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.

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