Monday, October 31, 2016

We are a Free People

The last Sunday in October, a day before the witches and goblins invade city streets, the heavens let loose a deluge. What could be described as a seasonal cleansing, we watched as citizens carried bags filled with food, others carrying styrofoam plates. All of us were responding to an economic crisis most visible in the tent cities and encampments throughout Alameda county, more specifically Oakland. We found people huddled under highways, in canvas covered tents or boxes on abandoned roadsides. There were others asleep in neighborhood parks, in creative housing structures along industrial roadways and in alleys. . . .  One of the largest shantytowns in Oakland is just opposite the city jail, county courthouse and police department.

The Auset Movement started at the Wood Street encampment. Prepared for the potential rainy forecast we served under an awning at a table covered with tasty viands: Joveyln's spaghetti casserole filled with seasonal spices offered medicine for the soul, Wanda and Tabaji's potato stew, beans and rice, and Kwalin and Delene's sausage and blueberry cake -- all added to the warmth or ambiance we try to create, even when temperatures are not cooperative.

My contribution was hot coffee. We also served apple juice, water, apples and tangerines, along with a bit of candy for the child in all of us. People were not stirring, however, eventually some folks got up. One man was already waiting when we arrived. He took a meal and a quilted raincoat, sock and gloves. In addition to the hot meal, we also had toilet tissue, water, women's sanitary items, women's rain boots, raincoats for women and men, umbrellas, rain ponchos, socks, tooth brushes, men's and women's gloves and tarps.

We don't usually see homeless families, but we met a woman with a little boy. He looked about 2-3. He had a stroller. A young woman without much cover sat nearby eating her meal. She looked to have all her belongings on her back. She had on a warm-looking jacket, but her legs were bare. We will have to get leggings for the next visit and long underwear. The toddler's mother needed a weather screen for the stroller, something to keep her child dry.

We also had canned goods, but since it was wet, only the peanut butter was taken. I was surprised and happy at how quickly the umbrellas went.  I will have to get more. I don't know how long a Dollar Tree umbrella will last, but hopefully for a few days. What I couldn't find when I went shopping were can openers. I will have to keep looking. I think we served about 20-22 people on West Street; our goal is 50 meals, so we had a lot of food left.

I was awake at 6 and up by 6:30 a.m. I had to pick up the coffee and then dash to the store for forks. I was a bit late at 7:45 a.m. at our rendezvous spot at West Grand and Mandela. Wanda and Tabaji had called to say the rice was sticking and they were running a few minute late too, so Kwalin, Delene, Jovelyn and I shared morning greetings and prayers before caravaning to the encampment where not a soul was stirring in the tiny homes.

Once we set up, Tabaji and Wanda arrive moments later. Kwalin then walks down the block to let folks know breakfast is served. Each month the population shifts, especially when the weather is cold. Men and women we'd met this summer were not around Sunday morning. I'd heard a couple weeks ago that Lance is in jail, Lee is not around either, nor the brothers with the van. I didn't see Rasta or his wife. Gone also is the brother with the diesel truck who had a couple of companions bunking with him.

We always have a soundtrack. Kwalin, The Auset Movement DJ, had turned into Minister Farrakhan in Chicago giving a special address on the coming elections.

After we'd fed everyone, we started packing up about 9:30 a.m. and drove up the street to the smaller encampment and everyone was gone! I couldn't believe it. It looked as if no one had every occupied the space.  Big yellow bins filled perhaps with the discarded belongings of lives interrupted were the only evidence that the space had once been a community. I remember just a month ago, driving by and seeing Ms. Darlene sitting with her niece. They both smiled at me as I dropped off cat and dog food. I also recall her birthday last year and the bible Kwalin and Delene bought her for her at her request when asked what she wanted for a present. In April this year RJ helped Darlene clean and straighten out her dwelling and then Lisa and I went and bought a tent and all of us built it as the rain came down drenching all of us.

On sunny Easter Sunday, we visited with Darlene and the other women there who went shopping in Lisa's boutique. This encampment had the larger population of women than any of the others we'd adopted at that point. Janie always looked out for others in the encampment and she picked up a couple of items for friends who were not there that morning. I am going to miss the sweet couple whose tent was connected to their truck-- the boyfriend had a part-time job, his girlfriend watched their possessions and pet dog. I remember how happy they were to see us when RJ and I took by 20 sandbags to help with the flooding this past wet, cold, winter season.

