Dozens of Oakland police officers and public-works employees ousted an elaborate, unpermitted settlement of small structures, tents, and hygienic facilities in North Oakland’s Grove Shafter Park last week as scores of supporters looked on in sadness and anger.
Most residents of “The Village,” which first appeared weeks ago, were allowed to collect goods and furniture before city workers destroyed four small, insulated buildings. Activists say they erected them to meet the immediate needs of Oakland’s homeless community. Organizers also say the encampment, also known as “Promised Land,” sheltered sixteen people.
The Village featured four main structures, plus a shower, a portable latrine, wooden platforms for tents, 24-hour volunteer security, and policies prohibiting drug use and alcohol. Volunteers laid mulch over patches of muddy grass in the park, and even painted murals on the columns supporting the roaring freeway above. They also revived the swatch of grass’ old name: Marcus Garvey Park. The community provided resources for those in need, including free clothing and food, since it was established on January 21.
To some residents, the Village was a glimpse of relative stability. “We had hot meals, bathrooms, love, respect — that’s why we called it the Promised Land,” said Rory Keller, who arrived after being evicted from a West Oakland warehouse in December.
Angela McCleary, who moved to the camp from a nearby freeway underpass, said city employees prevented her from collecting her belongings. “All I have is left is on my back,” she told the Express.
Majid Ahmed was attracted by the Village’s policies prohibiting drug use. The resources and security, he said, helped him reach ten days of sobriety, his longest stretch since he began using at the age of 12. “So, this breaks my heart.”
One afternoon before the eviction, dogs ran off-leash at the park, and neighbors skated on the basketball court, much like they did before the encampment appeared. An organizer who asked to be identified as Drea said that “housed and unhoused folks” coordinated the community, including activists associated with Feed the People and Asians for Black Lives.
“We’re seeing homelessness being increasingly criminalized,” Drea said. “And we’re not making demands of the city, because we’re not confident the city can provide what people need.”
At 35th and Magnolia streets in West Oakland, a sanctioned homeless encampment was established in October of last year. Oakland Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney secured $190,000 for the effort and, in partnership with Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, dubbed the pilot program “Compassionate Communities.”
The idea, according to McElhaney’s legislative analyst Alex Marqusee, was to extend to a portion of the homeless population amnesty and dignity. Under the plan, their things will not be thrown away, and sanitary services such as needle disposal are on-site. That way, they can better connect with caseworkers to become “document-ready” and seek housing assistance, Marqusee explained.
The program started with forty people and, so far, twenty-one have moved to transitional or permanent housing, Marqusee said. Another twenty have arrived since it started.
McElhaney’s district contains an estimated 73 percent of Oakland’s homeless population, which was estimated at a conservative 1,400 during a one-night census in 2015.
What happens to the remainder of the Magnolia Street residents in April, when the pilot ends, is unclear, but officials say they’re seeking other sites.
There’s ample precedent: Officials in Seattle have authorized six encampments throughout the city. San Francisco’s “Navigation Centers,” with their limited rules and centralized resources, represent another alternative to the shelter model. And Oakland and Alameda County voters’ passage of Measures KK and A1 in November indicated popular desire to subsidize housing.
Underlying activists’ efforts at The Village, Marqusee reckons, is a similar spirit. “They saw that not enough progress was being made with providing shelter for people on the streets, so they took matters into their own hands,” he said. “Once we have a list of properties where container housing, or tiny housing, or campground-type sites are appropriate and safe, then we should all partner.
“But I think it’s unusual for government to operate that way,” he added. “We’re not nimble.”
When The Village received a 72-hour notice-to-vacate, it prompted residents and supporters to call for a reprieve during public comment at City Council.
“With a budget of zero dollars, we’ve managed to provide dignity and basic needs to sixteen homeless people,” organizer Needa Bee told council members. Many other speakers, mindful that the city is preparing for a new budget cycle, argued that it’d cost more to clear the encampment than it would to tolerate it.
Officials counter that The Village posed public-safety hazards, such as open flames, and that it garnered complaints about restricting park access. Joe DeVries, an assistant to the city administrator, told the Express that the encampment violated at least eighteen laws. It was also a liability, he said, because it constituted a breach of the city’s lease with Caltrans, which owns the land.
DeVries also disputed the number of residents at the encampment, saying that city outreach workers put the number at seven. “If you look at the actual displacement of homeless people, it was not that dramatic,” he said.
Civil-rights attorney EmilyRose Johns was disappointed by the city’s decision to clear out the encampment. “The city had an opportunity to work with this community to abate any public-health hazards here,” she said. “But instead, they caved to xenophobia and declared human beings the public-health hazard.”
Some activists criticized the city for not providing social services Thursday for those displaced from The Village. DeVries said that was “by design,” since homeless outreach workers avoid appearing alongside police in order to not be perceived as an arm of law enforcement.
“The city had no plan to offer these folks sanctuary after this eviction,” said organizer Bee. “So, we’re doing that, too.”