By Needa Bee
Two years ago, a grassroots advocacy group called The Village sprang to life to fight for the rights of unhoused people in Oakland. Co-Founder Needa Bee tells the story of the history of the group, and where it’s going next.
In January 2016, me and my daughter started feeding our unhoused neighbors in the streets. Little did we know that simple sharing would evolve into a crew of 70 people called Feed The People. Who knew that Feed The People would transform into a movement called The Village, which fights to decriminalize homelessness, builds emergency shelters, asserts that housing is a human right, and joins the call for another model of urban development that does not displace lifelong residents of The Town.
Little did my daughter and I know that we soon would be homeless too, victims of an illegal eviction and unable to afford housing in The New Oakland.
But we are not the only ones. For the past year, every first of the month there is an exodus of Oakland natives and pre-gentrification working class and poor residents who lose their housing and leave Oakland. Some of us like myself choose to stay, survive and thrive without a stable home or shelter, and fight for The Town that is disappearing in front of our eyes.
This is how The Village got its start. But our eviction from Marcus Garvey Park February 2, 2017 created a powerful movement that affected change on many levels. We educated unhoused folks about their rights, and pushed housed folks to show up as allies. We sparked the creation of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group. We pushed the city to finally address the housing crisis with a plan and a budget. We got the city to reinstate a shelter crisis in Oakland, and got City Council to pass a comprehensive resolution to build immediate emergency and permanent housing.
We got the council to identify a minimum of two public parcels from all seven districts in Oakland as sites for The Village and other community organizations to create community led solutions to the crisis. The City Council unanimously passed a resolution for the Administration to lease The Village a parcel of public land for $1 a year to build a pilot program of a community based response to this crisis. We obtained a plot of land where unhoused people set up tents and built a community.
It all sounds amazing. But what happened in practice?
The shelter crisis declaration is about to be up for reinstatement and zero units of permanent housing have been built. Mayor Schaaf’s $8.6 million “Emergency Fund for Homeless Services” released the end of 2018 includes zero units of permanent housing. In fact over the next five to seven years, more than 50,000 units of market rate and above market rate housing are scheduled to be built in Oakland. During the same timeframe, a little more than 1,000 units of “affordable” units are being built, and less than 300 units of housing that will be 30 percent below the market rate are scheduled to be built. On January 31, the community we built was ravaged by the city and the encampment was bulldozed.
As for the City Council’s comprehensive resolution—the city administration ignored it and spent thousands of the city’s homeless fund and millions of private dollars on an idea not even in the City Council’s plan: the Tuff Sheds. A toxic, ill-planned, repressive experiment that does not use best dignified practices for the crisis, or for progress forward. Meanwhile, the solutions to the crisis practiced by unhoused folks—resourcefulness, ingenuity, and mutual support—are criminalized, ignored, and even destroyed.
In October 2017, the city granted our group a parcel of land to build a community, on E12th Street and 23rd Avenue, sometimes known as The Village, or Two Three Hunid Tent City Village. But our community was quickly compromised. Without talking to us, Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries instructed police to herd 6 encampments from five neighborhood onto the parcel. Many residents of the E12th Street encampment had historic and current tensions with these new residents, and should not have been forced to live with each other. Throughout the year, we also heard reports of police picking up individual unhoused folks, taking them to the E12th Street parcel, and threatening them with arrest if they attempted to leave.
The result was disastrous. The level of violence, harm, trauma, and pain caused was out of control. Murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults were common. Neighborhood predators preyed on the women and elderly on the parcel. The land was overpopulated with people living on top of each other which created the conditions for dozens of fires. HIV and a medicine resistant strain of gonorrhea reached epidemic levels. Add to that inadequate and inconsistent trash and sanitation services for the 80-100 people that eventually called E12 their home. The vision we were intending to manifest was never allowed to take seed there. But we continued to advocate for the residents in city hall, be first responders to fires & fights, did trash pick up, coordinated a meal and produce delivery.
At the end of the day, we learned that the E12th Street parcel wasn’t even the city’s to give. It belonged to Caltrans, which didn’t know the city offered us the land. They had plans to use it as a staging area for a bridge construction project area that is supposed to take ten years to complete. So in November 2018, Caltrans reclaimed their land, and the residents of the parcel were displaced.
In the midst of all this, the City Council urged the administration for a new plot of land to house a third of the E12th residents who wanted to move forward with the original plan for The Village. We also advocated for the folks who wanted have their own plot of land to start their own village or tent city. We advocated for a father to be reunited with his child in Colorado.
In Fall of 2018, The Administration selected a small plot on Miller Avenue. They decided everyone else was going into Tuff Sheds or The Streets.
While we got ready to build somewhere safe for the E12th residents, we also cleaned up illegal dumping on a city-owned parcel in Deep East Oakland that had been vacant for at least a decade. We created a clean and sober encampment for women with families and a community resource center for the surrounding neighborhood. We called this beautiful community the Housing and Dignity Village.
On December 6th 2018, The City destroyed Housing and Dignity Village. A majority of these residents are still living on the streets or couchsurfing. As for the two who are housed: one is living in a substandard basement, another is currently in rehab.
A week later, the city took away the Miller Avenue site to turn into a Tuff Shed site. A month later, they began the two week process of destroying the encampment they created on the E12th site. Less than half of these residents have been moved into the Miller Avenue Tuff Shed site. The other half moved back to the areas they were originally evicted from before they were herded to the E12th parcel.
2019 has seen an upswing in encampment evictions. We still don’t have land. Nonprofits and interfaith organizations are being blocked from building on their own land. The criminalization of vehicle dwelling has increased. Destroying personal property happens every month at every encampment eviction.
But homeless people are some of the most resilient, resourceful folks you may ever meet. The City of Oakland spends thousands of dollars to destroy people’s makeshift homes and shuffle people around. A week, or two or three, the people come back and rebuild.
As for The Village, we currently have a call of action to our housed allies—to build emergency tiny homes on public land to house an unhoused neighbor near you. Let’s get this public land for temporary and permanent homes for The Town before The City sells it to The New Oakland. If that’s too bold for you, build at the encampments that already exist, or build in your backyard or your parking lot. Holler at us to get more info and support in your endeavours. We have blueprints and volunteers to share.
And we are busy making plans for the future. Our building committee has designed mobile tiny homes since dozens of evictions are still planned for the future. We are working with advocacy groups all over Oakland on policy changes at the City and State levels. Legislation to decriminalize homelessness; enforce and ease the ability to build at least 2,000 temporary and permanent units of housing for the unhoused. We are getting ready to establish new encampments, squat on abandoned private lands, and work in partnership with private landowners to build on their parcels. We are also in an active Civil Rights lawsuit against the City of Oakland, Mayor Schaaf, and Asst. Joe DeVries.
But the only way we can win—or even call a truce—in this escalating battle of The Town vs. The New Oakland is if we ring the bell and stop the fight. Literally stop developing and housing The New Oakland and start building apartments, tiny homes, and condos for The Town at working class prices. Shift the paradigm. Build for The Town that’s been here and pause building for people not yet here. It the only way we can stop the housing affordability crisis and the homeless state of emergency it has birthed.