by Kheven Lagrone
I remember when I came to the realization that Oakland’s gentrification meant displacing its African Americans. I was the new project engineer on construction of the Port of Oakland’s Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
I was the only African American on the team. The Port had proudly announced that it was working with the neighboring West Oakland African-American community in the creation of the park. However, I never saw anyone from West Oakland at the meetings.
At one meeting, an artist presented conceptual drawings of the park. The drawings excited the team. In the artist’s conception, the park was beautiful and full of white people. Everyone was proud of the park – except me.
“Can African Americans come to the park?” I asked. The artist nervously re-did the drawing and painted a couple of the people brown. “It’s nice that Latinos and dark East Indians can use the park, but can African-Americans with nappy hair like mine use it?” I asked.
That moment angered me. In the community in West Oakland, our neighbors and partners were proudly African-American. How could everyone not notice the omission of African Americans?
As we completed the park, the team wanted to show it off. They wanted to make it a “regional park.” They talked excitedly about advertising the park to Danville, Blackhawk and other white suburbs. Even though the Port is a department of the City of Oakland, the team said nothing about advertising to West Oakland or other African-American communities.
I learned that successful gentrification meant showing off the project to their white peers outside Oakland. To them, we African Americans were invisible and unworthy of a nice, new park.
Homeless people were expressly not welcomed at the park. For example, a team member suggested at an outside meeting that we use concrete benches “so homeless people won’t sleep at the park.”
As the biting cold wind coming off the water hit my face, I thought about the homeless people in Oakland that I saw every day. Most of them were African-American. I knew many of their names and stories.
“If someone is so bad off that he has to sleep out here,” I said angrily, “then we should not make things worse for him.”
Nameless and faceless
Yet my co-worker did not ask why the person had to sleep on a park bench in the freezing cold. Instead, he had dehumanized the homeless person like vermin. By rendering the homeless person nameless and faceless, my co-worker felt he had an excuse to unwelcome and even remove the homeless person without guilt. He could still brag about the beautiful park.
Years later, Oakland officials would use the decline in the city’s African-American population to market Oakland to outsiders. Oakland had been stigmatized as a “Black city,” so they promoted its “changing demographics” and “new diversity.”
Condo developers and restaurants never used African Americans in their advertisements.
Resembling refugee camps
The illegal encampments resemble Third World refugee camps. People sleep among trash in tents and on sleeping bags on the cold dirt or concrete sidewalk. Other people dump their trash in the encampments. There are rodents. The camps are often under noisy, dusty freeways. Police chase them away.
In this “new” Oakland, the people in the encampments are dehumanized, while pets are humanized and treated like spoiled children. Near one encampment, there is a doggy play and daycare and spa. It offers super suite boarding, pedicure and manicure, and “overnight cuddle time.”
Near another encampment is a pet “country club” with “doggy daycare, pet hotel and spa.” The brochure states that dogs can play in an “engaging environment” all day. When the dogs want to sleep, they can sleep in the hotel and “reminisce about their friends.” Cats can enjoy a “private immaculate condo.”
Do the pet owners ignore the encampments when they drop off their animals?
Shelter crisis ordinance
Right before Christmas 2015, I learned that the Oakland City Council would be addressing the issue of the African Americans displaced by gentrification. They planned to vote on an ordinance declaring a shelter crisis in Oakland. The meeting would be on Jan. 5, 2016.
I read the meeting report and the proposed ordinance. I had written such reports for the Port and City and understood them. A crisis requires immediate and effective action. The declaration didn’t seem to have any meaningful direction from the City. The ordinance seemed to be “just talk.”
At the same time, Wanda Sabir emailed me that she and her family had been buying blankets, food etc. and giving them to people in the encampments. She and her friend R.J. Reed planned to go back for Christmas.
I told Wanda about the proposed shelter crisis ordinance. People from the shelters and homeless community needed to attend the City Council meeting and try to make the declaration and ordinance meaningful.
I visited several shelters. The managers had not heard about the proposed ordinance. I also visited some encampments with Wanda and found out the people there had not heard about the ordinance either. But would the ordinance address the issue of the homeless community?
One of the people told Wanda that their biggest problem is being dehumanized and vilified. How would simply declaring a “shelter crisis” humanize them? How was the City Council making any decisions about this community without contacting them directly? Was the declaration “just talk”?
We wanted the homeless camp residents to come and be seen and heard at the council meeting. I prepared flyers to inform the community about the meeting. I emailed them to the media and the shelters.
I also went with Wanda to distribute them to some encampments, and took flyers to a few shelters. I was surprised to see several men I knew personally years ago who were now living in the shelters and encampments. I also emailed members of the City Council and the City Administrator. Only Councilmember Desley Brooks replied to my email.
The vote was one of the first items of the meeting. Councilmember Brooks, the only member to say she had visited an encampment, pushed for the council to take concrete actions. That seemed obvious for addressing a “crisis.”
However, she faced a bureaucratic roadblock, especially from the City Attorney. Councilmember Kaplan reminded us that homeless people form social connections and relocating the homeless should not break up those connections. Councilmember Gullien also mentioned working with Laney College to build tiny houses.
Then it was time for the public to speak on this issue. R.J. Reed had been going to the encampments with Wanda and had made friends there. He angrily told the City Council to “stop the foolishness” and do something.
Wanda told her own story of being homeless and she told the personal stories of people she had met in the encampments. Councilmember McElhaney was visibly moved.
