The struggle to build housing when you are homeless

In front of Oakland City Hall, Muteado Silencio and Charles Pitts of POOR roll out the architectural plans for Homefulness. POOR is calling on the City Council to exempt poor and homeless people from the exorbitant fees and requirements that make it impossible for homeless and poor people to build their own homes. – Photo: Poor News Network

by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia, daughter of Dee, mama of Tiburcio

“You owe $72,000 for these water and sewer permits,” said East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) to Homefulness.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” we said.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be building this project then …” EBMUD replied and then, without waiting for a response, walked away from us. These lines of disgusted discouragement leaving us, the Homefulness building co-leaders, destroyed. One more little murder of the soul, as my Mama Dee used to call it.

But sadly this was nothing new. This latest demand just took the permit gangsterism, as I call it, to a new high. Just to begin building this landless, houseless people’s solution to homelessness, we were asked to come up with $29,000. More money than most of us had ever seen.

And then there were the individual and constant building permits. Permit after permit was demanded and each one had its own exorbitant price and its own inspection attached to it, which ran $200-$500 depending on the agency, the utility and/or the fee. For example, a permit was required for toilets that was priced – just for the piece of paper that said we could do it, not the appliances, the plumbing or the sewer or the water itself – at over $8,000.

POOR family & teachers Jason & Leo plan how to build Homefulness into reality despite all the obstacles put in the way. – Photo: PNN

After hours and days and weeks and months and years of teaching folks with race and class privilege about radical redistribution of hoarded and stolen wealth to poor and indigenous people, which is how we fund this land liberation work, and then more years and days and months of planning, working, organizing, praying, dreaming, poem-bringing, theatre-creating, story-telling, protesting, marching and teaching, us poor, migrant, indigenous and homeless builders standing shoulder to shoulder with an architect, designer and engineer and other folks with different forms of race, class and formal education privilege who had those papers saying they were “qualified” builders and engineers, submitted this prayerful and powerful project to the City of Oakland in 2011.

From the trauma of our own broken lives as evicted, houseless and gentriFUKed people, trying to manifest something different together on this stolen land, to the trauma we get when we try to resist the set-up from the get-up, these kinds of statements were said more times than I actually want to remember. From politricksters to permit gangsters, public and private, there has been an ongoing refrain of how hard, how expensive, how impossible and ultimately how unrealistic it was for us homeless and poor people to build our own solution to homelessness we call Homefulness.

But we pushed on, refusing to give up and let these settler-colonial lies (laws) and sanctioned thieves of Mama Earth’s water, energy, minerals and earth stop us.

But the paper trails are covered in blood and always have been, ever since the Stealing Fathers (Founding Fathers) claimed that Mama Earth and her Earth’s peoples were something to buy and sell, committing genocidal terror on the indigenous peoples of this land and then enslaving, exporting and perpetrating more genocide on more African and Turtle Island indigenous peoples to manifest it.

Now the genocide, removal and colonization look like blight notices, bankkksters, evictions, police and mortgages, permits, eminent domain, development and seminars on How to Buy Your Ugly House.

POOR meets with Oakland City Council members – Leroy Moore front and center. – Photo: PNN

“The City of Oakland has been charging us several thousands of dollars we didn’t have from the beginning just to build Homefulness ‘to code,’ and it’s made it so hard for us to even build this project as poor folks,” observed Muteado Silencio, homeless, indigenous co-founder of Homefulness and POOR Magazine.

From the I-Hotel to Moms4Housing, moves to take back land have been met with police terror and guns, because the ownership of Mama Earth can’t be questioned in this stolen land.

Homefulness, a homeless people’s solution to homelessness, which was launched in 2011 by a multi-generational, multi-racial community of homeless, migrant, disabled and indigenous peoples trying to create their own self-determined solution within the laws set forth by the Oakland Department of Building Inspection (DBI) so it would never be a possibility for their dream to be destroyed or shut down by claims that it wasn’t “up to code,” which happens all the time to homeless and low-income builders, has been plagued from the beginning of their project by huge fees, from private agencies like PG&E as well as the City itself that oversees building and construction projects.

Just before the holidays, they shut down the building process at Homefulness altogether, saying we “took too long” to build, and assessed an “impact fee,” which is supposedly to support low-income housing projects, as well as told Homefulness we had to start all over again.

Five hundred twenty-nine dollars is the price of a permit to install one heater at Homefulness. – Photo: PNN

Thanks to intense community pressure, Homefulness just received a 30-day extension to the shutdown but not the impact fee. Us impacted – aka poor and homeless people – still have to pay an insane fee created for multi-billion-dollar developers. And so, in addition to this crisis, the Homefulness project realized they have to speak out as these fees and the process required to build is almost impossible.

So we have launched an effort to work with conscious legislators to exempt poor and homeless people from these exorbitant fees and requirements which make it impossible for homeless and poor people to manifest our own solutions and stay in our neighborhoods and communities. To date, Homefulness has created sustainable and safe housing for four houseless families and disabled elders, a school for homeless children, a sliding scale cafe for the community to eat healthy food and a poor and homeless people-run radio station.

“Affordable housing is not affordable, Section 8 vouchers are useless and, when poor people build our own homes, we get hit by thousands of dollars for permits over and over to come to the realization that the system wants to keep us chasing our tails while city government continues to red tape our hands behind our back, thus turning us back to the streets – as they continue to play footsie with million-dollar developers who are given a green light to build multi-million-dollar luxury condos with no low income buy-in,” said Leroy Moore, formerly homeless, disabled co-founder of Homefulness and POOR Magazine

“When poor people build our own homes, we get hit by thousands of dollars for permits over and over to come to the realization that the system wants to keep us chasing our tails while city government continues to red tape our hands behind our back, thus turning us back to the streets.” – Leroy Moore

“Six years ago, before I left DBI, they said they were trying to become more ‘business-like,’” said Bill Durham, long-time Oakland resident who was gentrified out of his neighborhood and is standing with POOR Magazine to manifest this change. “After they said that, permits got more expensive. I didn’t even understand what they meant. I thought we were there to serve the people of Oakland,” Bill concluded.

“When the city swept our encampment, they claimed our curbside homes weren’t ‘up to code,’ which is how the City rationalized demolishing them,” said Alfred Estrada, currently houseless after multiple sweeps and demolitions of encampments he was staying in.

We poor and homeless people will not give up or give in to the same colonial forces that made us houseless in the first place. But we cannot stay silent about this any more and we have no more money for these exorbitant fees, so we are beginning a series of legislative visits to change this set-up from the get-up situation for poor, working class and homeless builders in Oakland.

Please stand with us. Please join us as we continue the work of un-selling Mama Earth and ungentriFUKing our neighborhoods and lives.

So far, the Homefulness family has met with Oakland City Council member Nikki Fortunato Bas and has a promise of support from Loren Taylor, Rebecca Kaplan and others. Please stay tuned and please sign the petition of support linked here.

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.