From San Francisco to San Bernardino, unhoused, criminalized communities are dying from ‘sweeps’ and criminalization and resisting with our own solutions.
by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia
“We know Caltrans and DPW have two trucks, one for the stuff they think they can sell, one for the stuff they throw away,” said Rosa C while trying to stuff her child’s baby pictures in a broken plastic bag. While we tried our best to get all of her most important things in that bag, she watched a home she had built out of nothing be destroyed and her beloved RV be hooked up and dragged away. The police cars, tow trucks and Caltrans trucks swarmed like hungry bees nearby in yet another violent “sweep” of unhoused folks in Oakland.
Right next to us, an elder just stood, unmoving, paralyzed by the impossibility of it all, as his only tent and broke-down car he would sleep in were towed. Huge metal jaws, tow trucks, bulldozers and “trash” trucks moving steadfastly in an odd form of robotic violence. As though there was nothing wrong. As though people’s lives weren’t being completely dismantled, destroyed. People whose lives were already dismantled. On this, like so many other days throughout the year, a sweep was unfolding, un-mantling, removing unhoused humans and our humanity.
Our small crew of RoofLESS Radio reporters, all houseless or formerly houseless ourselves, were in West Oakland trying to support folks who were going through the violence of these sweeps. Tomorrow we would be in East Oakland serving food, conducting our street-writing workshops so folks can get their own stories out about homelessness and passing out emergency supplies to folks who just had their small self-made homes demolished. And Monday we would be back in San Francisco, providing tents to folks whose tents were taken by a mayor who believes you can get rid of people by getting rid of their only safe enclosures.
As I stood with Rosa, all my own childhood trauma of homelessness, endless sweeps and tows came flooding back to me like it always does. I watched her little girl’s eyes register the same desperate sorrow and stopped being able to speak. There are only so many times you can watch your life scooped up in a giant machine before you stop caring – you stop caring about your things, your safety and, even worse, you.
A son loses his mama to sweeps
“We, the officers and members of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union and the California Homeless Union Statewide Organizing Council, hold the City of Santa Cruz, its City Council majority and the offices of the City Manager and the Chief of Police fully responsible for the tragic death of Deseire Quintero, founder of the Ross Camp Council who became an officer of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Homeless Union,” the Nov. 13 statement read in part.
A houseless revolutionary poverty skola and community caregiver, Deseire died because a tree fell on her. For folks to understand why this is related to sweeps, you must understand that the Ross Camp, an encampment in Santa Cruz, California, was closed by a “sweep” and so the unhoused community, who, just because the camp closed, didn’t suddenly disappear, moved further into the woods into places that aren’t really safe for people to be. And then there is the tragic story of Sharon Marie Bigley, which I reported on last year, a 33-year-young unhoused woman literally killed by the “front loader” in yet another Kiltrans sweep of an encampment in Modesto.
From Yuba City to Sacramento, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, the violence of criminalizing people for not having a roof and the state’s answer known as “sweeps” are literally killing us houseless people.
Sometimes it’s Department of Public Works (DPW), sometimes its Caltrans (or Kiltrans, as I call them) and sometimes it’s the local police and sheriffs, private security guards or “homeless task forces,” and these moves are often triggered by politricksters and just local anti-poor people hatred of unhoused people and their police calls and calls to the mayor’s office. And always there’s the ongoing anti-poor people corporate media.
All of these moves are based on the three basic lies the US functions on:
- the Savior Industrial Complex – if you can’t be saved, then you should be jailed, killed or removed from sight;
- the Cult of Rehabilitation – everything and everyone has to be fixed (which is a loop back to aforementioned savior complex); and
- the Corporate Cleanliness Model of Starbucks and other modern architecture – an aesthetic of how much isn’t there – clean lines and earth-tones with all the color and chaos and confusion of people and things absent, an “order” which has its vague roots in Nazi-dreamscapes of nothingness and has been implemented in intentional harmful and hurtful architecture.
