeless because they were laid off or priced out of their homes. Some people were homeless due for medical reasons.
After only three years, the tech worker felt entitled to San Francisco because of his wealth.  He wrote that the homeless people disrupted his “special place.” He didn’t want to see their “pain, struggle and despair.” He did not engage them as human beings or learn their “bad luck” stories.  If he had, he might have realized that they never had his privileges.  Luck, not just “hard work,” privileged him and he’d see that his own good luck could run out.

He only saw those few homeless people who were publicly confrontational and disruptive to his sense of entitlement.  He then unfairly stereotyped all people as a threat.  Most homeless people don’t want to bring unnecessary attention to their situation.

The tech worker believed in San Francisco’s “free market society” and he had the money to move where he wanted; in reality, he asked for government intervention. Should the government remove old-time residents, or even natives, because wealthy newcomers don’t want to see them?  I have been to several of Oakland’s homeless encampments and shelters.  I saw many people there who I knew personally from Oakland in the 1980s. Could the tech worker be entitled to move to Oakland and bully them as well?

As more people move to Oakland, they will likely encounter, or even move near, existing homeless encampments. The newcomers should know that Oakland’s homeless community is as respected as any other.  If newcomers don’t want to see the homeless, they shouldn’t move here.
The tech worker even concluded his letter with warning of a “revolution.” I fear him more than I do the homeless.  He needs to address his own cluelessness as part of the problem.  His letter bullies the homeless.  Class warfare and homeless people will not be as easy for him to manipulate as computer codes and mathematical equations.  Lack of empathy will ruin any city more than homelessness. 
If class warfare explodes in San Francisco, it will likely spill over to Oakland.  Before it does, the Oakland City Council should make a public statement that its homeless community is seen and heard here. They must denounce the attitude of the tech worker’s letter. The homeless community is part of Oakland’s “diversity.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Reflection Feb. 15, 2016
by Wanda Sabir       

Wanda, Tabaji, Jovelyn and Denise
  Today feels like the first day of spring, but it isn’t, just another reminder of man’s folly and the planet’s suffering. The plant world is so confused, some perennials flower all year now; it is so warm. But if one makes her shelter under an evening lamppost or a freeway overpass then warmth is a lot more welcome than rain or bone chilling cold.
          It’s the day after Valentine’s Day—some call it President’s Day.  However, Washington and Lincoln have much to atone for regarding policies concerning melaninated people, specifically black people and the legacy of slavery.
          Imagine what America would have looked like if Washington, Jefferson and Franklin had not carried slavery forward into this union. The tyranny of political servitude to the Crown and the fact that an African descendant shed his blood for the ideals of liberty.  If the founding white men had eliminated slavery from the discourse that forms the nexus of these dominate narratives then and now, a discourse this nation holds its truths in a balance still uneven and unrealized,  I might still be with my people and in possession of my heritage . . . all of it, especially that which I am left to assemble haphazardly through guesswork facilitated through African Ancestry, 23 and Me, etc.  It’s not all blind, yet finding one’s roots could take a life time and even then, what about the people who were not necessarily looking for you, if they knew you existed?
          What about the psychic social spiritual mending of the generations, beginning with the present one, these broken ties represent?
Wanda and RJ
          We had no music this morning at the encampment, but the rhythms of early morning stirrings, heart beats and warmth mixed with smiles and hugs and welcomes – had us all dancing to a groove thing that was delightful. Jovelyn’s Jamaican rice with peas (black beans), olives, pimento and other ingredients went perfectly with Wanda and Tabaji’s pots of plain rice and pinto beans. There was also hickory smoked beef sausage and a variety of cakes from blueberry and banana nut to strawberry and lemon. The hot coffee we served on Martin King Day was back, along with milk and juice, water and fresh fruit.
           We had a few more clothing items than last time: a few pairs of shoes, lots of socks, men’s boxers, a few jackets, shirts, toiletry bags, toilet tissue. A woman brought a bag full of women’s clothes which we took to our second encampment—yep, we served two encampments in one morning (smile).                   
           We prepared the meals in advance and put, I think, at least 15 in the car and caravanned down to the next spot. Some of our group had to leave, so another shift came as we were packing up. It was great. Lisa brought a table and drop cloth for the clothes. Samira (11) served coffee and water and fruit. Some folks were sleeping and didn’t want to get up and come to where the table was, but quite a few did. We served those who poked their heads out and asked for a plate.
            There is a lot of traffic on the road at the second spot, and we have to be careful, so we don’t get run over.
            Lots of people needed toilet tissue. I gave sturdy garbage bags to Chris who said she liked to clean up the debris before it gets out of hand. She said the rats were getting really bold down there, one ran across her foot. Another woman had nothing, so I gave her one of the two sleeping bags and blankets I still had in my trunk from December.
             If anyone has any skills like legal advocacy for people on parole or elders or the disabled re: housing rights, please get in touch with me. Perhaps you could join us at a breakfast to talk to our friends.
            Within the month, there was an accident at the second encampment—a car crashed into a pole. It’s good it did not hit any of the tents nearby or vehicles. That would have been fatal for the occupant(s). People are still dumping illegally where the encampments are. At the second encampment, people know each other too, especially those who have been there for the past two years.  I don’t necessarily see the kind of structured community that exists in the other encampment where Mr. Lee and Robert establish and keep order. Everyone is not welcome and if people act up, they are asked to leave.
          At the second encampment , folks seem to mind their own business, but they also help each other. One woman picked up a few clothing items for a friend who was not present this morning.

