Making a Home in an Oakland Encampment

It takes creativity to survive on the street and create a home near the freeway. Lance's belongings are neatly arranged and he clearly takes pride in his abode. A feeling of being at home is a vibe felt at this address, as well as in the neighboring tiny homes or campers.

by Wanda Sabir

If survival is a game only the living can speak of, 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 that is readily tapped into by certain ones among us. 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. Lance had no one he could call to pick up his belongings, so his possessions were seized.

Several months later, when he was released from jail, 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 in Oakland on Wood Street where he has been living 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 people like President Obama and rap artist Tupac. Other art has imaginative themes, often romantic. (His art is listed online for purchase at http://yooying.com/lbjett63)

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 by 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, age 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 we brought to the encampment in late September, and spoke with the residents, I learned that Lance is the nephew of a good friend of mine. I also met Oscar “Jamaica” Young, musician and brother of Sechaba Mokeoena, another friend from South Africa who was lead singer of Zulu Spear. I had met Sechaba during the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the Bay Area when I sang with Vukani Mawethu.

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 expatriate.

The Auset Movement normally starts by visiting encampments at 35th and Peralta in Oakland, but the population has changed and we do not know anyone there now. Rumor has it that Robert, our friend and ally, was kicked out. First his tent was destroyed. I hope he is well and housed as I write this.

We have not given up on the encampment at 35th. In fact, Kheven LaGrone and I went by earlier that same week to speak to the residents and found that police were there, 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 or danger present?

We watched the police harassment 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 that assembled on Sunday, September 25, was tiny, with only Kwalin, Jovelyn and myself present; so when Desley called and asked where we were and showed up with her sister to help, we really needed the extra support. The volunteers prepared the plates and then we walked the length of the encampment and served breakfast to men and women on both sides of the road.

As people got dressed and came out of their homes, we invited them 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 at another encampment. 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.

Multiple surveillance cameras are pointed towards the residents on Wood Street, with more added periodically, Nicole said. She asked if they were legal and Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks (an attorney) told her they were.

It was great to see so many strong, articulate and intelligent black men and women. They spoke about their reasons for being homeless, which varied from being evicted to caring for a mentally ill family. Lee is a veteran, while Lance is trying to find his footing after being locked away for so long. He spoke of doing his 17 years alone, without family or support.

As we were wrapping up, clearing the table and putting away the plates, cutlery, water and leftover 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 actually 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 had just helped her avoid.

At the end of the week, Kheven took bleach, gloves and garbage bags by for the encampment. Lee cooks a meal for everyone each day. Lance told Kheven that someone from the City told him the encampment was going to be removed. Kheven told Lance to get the person’s business card so we can check for him.

Homeless people have learned creative ways to create a sense of home in an Oakland encampment against a chain link fence near the freeway. Kwalin Kimaathi photo

Homeless people have learned creative ways to create a sense of home in an Oakland encampment against a chain link fence near the freeway. Kwalin Kimaathi photo

 

On-ramp

by Carolyn Norr

First, they steal you

Rip you up,

put chains around your body.

Say they own you.

Tear you from your mother,

tear your children from you.

Beat them. Rape you.

 

Then, they take everything

they can of what’s yours,

what you make, what you grow.

The land you make give

soft balls of cotton, creamy

potatoes, the straggly corn

you watered with buckets

everyday: they take it.

They crunch it in their white teeth.

They reach into the jar

with the precious coins you’ve saved

and leave it empty.

On their way out, they kick over

your drum.

 

Next, they pave the land,

an even concrete gray.

For efficiency. It’s smoothed over

and merciless. Except this corner

of stinking ivy and dusty

Coyote bush.

 

After many years, you find this corner.

Quiet, dark, as the metal cars tear past

on the concrete. You find an old

mattress, a creaking cart, and wheel it

to the corner. Nestle it in the ivy.

Lay down. Try to dream.

 

Then one day, they arrive

with yellow bulldozers. With orange

trucks with wooden side rails.

With black and white SUVS

with red and blue lights on top.

They take your mattress. They

take your cart. They take your

clothes, the food you’ve collected,

your shaving supplies. They put it

all in their orange trash truck with

wooden side rails. They duck

their heads to be heard better

by their walkie talkies. They tell you

to just go ahead and sit right there

on the side of the on-ramp, metal

cars whizzing past.

 

And that’s it. That’s the end of the poem

because you are sitting there right now,

head in your hands, beside the red

and blue flashing lights, the stinking ivy,

the freeway on-ramp, you are holding

your head in your hands.

 

Something

has

to happen.

Something

had better happen.

This poem can’t end

like this.

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On the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister took a stand against inhumanity. Her solidarity was inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

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Builders, please go away. Allow the beauty of an Invisible Natural Cathedral to remain, a living shrine of open space that gives refuge to all people.

Street Spirit Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin

This atrocity was happening in a very wealthy city. It was happening right under our noses. It was very visible. And there was not the united voice of the faith community speaking out. That was the spark of Religious Witness. From that moment, I knew what I had to do.

Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

‘Such Is the Magic and Spirit of People’s Park’

The mayor has no understanding of the awful defeat the loss of People’s Park would be. No comprehension of the cost in lives and the sacrifices people have made for the Park’s ideals. So many still find it a refuge in a country needing a political and spiritual overhaul.

I Remember Who I Am

“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

By and by, I calm down. I meditate. I pray. It is a beautiful day. The sun is setting. I weave my way toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.