A miniature white picket fence lines the entryway into the homeless encampment of 37MLK in Oakland, where tents sit in neat rows, fairy lights glow overhead and chickens cluck around the grounds.
At least four homeless encampments sit along the mile of boulevard leading up to 37MLK from the city’s downtown, but where the other camps are shrouded in darkness after sunset, lawn lanterns provide light along paths at 37MLK. Whorls of decorative fake ivy dangle over the chain-link fence, mixing in with potted plants and splashes of art, adding beauty to the ugliest of situations. “Welcome to our home,” read a small paper heart near the entrance, before the winter rains washed it away.
With California’s housing crisis culminating in a surge in homelessness unseen in recent history, the question of home has been increasingly met with answers of desperation. Wait lists for temporary shelter beds total in the thousands in some jurisdictions. Overpacked vehicles and RVs, out of which a growing number now live, line certain streets in cities across the state. In Oakland, where rapid gentrification has led to the widespread displacement of black residents, there are more encampments within city limits than there are square miles in the city – 90 sites versus about 78 sq miles – according to the most conservative estimates.
Amid this city of makeshift shelters, churned together in a sea of hopeless necessity, stands 37MLK, a tent village created out of deliberate and coordinated intent; by community organizers taking over a vacant lot for the sole purpose of setting up a homeless encampment. It’s a community response to a housing crisis that has led to many black elders pushed out of the neighborhoods they call home.
“You leave this land fallow during one of the greatest humanitarian crises in Oakland, pretty much ever, this mass homelessness?” said Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, one of the organizers, in a Facebook video announcing her intentions. “I will not abide by that. You can arrest me, but I’ll come back the next day, and I’ll bring more people.”
As homeless encampments throughout Oakland continue to get shut down or swept up, some local lawmakers are looking at the 37MLK camp as a model. And in many ways, it’s deeply troubling that policy makers in one of the richest regions in the world are left to advocate for actively building homeless encampments. But not enough affordable housing is currently available for the growing need, and the crisis before Oakland requires immediate and drastic action, housing advocates say. People with no where else to go will end up forming encampments regardless of the conditions, they say, and the least policy makers can do is make sure that the ones that exist are safe.
A little sanctuary
37MLK saw its start on a summer day in August, when Echeverría-Fenn left her rent-controlled apartment and walked two houses down the street to an overgrown lot at the corner of 37th Street and Martin Luther King Jr Way. She squeezed her way in through a hole in the chain-link fence, and spent the day clearing the weeds and brambles.
Then she pitched the first tent.
“Every single day for the past decade I lived here, I walked on my way to work past this vacant lot, this eyesore, this blight that was never put to good use to the community,” Echeverría-Fenn, 32, told the Guardian. “Meanwhile, you would see the tents grow just a half a block down there. You see people literally sleeping on the side of the street, on the side of freeways.
“Here, we at least have a little sanctuary.”
Echeverría-Fenn didn’t start 37MLK with the intention of it lasting for as long as it has. She wanted to bring attention to her friends and longtime neighbors who were now in need of housing, in hopes of securing them some space for a tiny house. Her friend and longtime neighbor Skinny, for example, lost her housing because her partner got behind on the mortgage payments after suffering health issues.
The community began as an all-women’s encampment. Four months later, the lot has grown to house 21 people, including the male partners of some of the women. All the residents are black or Latinx, their ages ranging from 30 to 60. All are longtime neighborhood or Oakland residents.
Echeverría-Fenn experienced homelessness herself. As a queer teenager growing up in New York, her conservative parents kicked her out and she had to navigate the shelter system through her youth. When she moved to the San Francisco Bay area for a fellowship at University of California, Berkeley, in 2009, she struggled to find an apartment, even with a documented source of income, because she had no rental history.
“This neighborhood, it was my stepping stone out of homelessness,” she said. “When I came out here in 2009, there were still landlords willing to rent cheap apartments, no questions asked. I could get an apartment for $800 with a $500 security deposit, a one-bedroom, and I still live in that apartment to this day because I have rent control. Now, identical units to mine go for over $2,000 a month. I see just the way I climbed out of homelessness, that door has closed behind me.”
In the decade since Echeverría-Fenn moved to Oakland, cities in the Bay Area have seen a rapid transformation. Tech money flooded the region, changing the landscape irrevocably. Amid rapid gentrification, San Francisco saw a 17% increase in its homeless population last year . Oakland saw a 47% increase from 2017 – and an 85% increase from 2015. The uptick in numbers meant more people were visibly homeless, inciting tensions between the housed and unhoused, on a local level all the way to the White House. In July, a real estate developer tried to shoot $1,000 in dollar bills over a homeless encampment in Oakland in a humiliating attempt to get the residents to leave – despite the fact that they had no where else to go.
In the shadow of staggering tech wealth, housed and unhoused residents, local lawmakers and housing advocates have been looking for drastic solutions for the immediate crisis at hand. Oakland rolled out its controversial “tuff shed” experiment, housing homeless people in makeshift structures that resemble basic toolsheds. The Oakland City Council president last month proposed docking a cruise ship in the city’s port to act as emergency housing akin to a refugee crisis after a disaster.
Meanwhile, the city routinely dismantles homeless camps for violations of fire and health codes. (Under Martin v Boise, the ninth circuit court of appeals held that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment to enforce criminal laws against homeless people living on the street if a city did not offer enough shelters.) Blight complaints tend to drive response, and garbage and vermin are serious issues in some camps, as is access to public restrooms.
