by Wanda Sabir
Rain, rain, and more rain seemed to be the forecast as we watched the clouds cover the skies above the San Francisco Bay Area leading up to the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Auset Movement planned to serve breakfast at a homeless encampment in Oakland. It was the same encampment we served last year.
After weekly visits with leadership and the camaraderie which has developed with the people there, we have decided to let it be our home base.
Just a week before, a resident of the encampment, Waleena Mitchell, died from a stroke, while another resident who had been hospitalized for about three weeks was released back into the streets. Mr. Lee told us that the ill woman’s family invited her home to recuperate.
In the meantime, her partner, Mr. Robert, is still on the street (this makes it three years without adequate housing). We are certain the excessive cold weather in December added to the circumstances which caused Waleena’s death.
I loaded the car with grilled wieners, Danish pastries and cinnamon and blueberry cake, insulated gloves, Styrofoam containers, forks, serving utensils, non-latex gloves for servers, toiletry packs, wool socks, rain ponchos, sweatshirts and knit hats, and a sympathy card for the deceased husband. Mr. Lionel hadn’t been able to say goodbye. The hospital refused to let him see his partner, and then she died.
After I loaded the car, I got on the road.
Still mourning, Mr. Lionel didn’t come out of the tent he had shared with his wife. I passed him breakfast, juice and the card into a hand outstretched through the front flap. The recent rain and loss of life seemed to have taken a toll on the inhabitants. Everyone seemed to be sleeping in this morning. We don’t just pop by, so we were expected.
I had a great conversation with a man who remembered meeting me a week ago when RJ and I went by and learned of Ms. Waleena’s stroke. Mitchell had just been released from the hospital a day before. He had a prosthesis and could not walk easily. As he sat on a shopping cart, his injured leg stretched out in front of him, I told him to hold tight and I’d get a meal for him. I pulled up a chair so he could have a place to put his food. We talked while he tried to eat and talk.
His late mother was an attorney and he’d spent a lot of time thinking about and studying human behavior. I learned that he was born in a small Louisiana town, Donaldsonville, but raised in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. This is where my friend, Dr. Robert Hillary King, prison abolitionist, was raised as a child.
Mitchell said before we study a person’s mental capacity, we needed to understand how he fits within the dominant system which, of course, affects the thinking of its members. I told him I’d just completed two years in Depth Psychology, which is the study of the unconscious. This shifted the conversation again as we spoke about energy and archetypes and inherited patterns of behavior.
He asked me if in my studies I looked at grief or mourning. I told him that this and trauma was of special interest to me. This is one of the reasons why The Auset Movement includes performance art with the meal; there is healing energy in dance, singing, music. Jovelyn, a playwright and novelist, who was serving the meal, said that music was an invitation “home,” home to self, home to spirit.
I was surprised when Mitchell told me he was going to work later that morning.
I kept interrupting our conversation to run over to greet new people as they approached the table where food was being served. I would inquire as to what they might need and then go to my trunk and get a few items. My trunk served as my store.
The meal consisted of our normal fare. Jovelyn cooked up a pot of her potatoes again. This time she added cumin and curry, giving the potato dish an orange streak against a buttery background.
Ms. Dolores sat in front of her tent slowly eating her breakfast. The previous week when I dropped by, I asked the residents what they needed and what they wanted. She wanted earrings, so I brought her several pair. She thanked me for remembering. She looked pleased with my selection.
While people came to pick up a meal or a piece of fruit, Brother Tacuma, Brother Val, Brother Tabaji and several others made a circle and began playing music. Again, it was like a call home. A little girl began to dance, and her mother joined her. Then Jovelyn, between serving potatoes, made a few moves (smile). The sun was shining brightly, a reflection of the mood among those present.
When Lisa and her son arrived, they set up tables where Claudia and her husband served coffee, along with juice and water. We also put gloves and knitted beanies there too. We didn’t have many clothes items this time, especially men’s pants and shoes, which everyone seems to need.