Darlene's friend whom we met in April was arrested last week. I wondered what he would do when he was released from jail and returned to the empty space he once called home. I hope Darlene was able to get his dog back from the SPCA.  I wonder where she is keeping her own menagerie.

I remember the last residents of this encampment talking about how the people near the construction were told to move, but that they were okay. This false sense of security was fostered by officials whom the residents knew and trusted. Dignity Housing signage is now removed. (It was on the fence.) I hope people are now housed, but I am not too optimistic.

We piled back into our cars and headed up to 35th and Peralta, the site we once served--the first encampment we adopted. The City of Oakland had made the space into a legally sanctioned homeless encampment with portable toilets and even an assigned case manager or liaison. We were pleasantly surprised to see someone serving meals to everyone. It wasn't like our set up, they didn't stay. There was no music, banter, conversation, camaraderie.  It was more a drive by drop off, but the residents were happy.

I saw the sister I'd bought jewelry for. It was later lost when the city did a sweep and the residents had to pack quickly. I recall her quick hugs. Kheven, Kwalin, Delene and I park and strategize on where to take the excess meals.

I find it ironic that when we pulled up along Castro and Fifth street, the rushing waters unearthing rodents, one pointed out to me, we met several black men. One had spent sometime in prison and liked living in a tent over sharing housing with a stranger. He said after prison, he does not choose to live with strangers ever again. He told us about the food bags we saw people passing out. The reason why he took our meal, he said, was because we'd prepared it for them. It was home cooked and even though he and the other men we met didn't say it, they knew the ingredients were love and compassion, condiments all humanity need sprinkled liberally at every meal.

A year ago, November 2015, The Auset Movement: Loving Humanity into Wholeness was born with Jovelyn, Denise, Tracy, RJ, Kheven, Alicia, Kwalin and Delene, Tabaji and Wanda R, and Wanda Sabir. We have been supported from the beginning by the generosity of volunteers who help out when they can by showing up to serve and perform and with their donations: money, clothes, food and other supplies like tables and chairs so people can sit and eat. We have also gotten pro bono legal advice. Over the past year we have received over $3000.00 in monetary donations which we have used to buy blankets, sleeping bags, cases of prepackaged toiletry bags, and other bulk items: hats, gloves, coats, socks, long underwear, men's boxer shorts, rain ponchos, tents.

After leaving Wo'se House of Amen Ra (Holly and 90th Avenue) and seeing a man lying on the street on 90th Avenue and Holly and several others with carts along the International corridor, I wondered who these men were and why they were on the streets.  I saw another black man walk by and kick the bottom of the man's foot to make sure he was alive.  When the man stirred I asked him if he wanted a blanket and pillow, and when he said he was hungry, I offered him gift bags with food I'd prepared in my truck. Another black man walking by pushing a baby stroller asked if I had another bag with food. I told him of course. I was really happy to meet other black men Sunday, since they were the people I'd been looking for.
When I get in my car to follow Kheven to the next encampment, Kwalin and Delene have already left for San Francisco to give the meals they have to an encampment near City Hall. I am pulling off when George sticks his head out of his tent and asks for a plate. I turn off the car and get out when I realize I cannot reach him. I have to watch where I step, the water is rushing fast and overhead water is splashing from the freeway above. I hand him a plate, an umbrella, socks and a rain poncho. As I drive away, I see one of the men dressed in his poncho, umbrella up walking up the street.

Kheven thinks I am following him, and leaves after giving one of the men copies of Street Spirit to sell, so I look up Lafayette Park in my GPS. When I arrive I see several tents and a table where I could put food. I park and get out. I get Kheven's bag of prepared plates from his car and go over to the covered area of the park. A young man accepts a plate and suggests I put the rest on the table. I see people in the tents, but he tells me that they can get up and come get the food themselves. I do as he suggests and then make a couple more trips with fruit, juice, and the rest of the candy.

Funny how the candy is such a big hit.

Kheven says he will take the rest of the meals and canned goods by Lake Merritt under the bridge once the rain stops falling, which it does a few hours later.