POOR Magazine has done endless actions on this, like the epic 2018 Sweep the Politricksters action at the homes of Oakland Mayor Libby Shaaf and interim SF Mayor Mark Farrell, in which we literally rented a sweeper and “swept” their houses, and countless WeSearch projects (poor people-led research of our own stories and lives) such as “Invasion of the Tent Snatchers I & II” and “Rally of the Housed for the Unhoused” and the Stolen Land/Hoarded Resources Tour through SF Tech for the Ancestors.
As well, I have written countless stories about the violence of this sweeping of our unhoused bodies – up to four tents stolen from the same person in one week. I have begged people to actually listen to the scholarship of poor people, instead of more politricks. We have shown up at town hall hearings and stood, marched, rallied with fellow poverty skolaz from San Francisco to Berkeley, saying, “No, we will not be swept! No, we will not leave!” And still they come.
Many of POOR Magazine’s trusted comrades at the Coalition on Homelessness, First They Came for the Homeless, Where Will We Go Berkeley, East Oakland Collective, Stolen Belongings, Homeless Union, Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, Poor Peoples Army and many more have fought this fight over and over again and yet the sweeps, the theft of our belongings, and the violence continue. People make the clear connection to the dismantling of our poor people housing, violent and abusive gentrification and neverending displacement. But I clearly want to bring up the connection to what I affectionally call krapitalism.
We are “taught” – drilled into early on – that the way to “make it” is to accumulate excessive amounts of blood-stained dollars and Mama Earth and to be alone, to be independent and to leave all that we are made of and that made us. This might work for a while when you are strong and able to stay on the hamster wheel which endlessly promotes the colonial lie of independence as normalcy. Elder and child ghettos are built and Mama Earth is endlessly destroyed by the buying and selling, pimping and playing, until we hit a snag, a PTSD or just bad luck as reported by many of our RoofLESS Radio reporters and my Mama Dee: “If I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
But through all this sad pain, there is resistance, refusal and liberation
“Caltrans will come as they do weekly and steal all our belongings but this time we are not leaving,” said Mama Bear, one of the many powerful disabled elder unhoused warriors who stay under and right above the 80 freeway overpass in Berkeley, which, just like San Francisco, is considered one of the most “progressive” cities in the world and in fact is just as filled with countless anti-poor people laws and politricksters as a so-called “un-progressive” city.
But in this beautiful resistance movement whose members have dubbed themselves “Where Do We Go Berkeley,” co-led by houseless poverty skola residents of the encampment and housed warriors like Andrea Henson and Barbara Brust from Consider the Homeless and Osha Neuman from East Bay Community Law Center, they refused to leave and launched a focused resistance to Kiltrans itself, which resulted in a meeting being called by the director and a temporary truce of sorts. But what is equally important is the self-determined moves of Where Do We Go Berkeley, like raising money to rent their own porta potties and a beautiful school, raising money so they could haul their own trash.
“We refuse to be terrorized by this violence anymore,” says Andrea Henson.
Meanwhile, last week a group of unhoused mamas took over a real esnakkked stolen home in West Oakland, vowing to refuse to leave. Calling themselves Moms4Housng, they have moved in to an intentionally hoarded and vacant home, which was left that way so they could wait for the profit to rise. That’s something us youth and family houseless poverty skolaz at POOR Magazine discovered in a recent WeSearch project called Hoarded Mama Earth, in which we released a report of literally thousands of vacant properties left that way intentionally so more Mama Earth profiteering could occur, while people literally die on the streets.
Systemic racism and broken policies have dismantled our society. People are being forced into homelessness with no option or way out. We are neighbors, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. We hurt, bleed and struggle just to survive. We want what most of you want, to be able to live and to be part of our communities that we are from. We are condemned to struggle and have asked for help to help ourselves.
Once you become homeless, there is no realistic way up, no services. We watch the money that our government entities have raised for homelessness. We see none of it – not through services, aid or affordable housing. What we do see is high priced events, meetings, panels and lunches to make policies about us without us. Never a single impacted voice.
