A sanctuary for the homeless in Oakland, complete with a makeshift shower, portable toilet, kitchen, medical supplies and garden, was cleared out of a park February, 2nd by police officers and public works employees. During the encampment’s 12-day existence in the park beneath a highway overpass, “the Village” or also known as the “Promise Land” became an organized community, becoming a rules-based alternative to living on the sidewalk streets. The rules included no drugs, alcohol or violence was tolerated on the premises. Young supporters of the promise land patrolled the park’s perimeter at night as self-designated security guards, while others dropped off food and help build small rainproof shelters out of wooden pallets.
“This was a solution and it was viable. … The people of Oakland believed in it,” said Needa Bee, a supporter who helped build the Village. “Now all those folks are going right back onto the streets.” The reason given by city officials say the encampment was in violation 18 laws and city fire codes, among them: obstructing free passage through a public park, using propane tanks and accumulating combustible waste. Along with dozens of neighbors close to the park who complained.
Clearing the encampment at 36th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way was a striking unusual change from how city staffers have approached other camps, including a line of tents and waste just outside the park which remained untouched during Thursday morning’s shutdown, or another camp six blocks away, which Oakland leaders chose for the inaugural “Compassionate Communities” program.
At the “Compassionate Communities” encampment, at 35th and Magnolia streets, city crews added portable toilets, trash bins and needle containers, then hosed down the sidewalks and left. With the deployment of counselors and other services, the idea is to get everyone into housing by March 31, then replicate the program at other sites. “There’s a difference between people living in tents, versus setting up an intentional, unsanctioned encampment,” Boyd said. “They were inviting and recruiting people to bring them into a park without the proper adequate infrastructure.”
fire retardant pop-up housing.
But in contrast to the Village, though, the Magnolia street encampment has widespread heroin use, which caught some city officials off guard. Organizers and inhabitants of the Village said they just wanted to take matters into their own hands after years of battling Oakland’s housing crisis and struggling to get resources from the city.
They occupied the park lands on inauguration weekend, they set up an information booth and a donations table that greeted anyone who walked into the park, they went live on social media after getting a notice to vacate, and brought a group of supporters to speak in front of City Council members Tuesday night, imploring them to let the Village operate on its own rules.
“Before, it was so drug infested, you couldn’t even walk through here late at night,” Majid Ahmed, 44, said as he packed up his belongings at the camp. “Since we moved here, there has been zero crime and every one of us has got off drugs.”Ahmed, who got hooked on heroin at a young age before turning to methamphetamines, said his 10 days in the Village were the longest he had been sober in years.
Another inhabitant, 60-year-old Nancy Mitchell, was living on the street around the corner from the park and heard from a friend that she should stop by to get some hot food. She loaded a plate with Chinese food, got a cup of coffee, then decided to move in. Volunteers even loaded her stuff onto dollies and helped her pitch a tent.“It was welcoming,” she said. “I never seen so much love in that park.”
The 35th Street and Magnolia Street area in West Oakland lies the city’s first temporarily sanctioned homeless encampment. A trend some states like Hawaii is coming up with. Oakland city’s six-month program to provide fundamental public services is now two-thirds complete. Yet with less than two months to go, Oakland is still left with lots of work to reach the city’s final goal.
The program, which started in mid-October, is designed to pilot the concept of “compassionate communities,” advanced by Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. Working with relatively limited housing resources, the city would first create decent or at least hygienic encampments for homeless groups, while trying to gradually find everyone different forms of housing to live in.
Last June, McElhaney secured $190,000 in funding from Oakland’s mid-cycle budget and promised the neighborhood and the homeless camp’s 42 residents that the program would close the camp by March 31, 2017, and find everyone a form of permanent housing before that, according to Alexander Marqusee, policy analyst for McElhaney’s office.
Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design warned that the compassionate communities model can only be successful and sustainable with an aggressive housing strategy backing it up. “If you don’t have enough housing for the group you choose in a certain time, it’s not going to work. This will be especially challenging for Oakland with a more and more expensive rental rate,” she said.