Reflections on Homelessness in Oakland

Martin Luther King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” If people know their history, King’s Poor People’s March, completed after his death, has not resulted in a society where all citizens matter, especially black men, the majority of men seen on Oakland streets.

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 bags 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 and 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, and you don’t have enough money for a storage space, or the storage space was inadequate and your belongings were ruined by 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 also 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 we 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 Boulevard in January 1979.

Just after my older daughter was born at Alta Bates Hospital, 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 pillows 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 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 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. Every year, or more often 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 move until — guess what? I was evicted, but not for nonpayment 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 had.

I was in government-subsidized housing. I knew the drill: more money meant rental increases, but no one would take my case or help me, from ACORN to Berkeley Community Law to City Councilperson 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 that 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, and took the bus to work. (My car had stopped running). We didn’t have any furniture. Well, my daughter had a bed. She bought me a bed for my birthday present, 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 because 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, and turned in the keys so I had nowhere to return. 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.

 

A mule-drawn wagon bears the casket of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his funeral procession in Atlanta, on April 9, 1968, five days after his assassination in Memphis.

A mule-drawn wagon bears the casket of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his funeral procession in Atlanta, on April 9, 1968, five days after his assassination in Memphis.

 

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 are 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 of the car to talk to the people this year on 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. I like to go by once a week to see how people are. Some 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, and 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.

This year on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, at the Oakland City Council meeting, a Shelter Crisis Ordinance was adopted by the 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 Woods recommended that the Garden Center be ready to go in 15 days. Its 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?

On January 19 at the City Council meeting, after waiting three hours for the housing item to be addressed, the Garden Center idea was put 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 2016.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf awarded McElree the award just two days prior, January 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 Luther 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.

As the discussion about the Shelter Crisis Ordinance continued on January 19, City Council members checked the speakers list, and with 24 signed up to speak, our time was reduced to 1 minute each. I was so angry I could barely speak. Such disrespect! Their conversation and banter did not indicate any urgency, despite the label “housing crisis.”

Dr. King stated, “The time is always right to do right.” King declared, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” He said that sometimes what is legal is not just. Everything Hitler did was within the law. Closer at 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. Desley Brooks proposed immediate response to the homeless crisis on January 4 and her proposal was sent to committee. On January 19, she again asked for an immediate action, and voted for $500,000 to address the Housing Crisis, rather than the $180,000 (or so) proposed. And once again she was silenced.

“On some positions,” King reminded us, “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 È_ú-Elégbá and how this deity was thrown on the trash heap and there became the friend of the hobo or homeless person. È_ú-Elégbá is the keeper of ashay, or the life force. When Obátálá took clay to make the human being, it was È_ú-Elégbá made the form animate.

His totem is the rat, the scavenger who knows how to survive in the harshest 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.

Berkeley shelter closes

The closure of the largest homeless shelter in Berkeley leaves many with nowhere to go

Writing for the Street Spirit: My 17 Year Journey

Writing for Street Spirit has awakened in me a sense of responsibility toward others. Street Spirit is a way for people silenced by big money and big media to have a voice.

Animal Friends: A Saving Grace for Homeless People

“I wrapped her in my jacket and promised I’d never let anybody hurt her again. And that’s my promise to her for the rest of her life. In my mind she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I saved her.”

A Testament to Street Spirit’s Justice Journalism

The game was rigged against the poor, but I will always relish the fact that Street Spirit took on the Oakland mayor and city council for their perverse assault on homeless recyclers. For me, that was hallowed ground. I will never regret the fact that we did not surrender that ground.

Tragic Death of Oakland Tenant Mary Jesus

Being evicted felt like the end of her life. As a disabled woman, she saw nothing ahead but a destitute life on the streets. She told a friend, “If I’m evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go.”

They Left Him to Die Like a Tramp on the Street

Life is sacred. It is not just an economic statistic when someone suffers and dies on the streets of our nation. It is some mother’s son, or daughter. It is a human being made in the image of God. It is a desecration of the sacred when that life is torn down.