It was a full, beautiful, yet bittersweet morning.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mother's Day Breakfast

People, more than Geography are important when one thinks of home.  I have lost multiple friends to high rents and property loss. The landscape is bare when I think about Oakland—the frequented spots are vacant—its inhabitants gone. At least these friends are not in another realm, just another zip code or county, but . . . these women are now living with their children—the two friends I am thinking about had to leave Oakland. One still works as an Oakland Unified School teacher, the other retired as an AC Transit bus driver just a year or so ago. Strange that after giving perhaps 20 years’ service to Alameda County, Oakland specifically, neither woman could find sanctuary at home. One now lives in Richmond, the other in San Francisco.  Couch surfing at 62+ years old is a sad statement on what America thinks of its elders.

It is great both women have family to take them in. What about the adults who have jobs or savings or pension, yet nowhere affordable to go? Perhaps these are the people The Auset Movement meets at the two encampments we have adopted and served hot breakfast to once a month, since December last year.

Both women were resistant to asking their children for help. I understand. What if their children said no? At the encampments, many families are rescuing their loved ones from the street. Sometimes the transition does not work and these relatives leave familial shelter for the concrete once again. This is why comprehensive support it needed for families and people affected by displacement. Living on the streets is not without its psychological perils—such as mental illness, and the resulting self-medication. The last time we served breakfast, it was Mother’s Day, the stupor was so deep, we could not sing the slumbering community awake. Unlike the previous month, we almost had too much food. We were joined by victims of the earthquake in Nepal who brought a global perspective to this situation as they walked between the tents and mattresses saying good morning, inviting those slumbering to have breakfast.

The encampment is changing. Robert told me a person who used to pass out sandwiches, is now threatening people—saying that the city of Oakland is going to forcibly remove them. Just this threat from a person, who’d gained their trust—now a bully, has run many people away. Just two months ago, Robert requested a religious service at the site; this past month he told Wanda Ravernell, he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea anymore.

In April when RJ and I went by late one afternoon to see how people were doing, and were able to get a tent for an elder (60 years old) without shelter. RJ also bought Pepsis for everyone there. The men and women were so happy to have a Pepsi Cola. We also gave them toilet tissue and drinking water. It was such a small thing, yet brought much joy.  The man who needed the tent was so excited when I told him we’d go buy one for him, when we returned he asked if we could pray. When the call went up, young black men stopped what they were doing to join the circle, hold hands and pray.

We let the elder say the prayer. It was so beautiful that night.

Recently at another encampment we visit, Ms. Darlene said it best as she reflected on Mother’s Day and what brought her to the point where she is now. She said she’d made some bad choices, but she still believes in God. She said she attends church sometimes and is the person sitting in the back you barely notice. She said God is with her and with others who have lost so much. Another woman, who has been living in her car, agreed.

When policies are enacted and ordinances passed, if there is no face attached the bill, there is no urgency to act.  Words lie tasteless, disembodied on hard surfaces where they land or float detached from corporal bodies.  A good idea is nothing unless breathed with spirit. Until the legislators get up from their desks and leave their offices and walk among the people—hold corner conversations, nothing is going to change. We the people are the government, not the elected officials who have lost touch with their constituents who are not the ones at the fundraisers or the people writing huge checks. (This is what I liked about Elihu Harris, as Mayor of Oakland, and Henry Gardner as City Manager, we saw them around town shopping in the local grocery store or even seated next to us at the theatre. It is the same with Jowel C. Laguerre, Ph.D., Chancellor of Peralta Community College District—we see him around town.)

The same modeling is present in President Obama’s policies. He visits Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria and now Vietnam. He hosts a roundtable with Muslim leaders. He was in New Orleans for the tenth anniversary of the Great Flood last summer. He knows the weight his presence has on an issue. Also when the president shakes someone hand, or stops to take a photo or listen to his constituents in one of his many town hall sessions, this acknowledgement validates the shared humanity between him and the other person. The architecture erected between the elected official and the people disappears, Mr. Obama is “Barry”: a friend, a father, a black man.

I am looking forward to being home again, continental Africa, this time Ghana. It will be a short sojourn—but any time on the continent is good. I have heard so much about Ghana, land of Yaa Asantewaa, Dr. Nkrumah, Dr. DuBois, Garvey’s Pan African vision—A Black Star. Perhaps Ghana is the metaphor realized. Ghana, Tanzania/Zanzibar, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria . . . Congo, Zimbabwe —the free, new nations pre-embargos and reenslavement – what Kwame Ture called “Black Power.”

