By Needa Bee
Short-term charity toward unsheltered people always swells during the holidays, but what I really want for Christmas is to see Oakland’s “anti-homeless” ordinances repealed.
Weeks ago I was one of thirteen unsheltered women and children evicted from an encampment we’d built on the corner of Edes and Elmhurst avenues. Now with the Christmas holiday a few weeks away our families are trying to find safe, warm, places to sleep. It didn’t have to be this way.
A group of unsheltered women and allies worked hard to turn an empty lot into a clean, sober and women-led encampment where we could safely sleep, eat and provide some stability for our children. We named the encampment the Housing and Dignity Village. We provided meals, medical services, free winter clothing, and a community garden for everyone in the neighborhood. We were supported by residents in the neighborhood, the East Oakland Collective, the Village, the Ron Dellums Institute for Social Justice, the Ella Baker Center, Omni Commons, and other advocates for the human rights of curbside communities.
City officials could have worked with us to find a safe, orderly way to relocate our community. Instead they chose to forcibly remove us using over thirty Oakland police officers and city crew members. As crews threw our belongings into a truck and destroyed our shelters while the large police presence kept protestors away, I had to wonder how much money the city was wasting on this effort. They put a band-aid on a wound that continues to gush blood, all for the sake of “law” and “order” and for profit developments.
Modern anti-homeless laws are the cousins of Jim Crow laws, created to control and punish the people who exist on the edge of society. These ordinances include “sitting or lying in the streets,” “obstructing pedestrians,” “sleeping on benches.” They are specifically designed to target anyone who has no option but to live outside. They are ineffective, costly, inhumane, and — according to a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling — unconstitutional to enforce if the city does not provide adequate shelter.
Unless the city shifts its focus toward long-term solutions and away from criminalization, Oaklanders like me will continue to be punished for trying to survive when there are no other viable options available. And if you wonder about how limited my choices are, let me paint you a picture:
On any given night in Oakland there are more than two thousand people in need of shelter, but only 350 emergency shelter beds available. For women like me there are even fewer options. Many of the places that provide beds do not accept children and will not allow occupants to leave at night even if you work a graveyard shift.
Gordon Walker, director of Utah’s Division of Community and Housing estimated that criminalizing Utah’s unsheltered cost about $20,000 per person in state services, jail time and police costs. By adopting the Housing First program, where the priority is to place people in permanent housing instead of locking them up or sweeping them away, Utah saved millions and dramatically improved the number of unsheltered people in the state.
But it will take years for Oakland to shift away from its current money-driven development. City officials can start heading in the right direction right now by repealing the city’s “anti-homeless” laws.