Not at 37MLK. The camp has a solar shower, camping toilets and a pump sink. It has a garden, a dining table, a kitchen and common couch area. “The number one thing is we have access to the resources that housed people have because I am housed,” Echeverría-Fenn said. She and other housed neighbors work together to take care of the camp garbage, to empty the camp toilets in their apartments, to make sure the camp has clean water.
“So often there are the allegations that homeless people are dirty or don’t keep the space clean,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “No, there’s only one reason why we’re clean and other encampments are dirty: we have actual access to trash facilities and we have access to running water that other encampments don’t.”
The police came twice, at the very beginning. The lot belongs to a not-for-profit that was suspended following apparent financial difficulties, including outstanding tax bills – a group that was a redevelopment organization specializing in low-income housing. But after the first two visits, the police never returned again. “It speaks to the severity of the crisis that the city hasn’t shut us down yet,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “I think they’re just putting out fires in so many arenas that we have been safe here because we don’t cause problems in the neighborhood.”
Not enough places for people to go
Oakland city council member Nikki Fortunato Bas is one of the local lawmakers calling for turning vacant land into self-governed or co-governed encampments, something that would look a lot like 37MLK.
“We simply don’t have enough places for people to go,” she said. “We don’t have enough shelter beds. We don’t have enough transitional housing. In the interim, as we’re building deeply affordable housing, we need to have transitional spaces.”
Oakland already provides some services to some encampments that include picking up garbage, portable toilets and wash stations. But Bas believes more needs to be done, and has allocated $600,000 to pilot a project similar to 37MLK in her district. “These are spaces that people may need to stay in for two to five years, not a matter of months,” she said. “And we need to be able to house them in a way that’s healthy and safe and dignified.”
Some housing advocates have embraced the idea. They argue people are already living in squalid conditions in encampments that do not have the necessary resources to function in a safe and healthy manner. Some encampments are dealing with overcrowding, with too many people squeezed into too small a space. And every encampment that the city removes is just pushing people to form other encampments elsewhere under similar conditions.
“It’s a problem that’s not going to go away tomorrow,” said Candice Elder, founder and executive director of the nonprofit East Oakland Collective. “We understand that there’s blight, and there are safety issues. But in the absence of adequate and enough housing, what can we do?”
Rayetta Delores Simon, 50, found 37MLK after the city threw away all her belongings in a sweep. “It was cleaning time,” she said. “They were cleaning the streets. They put nice memos up saying we’re going to do a street clean on this and that date, but I had a job lined up that day and I wasn’t there. That’s what I get for doing something half-assed good. I lost all my shit.”
She was walking down the street, crying, “feeling lower than low” and not sure of her next move when she ran into a nephew who told her about 37MLK around the corner. “It was like the doors of heaven,” Simon said. “I came in and came to find out my friend Brittany was here. They gave me a cot, they gave me a tent. They told me that if I needed anything, they were here for me. They really made me feel good. I really got a chance to take the load off myself and to be free for that moment and get some good-ass rest and not worry about nothing because I knew that I was safe.”
The camp is at capacity, but before, current residents vouched for incoming ones. “It was a lot of people I knew before we started this project,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “The homeless crisis has always been in this neighborhood.”
They keep each other in check, knowing that if the camp gets too messy or if they get too rowdy, their housed neighbors will complain and that would be the end of 37MLK. They hold meetings over someone leaving a mess in the kitchen. They decorate for the holidays. They are a community.
“I felt like I didn’t have a youth, not just because of the material circumstances I was in, but you can’t bring anyone over to the shelter,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “You’re so ashamed to let people know what’s going on with you. This is just a nice space where people can hang out, where people can be social. There are people who are living with their adult kids here. There are people who have their younger kids visit them here, and it doesn’t feel like a depressing sad place the way that other encampments do.”
Policymakers need to learn from communities like 37MLK, Bas said.
“The homelessness and housing affordability crisis has grown to an extent that we can no longer ignore it and we can’t call it a crisis without actually acting on it,” Bas said. “You juxtapose that and the visibility of homelessness right now with stories like 37MLK being an incredibly creative and inspiring and successful story of unsheltered older black women. I think it’s a moment where we have to draw from the human resilience and creativity we’re seeing from people who are in deep crisis and respond with that same level from government, respond with that same level of creativity and urgency.”
Simon has been homeless for 12 years, and has struggled with drug addiction for almost her entire life. It’s been a tough 12 years. People on the street can be unpredictable. Unhoused people are facing more violence than ever. “People were setting fires to people’s sleeping bags,” she said.
One recent winter evening, she laid out garbage bags on the community couch to protect guests from the damp of earlier rains, and proudly showed off the bricks she put down as a pathway in the mud. “I’m not a perfect role model,” she said. “But when I’m not on drugs, I’m an A+ mom. Everybody wanted to come to my house.”
She’s learned a lot about herself in the three months since she’s moved into the camp with her husband. She likes to garden. She enjoys taking on little projects all over, whether it’s making signs or just picking up around the common areas.
“I would rather have a home, but since I couldn’t have a home, I don’t mind this,” Simon said. “This is like a home to me. When I talk to people and they say, ‘Where you going, girl?’ I say, ‘I’m going to go home’. I don’t say, ‘I’m going to go to my tent’. I say, ‘I’m going home’. This is my home.”