After I leave Ghana I will do a bit of London—visit the British Museum and see Africa’s stolen legacy housed there. I will also look for Ira Aldridge there. After seeing actor, Carl Lumbly’s stunning performance in the San Francisco Playhouse’s current run (through June 25) of Red Velvet, I have to see the statue and portrait of the black man, African American man who would defy the racial barriers in England, pre-Abolition of Slavery.

It was a blue moon, Saturday evening with Mars – the tiny red planet visible on the horizon. Full and bright, it was a fitting day to have an African Diaspora party at the Jamaican restaurant, Kingston 11 in Oakland. Lisa and I had left Almaz Yihdego’s Youth Empowerment Services (Y.E.S.) fundraiser at Omni Commons, a bit before and stopped by Kingston to meet my Ghanaian friend, Queen Kwama Thompson, jazz artist extraordinaire. She’d told me about the music at the venue (I’d tasted the great food before). As we drove along Telegraph Avenue, looking for a parking spot, the street is transformed. Besides the absence of black faces, Telegraph Avenue looks like Shoreline Drive in Alameda. The cyclists are closest to the curb, while cars park on the opposite side. There is no way a car door can hit a cyclists. These bike lanes are also painted a bright green color at intersections. Once inside the restaurant/ bar, there was plenty space on the dance floor. In fact, Lisa and I had it all to ourselves for quite a while and then about 11:30 folks started to spill into the space. Lots of free ice water kept us hydrated as the owner observed. I saw another person I know come in with a friend. Women danced freely with partners and alone—the DJ even played songs that honored black women – all women. The selection of tunes were guaranteed to keep you on the floor dancing even when your legs said sit down (smile). Too bad the floor is concrete. That was the only drawback. I kept trying to leave and then Alicia and then Kwama would say, just one more song. Before I knew it, DJ Yaddos who opened the set at 8 p.m. announced the last song and invited us back the following Saturday.

The second DJ had a following; however, I liked the first DJ’s selections better. I expected a larger variety of African music; however, he didn’t even play Fela, Oliver Mtukudzi, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, classic performers like Sam Magwana, Ladysmith Black Mambaza, Hugh Masekela, Mariam Makeba, or even local bands like Baba Ken’s Kotoja or Soji’s group, not to mentioned the really cool hip hop scene out of Paris and North Africa. There is so much to choose from.

The Araba of Osogbo is continuing his US Tour this month. He was in Oakland May 15-22, and then onto Los Angeles. From there he heads to Miami, New Orleans and then Atlanta. Visit

There is so much happening in June locally and nationally. June is the beginning of the Yoruba calendar. I am not sure if this is the reason why the International Libation for African Ancestors of the Middle Passage is this month.

Public Conversations on Homelessness

August 1, 2016 A Public Conversation on Homelessness
By Wanda Sabir

The meeting this evening about the issue of homelessness was not representative. There were no black men on the panel and black men are most impacted by this endemic civic problem. Black men are what drew me to investigate. I wondered why so many men, older men were without housing. Many are on the streets because of prison records which often leaves them disqualified for federal support whether this is housing, jobs, school tuition or medical treatment. Not all of the men are mentally ill; however, the streets take a lot out of a person and after the state takes its chunk, not a lot is left on the table when the socio-economic and political tidal waves threaten one’s human dignity. Black men find it hard to ride the surf, especially when they can’t see land.

There are no pigeons or dove sightings on the horizon. Instead the men look down instead of up. What is so interesting at their feet? Is it shame or a form of disappearance?  If I don’t look you in the eye, we can pretend I do not exist or at least that this is not happening.

When stability is a part of the therapeutic necessity for wellness, bones and flesh separate as necessity dictates the order of the day.

Eloquent in his use of his experience to talk about the encampment he resides, Andy Standfield, a white man cleaned up has access to a completely different world than that experienced by black men. When officials look at him, they are not defensive, ready to fight and kill—if necessary. Cleaned up this evening, Andy knew the protocol—he’d mastered the power narrative and could sit comfortably with a scholar, homeless advocate, and a city official, not to mention the business owners, professionals and activists in the audience.

If he wasn’t on the bill, no one would have placed him in the corrective box—one allocated to miscreants and outsiders. To be homeless is not to lose one’s humanity which is something one can lose so easily when shamed or ignored.  