Delene, Denise and I took a handful of prepared plates, coffee carafe, juice and fruit (in our pockets) and walked up the street offering a meal to men we passed. Many said yes, welcoming the meal.
Delene’s T-shirt had an abstract image of Maya Angelou which says, “Because of them we can rise.” I felt it fitting on Martin Luther King Day.
After we ran out we walked back, got more food and then walked further down the block towards an encampment which was underwater, or showed signs of flooding; yet people were still there because no one bothered them. As I stood speaking to Zora, a car which had stopped nearby sped up and tried to run the two of us over. This happened a few more times with other cars and trucks passing by. I’d noticed this before when I’d visited the first week with RJ.
At night, it’s really dark there and with the rain, cold and damp, the site is pretty uninviting. We passed out rain ponchos and socks, a coat and shoes until we ran out. As I edit this reflection a day later, it is raining again and I can’t help but think about this community. I would love to drive by with more coffee and a careen of hot chicken noodle soup to warm them up inside.
I noticed that they all knew each other and said kind words to each other. They also all had dogs for protection. Three people had work, while others were displaced because they lost their jobs. One woman said that her unemployment ran out and she could not renew it. She said she could apply for general assistance this month.
Another woman lost her two daughters to the foster care system. She’d had custody of them when she didn’t have housing one summer. She said they slept outside for three days and then she lost them. Her mother took one child and the other went to strangers. It took a year for the two children to be reunited.
Leajay had been on her own since she was 17 (when the same mother kicked her out). She is 33 now. She was an alcoholic, and then went into a program and cleaned up for ten years, when she was pregnant with her first daughter. She got a job with a nonprofit teaching parenting skills to women. She went into prisons to help women, and she also counseled them on how to keep their kids. The irony was, when the job ended, she lost her own.
She lost everything all at once — her job, housing, belongings in storage, children, and then her freedom when the Berkeley police arrested her and put her in jail. This happened many times. Homelessness is a crime in Berkeley (she said) and the remedy, incarceration.
I assumed that she was camping at UC Berkeley and other public or private spaces which did not want her present and had her arrested, until helping her find stable housing. So now she stays at this encampment which lately has been flooding, but despite the flooding, she said, at least no one seems to care that she and the seven or so other persons are there.
Geraldo, an older Latino man, has arthritis, so he suffers in the cold weather. Kaileen, who looked like a teenager, was soaking wet, from her shoes and socks up to her denim pants. All the people RJ and I met just a week earlier with the portable houses on wheels were gone, and who could blame them. They could move to higher ground, so they rolled away.
There was a gentleness with which everyone spoke to each other, even when one of the men was a bit edgy and went off a couple of times, once with his puppy who pooped all over the inside of their tent. Even when we were almost intentionally run over, all Zoe (another younger resident) said as a comment was that some motorists are unkind.
Outdoor survival camping is a skill set these adults have; however, it is not the kind of housing environment one should have to exist under. I saw lots of abandoned spaces. All that was left were tarps and other paraphernalia of the set-up from a week earlier when there were people living there.
We also saw a couple of government folks testing the soil nearby. I don’t know why they were testing the soil. I noticed that the space had been cleaned up a bit since the previous week. RJ had left large plastic bags that residents had requested so they could clean the area to cut down on vermin. The large areas where there had been debris were cleared on MLK Day. This is not to say that the lonely track of road was completely cleared of trash.
It was the same with the first site, where we served breakfast. Waste management had picked up the larger items, like couches, broken furniture and clothes. What I couldn’t understand was why they didn’t pick up everything and then sweep up what was left. Nor did they leave brooms and dust pans for residents to keep the space cleaned up in either location.
I think today makes Day 14 since City Councilperson Desley Woods made the recommendation to convert the Garden Center into a shelter in 15 days. I presume this site will be opening this week, perhaps tomorrow, on day 15?