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I Went to an Oakland Homeless Community to Say Hello. This Is What I Found.

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By Thomas Johnson

I consider myself to be lucky, even though I’ve been homeless plenty of times in my life. We didn’t really call it “homeless” back in the late 70s and 80s — we were just “outdoors.” The apartment I have now, I got because of who I knew. It took me three months to find it.

At this point in life, I’m a good tenant who pays rent early every month. I have decent, but not fantastic credit. I have a little saved up so if I get into a bind, I can pay rent for a few months. Not many people around the Bay Area have that same luxury.

Before I found this spot, there was always someone who looked a little more attractive than me as a tenant. The place I had before this one also took me three months to find and I ultimately had to move because the owner was getting a divorce and needed his condo back. Nobody’s fault; stuff just happens.

Guess where I was sleeping for that three months?

As I look around the Oakland neighborhood I now call home, I think about my own journey – I see the same ups and downs, the strokes of luck and misfortune on visual display along every block. The hardship stories I pass by are similar in nature to my own experiences, but I’m struck by the velocity of those stories today, the sheer number people living on the edge in an area of such supposed economic boom.

I took a tour through my own community to get a feel for how people without homes are living and surviving.

The western end of Oakland’s Fruitvale District East 12th Street is split by a median supporting the columns and structure for the BART track. As you head north, the roadsides are dotted with clusters of tents, RV’s, vans and buses. Sporadic groups of tents sit in the median, spilling contents out over the sunlit grass.

At the intersection of East 12th and 23rd Avenue, a large group of homeless people had gathered in a lot just next to the ramp off the Embarcadero. Tents, shacks and some of what could be described as rudimentary tiny homes packed into the spot. Over several months the lot became more and more congested.

Then came the fire.

A serious blaze swept through the lot and several shacks and tents went up in flames. A week later, Oakland police, highway patrol and sanitation workers cleared the lot, bulldozed it level and then fenced off the area. Signs were put up that proclaimed seismic retrofitting work would soon be performed there.

Just across the road, another smaller lot was unaffected. The residents of that spot somehow acquired a large chunk of cyclone fencing and blocked themselves in, complete with “No Trespassing” signs and a mailbox.

Most of the residents of that lot moved down East 12th, just past where the BART tracks veer underground toward the Lake Merritt station. The tents, shacks and ad hoc tiny homes are all now clustered in linear fashion.

I wanted to know what would make people move right down the street, recreating the same circumstances that put them at risk of fire and eviction, especially since some of them have gone to a lot of effort to construct makeshift homes. So, I went down to the area to talk to some of the people living there.

A scorched spot on the asphalt is the only reminder of a van that burned to a crisp and stayed there for two weeks before it was finally carted off. It took a tree and a few tents with it. I was smacked with the stench of garbage piles and raw sewage, a byproduct of circumstance and no infrastructure.

Some of the “homes” have small yards with multiple bicycles and assorted appliances. One man was actually operating some sort of storefront. I wanted to talk to him, but a language barrier got in the way. Other residents quickly sensed an outsider and word spread that someone was asking questions.

A little further down, deliberately separated from the main conglomeration of dwellings, stood three makeshift mini homes with a wooden deck being prepared for another. While not professionally built, I could see a certain amount of carpentry skill at work there. I approached a couple who were standing in their small, fenced front “yard” and asked if I could ask them some questions.

Jodi and Steve, who looked to be in their early 30s, told me they originally set up at the spot where I found them but that the city of Oakland had put their mini home on a flatbed and moved it to the 23rd Avenue lot before the fire. When the city swept them from that area, they dismantled their structure and moved it right back to where they were to begin with. It’s a pretty common occurrence for people living in makeshift communities.

Jodi and Steve have built a makeshift home with a fenced yard and awning in a homeless community in Oakland. Photo by Thomas Johnson.

They were currently helping a neighbor build a mini home next to theirs.

They told me they were separated from the main body of shelters because of the mess, fire hazard and smell. Lori and Steve have a small, rectangular dwelling with real siding, two double-paned windows, two double-locked hardwood doors, a fenced-in front patio with a tent awning and a small side yard. For a bathroom, they use buckets and a nearby fast food restaurant. Electricity comes from a series of car batteries. Lori and Steve were put together pretty well –their clothes, while somewhat worn, were clean and not oddly matched.

When I wondered aloud why they would go back to the place the city had already pushed them out of, leaving them with the daily threat of eviction, they said the city regularly comes through and removes fire hazards. Since they keep their area clean, officials basically leave them alone.

I wanted to spend more time talking to them, but I was again attracting attention, so I thanked them and left.

This is just a quick look at a few blocks on one street, but these villages all over Oakland and through many areas in the state.

Make no mistake, these are not encampments — this is not camping. Camping is a form of recreation. It doesn’t appear that anyone out here is having fun.

It’s easy to find yourself living in a vehicle or in a tent here. Even with a job, you can find yourself without housing for all sorts of reasons. Find a new place to live around here, whether you can afford it or not, is no easy feat in a housing market plagued by ridiculous money and high demand. There’s always someone who looks better than you do on paper, someone with a slightly better credit score, a better looking car. So many things can keep you from getting the keys to a new place.

The next thing you know, you’re on the street or in your car, trying to save money by not staying in motels. It’s not easy to climb up out of that downward spiral.

Everyone agrees: Somethings got to give. But what? Those who come from money are all for criminalizing living on the street. The princes and princesses of privilege can’t understand how someone ends up like that – they have no idea that for many people, success and failure is decided in just one sidestep, one decision, that we’re all just one misfortune away from losing it all.

Sure, homelessness can result from bad personal decisions, but it’s also caused by mental illness, injuries, layoffs, domestic violence and any number of uncontrollable reasons. And in today’s “booming” McJob and gig economy, we’re all just one bad circumstance away from sharing the same fate. Try to remember that the next time you’re complaining about the “blight” of homeless communities.

These are human beings, just like the rest of us, so when you pass by the camps, wave hello and admire some of the innovative craftsmanship. Treat them like the humans in a bad spot that they are, that we all could be.

As we celebrate and give thanks tomorrow, give thanks that it’s not you, at least not today.

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