There was a business owner who vented in her first statement after panel opening statements, then asked questions and made recommendations in the end. I wonder how good a neighbor I would be if the encampment was across the street from my apartment. Would I feel comfortable enough to have an encampment as a neighbor? Encampments attract illegal dumpers. This is the most visual aspect of the phenomena, but I know the residents do not create the debris.

The room was not representative of the problem facing under-housed citizens. The problem is massive, however, public spaces where those who are most effected are not present, undermines any practical solutions offered. If the goal is to be inclusive and guided by those whose lives we want to improve the quality of, then we have to make sure that we make such public opportunities for engagement convenient.

To have a white man represent the face of homelessness in Oakland, undermines the reality which looks quite differently. Cleaned up, no one would know Andy was not on the board for the downtown business merchants who are partnering with their encampment neighbors to keep their shared community safe and clean. Andy mentioned mental health as the reason for his loss of job and housing twice. However, the men I have spoken to at the 35th and Peralta and Wood Street encampments mentioned by Brigitte Cook, City of Oakland, Community Liaison for District 3, have felony convictions which in the past might disqualify most of them from public housing. Cook stated that the City of Oakland continued to look for a place to set up a “legal” encampment with services like bathroom, garbage and supportive services. The City is looking to pilot such a project with select encampment residents such as those living on 35th and Peralta.

Besides Cook and Standfield, other panelists at “A Public Conversation on Homelessness” at the Oakland Metro Opera House, August 1, were: Elaine de Coligny, Executive Director,
EveryOne Home; and Peter Radu, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, San Francisco and Co-Author, A Place To Be, Report with UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy.

Reasons for Homelessness

On Wood Street in Oakland at the encampment
The Auset Movement has adopted, one woman told us both she and her partner lost their jobs and with it their housing. Another woman said that she was being evicted and left so that she would not have the eviction on her credit report. She was told over a year ago that she would be first to get another place, so she refused to buy or accept a tent. She says she did not want to get comfortable. It has been almost two years now. Earlier this year when storms were raging and the weather was cold, we bought and set up a tent for her. At that time, her mother was hospitalized. When her mother, disabled and in a wheelchair, was sent home, she gave the tent to her.

Another woman in this encampment, Janie, says that she is waiting to get aide. She has been waiting for almost nine months now. Darlene does not have identification and the prospect of getting an identification card presents so many issues, we see her sitting in front of her shelter sorting, then storing recyclable items which she does not recycle. The shopping carts full of cans and bottles and other items stretch for several yards. When driving by, we see Darlene stopping to pick up cans and bottles as she walks to Peets for coffee in the morning.

A young woman I met on Wood Street, who is no longer there, told me about the job she once had advocating for young women like herself who had children and unstable housing.  She was able to keep these women out of the system by offering the women jobs or training, housing, childcare and other supportive services. Janie said her mother did similar advocacy work. It is ironic that the young woman’s mother took her child from her and refuses to let her see her daughter. One Sunday after breakfast, she gave Lisa daughter, Samira (11) a doll.  Samira was helping us serve that morning.

Further up Wood is another encampment. In July we met men with big rigs parked there. We also met other men, black men, who have built permanent housing.  These tiny abodes have kitchens, dens and studies. We saw within these public spaces an opportunity to expand the notion of community development. Not unlike the kinds of human relationships which develop in harsh or challenging circumstances, found in natural and manmade disasters – homelessness is a common variable which on a positive note allows people to choose how they want to interact and at what level of permanence they want to live.

Safety is a challenge and since these communities are outside the municipal structure, police do not necessarily protect these citizens’ property or persons. In fact, these public servants are often the cause of distress. I hear of police trashing residents’ belongings and roughing people up. One man’s brother, who was in a wheelchair, father of two, was picked up and beaten so severely, he died.

At the meeting in August a white man hit a black woman several times. Nancy Halloran, Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless Program, saw him hit this woman and demanded he leave. After the meeting we learned that this man did not even know her. It is dangerous for women on the street. This is why many women live communally or are tough, like a young woman I met who lives in a Mercedes convertible. One Sunday, I gave her a jump. Girlfriend set a young man’s house on fire. He said, “I was being stupid.” He lost everything, but he says he learned a valuable lesson.

There were so few black people at this meeting – less than seven; it was really noticeable. Many of the business owners, one woman in particular, blamed the homeless encampment across from her shop for a recent theft. Towards the end of the meeting, her views on the homeless community had shifted quite a bit for the better. Conversations like this are ways to demystify and humanize the homeless.  As long as the homeless are absent from the dominant discourse, the power differential will not shift.