          Earlier that morning as I watched people sitting in their tents, flaps open talking back and forth, I recalled the compounds in Rufisque, Senegal (West Africa) where extended family live. When you walk out of your door, you face the entrance to another family member’s home. Dinner and clothes washing happens in the open space beyond the narrow entrance way, between the gated compound and the door which leads into it. In the larger encircled space, women pound yams for flour, cook dinner and gossip while their children play, the chickens and sheep wander and the clothes flutter or hang motionless on the clothesline. There are usually a few trees which provide much needed shade.
         Today Robert asked if we could have church at the encampment. That sounds like a great idea. I have to shop it with a few clergy folks I know. I can’t commit to a weekly sermon. I think Robert would make a great pastor. I think I will recommend it to him (smile). We haven’t prayed together since Christmas. We will have to pray together next time.
          Tuesday (tomorrow) at City Council, Robert says he will speak. He says he has a story to tell. I am looking forward to hearing it. He is a deep one. Quiet and deep. When I left this morning he was smoking a cigarette and sweeping up the debris drive by litterers had dumped illegally.
            Lionel was really happy today and Mr. Lee was present and happy to see us.  Delores gives me a hug when she sees me. I think that’s nice. I like the spontaneity of it. At the other encampment, Raynel gave Samira a My Little Pony girl. Lisa told Samira to give Raynal a hug. I think Raynal appreciated it, especially since her children were taken from her I think two years ago. Lisa didn’t even know the tragic story. Again, the spontaneity is really sweet all around.
          As we were leaving one of the women we had been speaking with was walking back from Target where she washed up and put on a new shirt. She looked pretty. She told us that the day before she bought soft drinks for everyone at the encampment for Valentine’s Day.
        I found it ironic that her mother had been a battered and homeless women advocate in New York. She said her mother would often remind her daughter of her resiliency with a reminder of others who have had to manage homelessness with responsibilities like children or safety.
        While I waited for the light to change from red to green on Fifth at Broadway later on as I made my way home, I asked the lady standing next to a sign if she’d like a lunch. She told me yes and that someone had given her twenty dollars and a box of chocolate right before me. I was happy she was having such a pleasant day.
         In the bag I gave her were sun chips, nuts, Vienna sausage or beef jerky, gummy bears (fruit candy), peanut butter crackers, water, tissue, a toiletry bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, shaving cream (without blade), fruit drink. It’s a comfort food snack bag that is not all empty calories. I buy in bulk and put the items in large zip lock bags and keep them in my car, refills in my truck. I make about 35-50 at a time. They last a long time, because I only give them away when I am driving.
         As we stood around talking at the second encampment, we learned of highway patrol training officers who use the residents of the encampment to help with their trainings on drug testing. They pick up people who are high and run tests, practice for the real arrests. The test includes drawing blood.
           Charles sent lots of shirts which the men really liked, all of the shirts except for the shirt with paint on it. I told the men that Charles was a painter, but no one cared to look that part. A lot of the men and women have keen fashion sense.
           Today, people sat at the tables and ate. I liked that everyone didn’t take the food away or stand and eat. It felt more like having friends and family over for a meal.