Another woman reminded the City Council that many of the homeless were veterans. Unfortunately, no homeless persons spoke for themselves at that meeting.
One good thing came out of the meeting. The meeting room was packed with people who had come for several other city issues. As they waited for the City Council to address their issues, they heard the personal statements.
Thus, the issue of homelessness was more personal and reached beyond the homeless community. At times, the whole room applauded Councilmember Brooks’ support of the homeless community – showing that they supported the community as well.
Finally, Brooks made a motion to direct the City Administrator to open the Garden Center at Lake Merritt or another City-owned property as a temporary homeless shelter within 15 days. The City Council agreed to that, plus the City Administrator was to provide a report on a tiny house community for the next council meeting on Jan. 19, 2016. The homeless shelter issue would also become a regular item for following council meetings.
A death at the encampment
When Wanda and I went to an encampment a few days after the meeting, we heard about some changes that had taken place. Her friends living in the encampment told us that the City clean-up crew had been there.
This time, they asked the homeless people to gather their possessions before they cleaned the rest of the area. That way, the clean-up crew would not throw away their possessions. In the past, the city workers simply cleared everything away – including the last of their personal possessions.
Sadly, we also found out that Waleena Mitchell, a resident of the encampment, had died. Her husband, Lionel, was grieving and would not come out of his tent to talk to Wanda.
Second Council hearing
The Oakland City Council met again on Jan. 19, 2016. This time, the shelter crisis was one of the last items to be discussed. This meant most of the people in the meeting would leave before hearing about the shelter crisis.
We sat through an item where a woman who lived in the Oakland hills complained because AT&T was placing a tower near her home. She was distressed that the ugliness of the tower would lower her property value and worried that the tower would disturb her peace and quiet. She brought a lawyer.
The woman and the City Council questioned whether or not the trees in the area were cedar or oak and whether or not the City had trimmed them, and if so, when.
The real shelter crisis in Oakland
But hers was not a “shelter crisis.” A week before the meeting, a rainstorm belted Oakland. The winds blew away the tents and tiny houses of people living in a homeless encampment. People were exposed to cold rain, standing water and mud. That was a “shelter crisis.”
Hours later, the City Council finally got to the real shelter crisis. Like at the last meeting, homelessness seemed to be an abstract issue to debate.
The City Council had been given another report (which mentioned another report almost a year earlier). It listed options for addressing the shelter crisis. The biggest issue for the City was money.
Neither the Garden Center nor any other City property would be opened as a temporary shelter. However, a few more beds would be provided at an existing shelter – though Brooks pointed out that this was not a significant number of beds for this crisis.
Councilmember Kaplan pointed out that the money spent to remove homeless people from the encampments could be better spent. She suggested that the city identify legally allowable encampments. Gullien was meeting with Laney College to discuss tiny houses, but they needed land.
Displaced people and relocated shelters
In the past, shelters had been centrally and conveniently located downtown. Since Oakland supported the gentrification that displaced people, Oakland owes it to them to help them stay.
It’s not fair to relocate shelters just because a neighborhood gentrifies. They should be part of the diversity and new community. They are Oakland. If newcomers have a problem living near a shelter, they shouldn’t move near it.
Despite Councilmember Brooks’ pushing for a bigger commitment, the City Council only voted to spend $180,000 for immediate winter relief efforts. This included adding 50 beds to the existing winter shelter program.
According to the City report, Oakland has over 2,000 homeless people, although many advocates and service providers say the number is considerably higher. So this decision may not significantly impact the homeless community and is not a major commitment to addressing Oakland’s shelter crisis. However, the City Council did vote to continue working on the crisis.
At that point, the City Council assumed the discussion was settled for the night and started to move on without public input. People in the room protested. They had come to speak on the issue. “We didn’t wait all this time for nothing,” the homeless man behind me yelled.
Twenty-four people surprised the City Council by signing up to speak on the shelter crisis. R.J. Reed delivered the news of the death in the encampment since the last meeting. Wanda told the council that if she can use her own money to buy food and supplies for the encampments, surely the City could spend money.
Rachel, who works for a homeless agency, told the council that her clients often died on the streets. She could barely speak through her tears. She went to sit in a dark corner by herself to cry.
The rest of the speakers were homeless people who told their own stories. Many of them came from nearby Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center.
In contrast to the white woman who lived in the Oakland hills and worried about the trees, all the homeless speakers were African-American. One was a 67-year-old woman on SSI. Another woman said she had been sexually assaulted and saw fights in the shelters. Another identified herself as an educated single mother “who matters.”
The meeting turned personal and emotional. They silenced the City Council. McElhaney listened teary-eyed. People put faces, names and stories on their homelessness. Would the Council have voted differently if they had heard these stories before they voted? Also, if this item had been discussed earlier in the meeting, more Oakland residents would have been moved by the stories.
On Jan. 19, the homeless community made itself seen and heard at the Oakland City Council meeting. They put human faces on homelessness. They placed themselves in the “New Oakland.” They included themselves in Oakland’s “new diversity.” Hopefully, they’ll do more. Hopefully, it’s not too late.
A homeless African-American man, born and raised in Oakland, told the council that “Oakland puts more emphasis on gentrification than the people who live here. They’re trying to give Oakland some new identity.”
He is right. Removing people like him is part of the gentrification process. However, by exercising his right to vote and to speak out, he can bring the City Council’s emphasis back to him.
Kheven LaGrone, writer, artist and curator of “Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators” and many other acclaimed exhibits, can be reached at email@example.com.