Savlan Hauser, Executive Director, Jack London Improvement District, who moderated the discussion stated at the beginning of the meeting that the gathering was to look at ways business and the homeless encampment residents in this area of Oakland can work together in ways that are mutually beneficial. Present in the audience were Ambrosia Sharpiro, Bay Area Community Involvement Coordinator, Covenant House California; Chris Boss, Operations Manager, Block by Block, and others. I do not think anyone was present from the Federal government’s Housing Urban Development (HUD). Perhaps next time, the federal government will be invited, so something can change.

Alameda Community Meeting to discuss their Homeless Issue, Sept. 27

Almost two months later, in another city, Alameda, I attend a similar meeting at the Mastick Senior Center. Alameda has so few homeless people, one police officer, now two, are liaisons between the municipality and the homeless population. To illustrate this, I saw the police chief call a few of the men who attended to meeting by name, and when they got emotional and couldn’t wait their turn to speak— a change in Police Chief Paul Rolleri’s tone of voice and instructions to his men, quickly quieted down an impending ruckus.

Up to now the homeless “problem” in Alameda seems to be concentrated in the West End of the Island town where there is a huge gated lot which is allocated for a
the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park. At that time, the encampment which is not visible from the street, will have to go. Residents will get 30 day notices, however, presently, there is no housing for the people displaced when the time comes. (Near the entrance to the Webster Tube, on the Oakland side, the tents are increasing in number.)

Enter Operation Dignity. I have seen their calling cards next to evacuation notices at encampments The Auset Movement serves.  Finally I was able to put faces to the name.  Granted, I’d seen the founder, Vietnam War veteran, Alex McElree honored at “In the Name of Love,” the Martin Luther King Jr. event in January, but when I called
Operation Dignity to see if any of their people could come to the encampment on 35th and Peralta to do a needs assessment and offer services, I got the runaround and nothing happened.  

So I was not impressed. I thought OD was an arm of the Oakland Police Department or in this case Alameda Police Department. Judy and Tamika told us that what OD does is tame the natives.  No, no that’s not what they said, but if Tamika goes out with the mobile outreach team with food, toiletries and does a needs assessment yet cannot provide any shelter or even care, what is the point? Soon, this encampment will be displaced with nowhere to go. As I write this report, it is raining.

Since November of last year, The Auset Movement has purchased tents, clothes by the pound, blankets, tarps, socks, underwear, long underwear, hats, gloves, toiletries, first aid kits, nonperishable food items like trail mix, granola bars, canned goods with flip tops, water, toiler tissue, depends. When the rain storms caused flooding, RJ and I drove out to Public Works by the airport and got sandbags and took them to the encampment on Wood Street. We have been looking for permanent solutions, however as David Modersbach, Alameda County, Health Care for the Homeless Program, stated at the August 1st meeting, this problem is bigger than any one city. It is a federal problem and we need federal money to address it.

In the Q&A at the Alameda meeting at the Mastik Senior Center, one person asked the Taskforce what the plan was for a person who wanted to leave the encampment tonight. The answer, just as stated earlier, nothing. The wait is minimally 3 months Doug Biggs, Executive Director, Alameda Point Collaborative, stated. However, the wait is probably more like 6 months to a year. There were two women there who live in a car. She spoke of being on a list for housing at the base for at least two year, but each time her name moved up the list, the list would be purged and then she was have to start the climb all over again. All the tearful woman was told, was to come to the Dignity office when they open the next day. It would have been appropriate to get the woman’s number or talk to her right then. Evidently she is in crisis. 

People were clearly frustrated. No one wanted to be the one responsible for displacing or incarcerating homeless people, whether they were the loud couple just beyond his or her fence or a mentally ill elder. It didn’t make sense to hire Operation Dignity to do a needs assessment if the report is going to collect dust. There was lots of talk about drug use and domestic violence and mental illness among those who live at the encampments and visitors.  One man wondered why the police were not putting the offenders in jail.

A young woman spoke during the public comment about her mother who lives on the streets in Alameda. She is schizophrenia and refuses to live with her family or take her medications. The young woman does not want her mother criminalized, yet knows the option for traditional housing is not one her mother will accept. Other members of Alameda’s homeless community were also present. One older man made the link between his current situation and that of those in the room. Several other speakers acknowledged the shared humanity between those housed and those under housed. It was also noted that this is where a better assessment of needs could help the City of Alameda respond more effectively to these fellow citizens.