It stops now. Your policies are pitting society against each other. You are causing the next revolution and class war. The time is now to have those conversations with us.
Crystal Rose Sanchez from Sacramento Homeless Union, along with many more unhoused and formerly unhoused folks across the state, has been releasing the demands coming out of each encampment to the cities who are “sweeping,” criminalizing and killing them. The Homeless Union was launched by some of the members of the original Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign out of Philadelphia and is a group of homeless and formerly homeless poverty skolaz (as I would call them) who are co-creating our own demands to stop the violent criminalization of unhoused California residents.
Locally, the East Oakland Collective, First They Came for the Homeless and The Village set up a tent city at Oscar Grant Plaza with demands for sanctuary land for unhoused people. Instead of listening to their demands or acting on them, 22 activists were arrested and their perfectly good tents were thrown away.
On Halloween, unhoused and formerly unhoused youth, adults and elders in POOR Magazine, following a multi-nationed prayer ceremony for the 125 unhoused, neuro-divergent elders who were evicted and dragged out of the Transbay Terminal in 2009 to make way for the leaning tower of Penus (I mean the new, shiny, useless “Salesforce” Transbay Terminal) moved into the lobby of Salesforce in honor of the literally thousands of houseless people who die on San Francisco’s streets and face violent sweeps and belonging theft for the sole act of being houseless while the tech industry doles out charity crumbs and launches million dollar studies of our lives in collaboration with academics and non-profiteers.
We had a simple ask: Give us $1 million of the $30 million study launched by UCSF and Benioff so we can build a second iteration of our own self-determined homeless peoples solution to homelessness we call Homefulness, which we are currently building in Deep East Oakland.
“I’m not the type of homeless person who is an encampment. I’m the type of homeless person who is staying on your couch if I’m lucky enough to be have the option, who goes to work every day homeless and acts like everything is OK,” explained an unhoused youth speaking at a big march for housing organized by ACCE in Oakland on Saturday, Nov 23.
Wood Street Encampment demands:
- An increase in the number of portable toilets
- Improved trash service that includes a dumpster
- Access to clean water
- Increased shower and laundry services
The corporate definition of clean
Since the move away from interdependence and the deep structures of most of the indigenous, people of color and immigrant cultures who make up the US, and in the slide to be “normal” amerikkklan “citizens” in this occupied land, the post-colonizer human eye is always being trained to appreciate a vast landscape of emptiness, aka “clean.”
Is it possible as we fight for decolonization to re-vision public space as actually inclusive of all of us “public” – to overstand and understand that we poor and houseless people don’t need to be saved, swept or jailed. We just need to be listened to, to be seen as experts in our own struggles and solutions.
Stop making hurtful, violent decisions you call solutions to our struggles – about us without us. This is one of the many reasons POOR Magazine wrote the “Poverty Scholarship” textbook and why we do PeopleSkool every year for folks with different forms of race, class and/or formal education privilege.
Conversely, there are so many reasons why us poor and working class youth, adults and families are unhoused. But those back-stories, that trauma porn should not be your inspiration to listen to us. We are you, but without a roof and we have been evicted, removed, displaced, hospitalized and traumatized by krapitalism and its many violent forms of exclusion and destruction.
At thanks-taking time, we are not asking for a friggin’ one day of charity; we are asking for liberated land, de-criminalization and our own self-determiNATION. We are demanding these things so we can solve our own problems and build movements and long-term solutions like Homefulness, The Sogorea Te Land Trust, the Poor People’s Army, and First They Came for the Homeless. We are clear. We will not continue to be swept to death.
Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, aka “povertyskola,” is a poet, teacher and the formerly houseless, incarcerated daughter of Dee and mama of Tiburcio and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America” and “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth” and co-founder of Homefulness, a homeless people’s solution to Homelessness. Reach her at www.lisatinygraygarcia.com or @povertyskola on Twitter.