The Growing Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Oakland

After Robert’s wife died two years ago, he lost his will to survive. Since then he has lived on the streets. He says what is most disheartening is the stigma attached to homelessness. He said he is looked upon as if he isn’t human.

by Wanda Sabir

Kheven LaGrone, R.J. Reed and I attended the Oakland City Council meeting where the Shelter Crisis Ordinance was addressed and passed on Tuesday, January 5. Before we spoke, City Councilperson Desley Brooks described going out over the holidays to various encampments and seeing first hand the squalor, cold and other challenges these internally displaced citizens face daily (especially when illegal dumping is added to an already difficult situation).

Ms. Brooks suggested using the Garden Center as a shelter and said she wanted this to be ready in minimally 15 days. She also recommended that the city look into the Tiny House Movement as alternative shelter options.

Her recommendation for the Garden Center was met with a legal stalemate, rather than support. Just an hour earlier, Public Works spent a lot of time telling us about the storms approaching Oakland, and what measures Oaklanders should take in case of flooding. They were speaking about major flooding, evacuation plans and shelters.

Their talk addressed those who lived in houses, not those people who live in tents. With the coming storms in mind, why then the delay in addressing the needs of people on the street, under freeways and bridges? At the encampment we visit frequently, the sidewalk is uneven and when it rains, the tents fill with water.

On Monday, Kheven and I saw people with tents on unpaved roads where the rain combined with loose dirt will make their encampment a muddy mess. This encampment was around the corner from a Doggy Daycare Center. I did not know there was such a thing.

Closer to downtown Oakland, there is a Dog Hotel and a Cat Cafe, (the first in the U.S.). The dog hotel is less than a five-minute drive from another encampment on San Pablo and West Grand Avenue. We saw a policeman writing a ticket. I don’t know if he was noting the illegal dumping mess that needed to be cleaned up or about to harass one of the occupants.

At the council meeting, there were speakers who were concerned whether or not the evacuation plans (in the case of flooding) included pet welfare. Hurricane Katrina photos were shown. What was not shown were the hundreds of human beings left stranded on these same roofs. All life is valuable; however, the owner has to secure his or her oxygen mask first, right?

The twist is not that we are becoming more compassionate or forgiving — characteristics of the pets we love. The opposite is true. The new Oaklanders are self-centered in prioritizing their pets over the life of a person, especially a person in need. Similarly, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, when Napoleon and the other pigs begin to emulate the humans, the humanistic values which set the animals apart from the farmers (intent on exploitation of the labor class) evaporate.

When it was my time to speak on the crisis of homelessness, this is what I shared with the Oakland City Council.

Hi, my name is Wanda Sabir, and I have been homeless in Oakland. I was teaching at Laney College and my younger daughter was in her first semester in college. This was over ten years ago, but there are many Oaklanders like me, who were displaced through policies or politics.

I have friends who couch surf and have week-to-week contracts for rooms. One friend, a nurse, was injured at Kaiser and could no longer work. Too young for SSI, she was under-housed for years until she reached 65. I met a woman at a Kwanzaa Ceremony last Friday, who at 65 lost her home in Oakland. She had three children she was responsible for. She lived in her car for nine years. She is almost 80 now.

On Christmas, some friends and I prepared breakfast for an encampment of internally displaced persons. One of our group, Minister in Training Tracy Brown, put together a list of services in Oakland. My friend Alicia and her 18-year-old son set up the clothes give-away and Kheven passed out fliers about today’s meeting. Another friend played live music on his tenor sax. R.J. Reed introduced me to the men; we return weekly to check in, including yesterday, to remind the men to come to the Council meeting today. I hope they are here. In talking to the two leaders, Mr. Robert and Mr. Lee, I asked what they would like to see regarding housing. Would they like to be moved into shelter as a community?

A man sleeps in the doorway of an Oakland church, in a photograph taken by Pedro Del Norte as part of St. Mary Center’s “On Our Way Home,” a project that documents homelessness in Oakland.

A man sleeps in the doorway of an Oakland church, in a photograph taken by Pedro Del Norte as part of St. Mary Center’s “On Our Way Home,” a project that documents homelessness in Oakland.

 

There is a quiet strength within these public spaces. I met a young man, Kenneth, who was kicked out of his home at 12 and has been on the streets for 12 years. When I went back on December 31, he was gone. His employer had picked up his belongings. We call ourselves The Auset Movement: Loving Humanity into Wholeness. If you know the story of Auset or Isis, then you understand the metaphor.

Robert told me that when his wife died, he lost his will to survive. This was two years ago. Since then he has made it on these streets. He says what is most disheartening is the stigma attached to homelessness or being internally displaced. He said he is looked upon as if he isn’t human.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to shelter, safety, dignity, gainful employment, healthcare, education. In California there is a law governing citizens’ rights to shelter as well.

The City Council is to be commended for taking such a necessary first step. We would like to see a series of Town Hall meetings in the areas affected most by displacement, especially West Oakland and East Oakland. There are models for shelter plus care. One model I read about recently in the Atlantic Monthly, used in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, is called “Breaking Ground.”

I started down this road back when no one wanted to live in West Oakland. I served on commissions like Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, back when David Glover, OCCUR founder, was alive. The Private Industry Council was formed then too. Aleta Canon was council person for District 3 and Bernard Ashcroft was her chief aide. I remember when Frank Ogawa was alive and Oakland did not have anything like these encampments.

Now, black men are becoming extinct right before our eyes. Displaced and unwanted, it was okay for them to live on the peripheries, but now there are no more edges to occupy and the blight is personal… Black bodies are taking up too much public space, so where do we put them seems to be the question.

Let’s have a public conversation with these men and women who live on the edges of town, unwanted and unwelcome. This should be top priority. There are plans and structures still operating like the transitional housing shelter on 16th Street near Telegraph Avenue, because these facilities were developed with the affected communities’ input.

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