NIMBY was in the room, however, only one person directly addressed its presence. He stated that most of the homeless population were drug addicts. He named places where homeless people camp use drugs. He also pointed to how the island town has changed over the past 30-40 years with its growing development and influx of (undesirable) people. He asked the police chief why he wasn’t just locking people up for drug use and possession.

The Alameda police chief lamented the changed laws which reduced certain offences from felonies to misdemeanors. This means that people get ticketed for crimes like possession or use of drugs, not incarcerated. However, the situation which triggers the drug use was not addressed. Mobile mental health specialists were not mentioned. What was mentioned was that the City of Alameda, is resource poor.

There should be a public health plan implemented, since Alameda rents are increasing and the possibility of other people in the room with me becoming homeless is highly probable. Where the encampment is is a place where that is closed to public use. The lock on the gate is frequently broken off, probably by an Alameda resident who lives nearby, not by a homeless person, which then gives everyone an opportunity to “trespass.”
To his credit, the police chief said that he didn’t want to give trespassing tickets to people who were not able to pay them. If he gave tickets to homeless people who have set up housing there, he would also have to give tickets to people who walk their dogs there too. He also stated that he was not telling homeowners in the area to stop reporting disturbing behavior like loud noise, loose dogs and drug use.

A young couple played a taped conversation of a homeless couple whose tent is just outside their fence. The frequent arguments wake them in the wee hours of the night, and in the daytime the ruckus prevents them from taking their child outside to play in the garden.  In the recording, we hear two voices, one male, the other female. The voices are raised and heated as name calling and profanity pepper the dialogue. There is also physical violence – the homeless woman, the victim.

Alameda residents near Wood Street asked Dignity how they will address this nuanced problem. The hope is that by building relations with the homeless community within the encampment, they are address certain needs before they escalate; however, at 20 hours a week for a finite time, Dignity Housing will just be generating a report and making promises they might not be around to implement. Because as soon as construction starts the encampments will all be cleared away. There was no date given for this construction or the 30 day notices to residents, but it is imminent. Once the park construction is underway, there will be no encampments allowed. After the park is complete though, then everyone would be able to enjoy the park, the homeless included.

Paul Diggs, Alameda Point Collaborative, said that the list for public housing stock has been centralized. All intake is in Oakland and people do not necessarily choose where they live. If there is an urgency, the apartment might be in a city the person does not want to live in. What if a person wants to live in Alameda, yet the opening is in San Leandro. People don’t just want shelter, they want a home in a community they love.

When we left, the plan is for Operation Dignity to spend 20 hours a week getting to know the 50 or so homeless adults in Alameda. They will work with Alameda law enforcement officers who know the population well. At the meeting, the Chief knew people from encampments by name. He also knew many of the Alameda homeowners who were are the meeting.

The 50 adults does not include under-housed people or people living in cars and/or couch surfing.  Just across a bridge or through the Webster tube, just one Oakland encampment has more than 50 residents. At the Downtown Neighborhood District meeting in August a suggestion was to coordinate services and policies throughout the regions, Northern CA, San Francisco Bay Area so that policies, if not services in one municipality, match those in another. As the local and national housing stock shrinks further, because housing stock is economically inaccessible to a significant majority—single parents, veterans, mentally ill, disabled, the formerly incarcerated or convicted, people will move from city to city to find places where their needs are met.

On November 1, the City of Alameda will apply for a StopWaste state grant for funding to clean up hazardous materials from abandoned encampments.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

September Breakfast

If survival is a game only the living can speak on, then the fact that Lance is still here after being released from the county jail with nothing except his wits, speaks to a certain survival creativity certain ones among us readily tap into.  The formerly incarcerated man says he spent 17 years in multiple California prisons.  Still on parole, a recent violation set him back when he lost everything after a car accident more than 50 miles from Oakland. He had no one he could call to pick up his belongings so his possessions were seized. Several months later when he was released, he made his way to West Oakland where he met relatives he didn’t know he had.  They didn’t let him crash in their garages, but Lance's cousins did introduce him to one of the men at this encampment on Wood where he has been living in for the past seven months.

