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What businesses should know about being homeless

May 26, 2018

by Kheven Lee LaGrone

In his essay titled “What You Should Know Before Becoming Homeless” (Street Spirit, April 2018), formerly homeless writer Andy Pope recounted being constantly humiliated and dehumanized because he was homeless. People assumed they were superior just because they were not homeless. They felt entitled to vilify and criminalize him.

Why not talk with homeless people, rather than cruelly sweeping them from one place to another as if they were trash. This encampment, known as The Village, set up in a little used park at 36th and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Oakland, was cleared out in February last year for no reason except complaints from a few nearby residents and businesses. With the help of supporters, it offered small rainproof shelters made out of wooden pallets plus a makeshift shower, portable toilet, kitchen, medical supplies and a garden, and young supporters patrolled the perimeter at night. No drugs, alcohol or violence was tolerated. Yet the complaints of neighbors, comfortable in their homes and businesses, prevailed over the basic human needs of mostly longtime Oaklanders displaced by gentrification. – Photo: Kimberly Veklerov, SF Chronicle

He wrote: “(T)he worst thing about being homeless has nothing to do with hygiene, sleeplessness, malnutrition, weather conditions, difficulty focusing on anything other than day-to-day survival, or any of the other things that make homelessness miserable for most people.”

According to Pope, the worst thing about being homeless is the way he was mistreated.

Public records obtained from the City of Oakland show that some businesses demanded that the City mistreat the homeless. The businesses complained as if the homeless people were not citizens who also had the right to be protected and served by the City of Oakland.

The businesses portrayed the homeless as problems, not human beings. They used the power of the Internet to make their complaints; the homeless could not fight back because few have access to the Internet.

For example, on Nov. 30, 2017, the manager of the Oakland Marinas emailed the City about an encampment at the Union Point Park on the Oakland Estuary. He described it as a dangerous condition.

He asked “Why can a few individuals, who are breaking the law, be allowed to effectively remove this public resource from use by the community at large?” On March 13, 2018, he blamed the homeless encampment on the lack of law enforcement. Thus, his emails criminalized everyone in the encampment just for being homeless.

Throughout his emails, the manager stated that he wanted the encampment closed because it negatively impacted his business. Criminalizing the people in the encampment was a tool to demand the city evict the people in the encampment.

Public records obtained from the City of Oakland show that some businesses demanded that the City mistreat the homeless. The businesses complained as if the homeless people were not citizens who also had the right to be protected and served by the City of Oakland.

In a Feb. 15, 2018, email to the city, Every Dog Has Its Day Care, in effect dehumanized the people living in a nearby encampment. The email clearly placed pampered dogs before struggling homeless people.

Every Dog’s customers spend money on luxuries like daycare for dogs, dog hotel, dog spa and puppy nursery. Dogs have playtimes and naps. It even has a grooming salon with a large selection of shampoos and conditioners.

The business wrote to the City of Oakland: “I’ve recently learned from my front desk staff that clients are regularly asking whether their dogs are safe. They are starting to question the safety of our facility due to the situation outside. If they don’t believe their dogs are safe, they won’t patronize my business and I can’t say that I blame them.”

Every Dog is particularly concerned about one man in the encampment “because his behavior is threatening and scary and puts our clients and staff in a potentially dangerous situation.” But the city should be more concerned about the people living in the encampment. Unlike Every Dog’s clients, staff – and even their dogs – people in the encampment have no escape from that man.

The email was almost comical: The same clientele paying for a dog hotel and spa were complaining about homeless people living on the street.

In a Feb. 15, 2018, email to the city, Every Dog Has Its Day Care, in effect dehumanized the people living in a nearby encampment. The email clearly placed pampered dogs before struggling homeless people.

An email sent on Alcatraz Shade letterhead on Dec. 22, 2017, was especially abusive. The manager demanded that the city “do something about the homeless problem”:

“It would be nice if you would do something about the homeless problem in the beautiful city of Oakland that I moved to in 2004 … Yesterday while waiting for a light at 51st and Shattuck I had an incident with one of your homeless members.

“I don’t appreciate other citizens enabling the homeless by giving them money and food. The man had a box of cookies that he opened while I was waiting and put some in his mouth and chewed them and then proceeded to spit them all over my windshield and driver side door. I felt completely threated and angry by this utter lack of respect.”

Most of the people in the encampment that I’ve spoken to were born and raised in Oakland. That means they were in Oakland before this manager moved to Oakland. They were displaced by gentrification.

Yet, her email suggested that she felt that she was superior and more valued by Oakland than the city’s natives. Her statement that feeding the homeless “enabled” them implied that the homeless could do better if they wanted. Thus, she blamed the homeless person for being homeless.

Thankfully, more and more Oakland citizens are showing compassion and feeding homeless people.

Most of the people in the encampment that I’ve spoken to were born and raised in Oakland. That means they were in Oakland before this manager moved to Oakland. They were displaced by gentrification.

The manager mentioned only one man spitting on her car; yet, she attacked all of Oakland’s homeless. The manager did not mention what led to the man’s spitting on her car.

In his essay, “What You Should Know Before Becoming Homeless,” Andy Pope wrote that the mistreatment of homeless people often made them angry. Based on the email from the manager, one had to wonder if she had angered the man.

The manager felt threatened and angry by his lack of respect. Ironically, she experienced the same anger and disrespect that the homeless do.

These businesses asked the city to “do something” about the encampments. Perhaps it’s up to the businesses to work out something with the homeless.

The solution to the conflict between the business and the homeless is not simply to evict the people. They will not find a solution to the conflict without talking directly to the homeless people.

At these discussions, the homeless must be respected and treated equally. They must be treated like citizens with their own needs, not as problems. Businesses could benefit from such discussions.

Kheven LaGrone, activist, writer, artist and curator, can be reached at kheven@aol.com.

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