A published artist, Lance is also entrepreneurial. His home has multiple rooms, electricity and a flat screen TV and solar electricity. His belongings are neatly arranged and he clearly takes pride in his abode. He is also an accomplished illustrator. He showed me several drawings of famous people like President Obama and rap artist Tupac. Other art has imaginative themes often romantic. His work is listed online for purchase.

If the side of the road, an open field separated by a fence were not just outside his doorway, we would never guess where his house sits.  Certainly a feeling of being at home is a vibe felt at this address as well as in the neighboring tiny homes or campers.  If Lance and the others had plumbing and toilet facilities, this situation would be a lot easier to bear than what they experience now.

In the past few months, the strip has been targeted for arsonists. Campers have been set on fire and other arsonists have set fire to tiny houses. Luckily no one was injured before the fire department was able to extinguish the blaze. The strip is a high speed thoroughfare where people have had their bikes crushed by careless drivers.

One young woman, Nicole (34) told me how she was hit by a car in July and dragged several feet before the driver disengaged and kept on going. She was helped by another driver who called the ambulance. Luckily, once again, the injuries were not life threatening. The police told her to get an attorney and sue, since the entire incidence was caught by one of the many cameras in the area, but she cannot get the footage without an attorney.

As we stayed after the meal and spoke with the residents, I learned that Lance is the nephew of a good friend of mine, Fritz Pointer. Fritz hired me at Contra Costa College in 1998. He grew up in West Oakland with his famous Pointer Sisters. I also met the brother of Sechaba Mokeoena, a good friend of mine from South Africa who was lead singer of Zulu Spear. Sechaba died a number of years ago at Reggae on the River. We sent his body back to South Africa for burial.  It was fun to reminiscence about our good brother Sechaba, who was a warrior for peace and worked to unify Africans, especially those abroad, like himself an expatriot.

The Auset Movement normally start at 35th and Peralta, but the population has changed and we do not know anyone there now. Robert, our friend and ally was kicked out (I heard). First his tent was destroyed. I hope he is well and housed as I write this.  We have not given up on 35th, in fact, we’d gone by to speak to the residents and police were present harassing three people—two men and a woman. The police looked to be conducting a random sobriety check. Since when is a sobriety check necessary or permitted when there is no vehicle nor danger present?

We watched the check from inside the car for about 15 minutes before leaving. The officers seemed disappointed the detainees were able to perform the tasks required, so they had them repeat the tasks over and over again. We could not see the officers’ badge numbers. If the police had been harassing any of the people we’d come to know and love, we would have gotten out of the car and intervened.

The Auset Movement crew was tiny Sunday, Sept. 25.  It was just, Kwalin, Jovelyn and me,  so when Desley called and asked where we were and showed up with her sister to help we really needed the extra support. They served and then we walked the length of the encampment and served breakfast to men and women on both sides of the road. We invited people to the table where we had fresh fruit, hot coffee and orange juice. We also had toilet tissue, canned goods, and lots of clothing—pants, shirts, shoes and a few sweaters. It all went. We also had sanitary napkins, pillows and a few blankets. I gave away the last blanket and pillows up the road where another encampment is. We know the people there. Unfortunately, we’d run out of food, so all I could offer one of the residents who was awake and dressed, was canned soup. Ms. D was having her hair combed by her niece.

Nicole also complained about the surveillance cameras pointed towards the residents. Desley told her they were legal.

There were quite a few men along this strip. Strong black men and women who are articulate about their situation. As were were wrapping up, clearing the table and putting away the plates, cutlery, water and left over toilet tissue, two women started to argue. We didn’t know what the problem was, but obviously the angry woman felt her turf was being violated by this other woman’s presence. Desley’s sister stepped between the two women and then Kwalin stepped between them too, as the verbal altercation escalated, coffee went flying and the women were about to exchange blows. Someone said, “she has a gun in her bag.” What the trespasser had was a really long handled hammer which I found inside a bag she dropped as she ran to avoid being hit.

Residents, including the man the women were fighting over, intervened and the woman scorned left. Afterward, several of the men apologized for the disturbance and chided the woman who could not hold her temper. I saw her trying to stay cool, but the former wife, kept pushing her. Clearly there are unresolved issues between the former wife and the ex-husband, but she picked the wrong morning to drop by.  The new wife said she'd moved from another encampment to be with this man. As in all domestic disputes, I kept my opinion to myself. I suggested we talk about something more pleasant as the new wife seemed to be getting angry just thinking about the fight we just helped her avoid.