by Rena Rickles
The homeless and the very poor are the new “other” in Oakland. Seeing “them” makes those fortunate enough to be housed feel uncomfortable. So they advocate for City officials to remove them and evidence of their existence from “their” neighborhoods and streets.
Elie Weisel, holocaust survivor and author, talks about our shared humanity with our neighbors, with political prisoners, and with hungry children and homeless people. He warned that when we turn our back on someone, we magnify their pain when he or she feels forgotten.
Wiesel said, “The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.”
Virtually anyone, regardless of family background, race, wealth or education, can become one of “them” and once there, they become the “other” — one of the homeless ones in our midst. The initial cause of this drop in status are as varied as the number of people in this condition.
The causes range from undiagnosed mental illness, self-medication, and early drug use, the sudden loss of a job, a serious illness, domestic violence, evictions due to rent hikes, or some combination of all of them. They can range from a Caucasian male theoretical physics graduate, to a minority raised in an underserved portion of Oakland.
A recent example says it all: A vocal group of housed residents in West Oakland gathered hundreds of emails to demand that the City of Oakland shut down a recycling center that bought recyclables from walk-in customers carrying their wares in shopping carts.
Their emails spelled out their belief that the appearance of “those people” walking down “their” streets are a nuisance, a daily torment with which with they could not live. They succeeded. As of August 2016, that recycling center will close forever. That site can never again be used as a recycling center.
The facts are indisputable. The Recycling Center had all the required permits to purchase recycled materials from walk-in customers carrying their wares in shopping carts.
In fact, the Conditional Use Permit for this use was first granted in 1995, and reviewed in 1998, 2004, 2009, and it sets out the conditions for the center to serve walk-in customers.
Under the City of Oakland Performance Standards for Recycling Centers, walk-in customers carrying their recyclables in shopping carts are allowed.
A 2009 Stipulation and Agreement between the recycling center and the City of Oakland, provided for the continued purchase of recycled materials brought to the center in shopping carts.
The overwhelming majority, if not all, of the advocates attempting to close the center moved into the neighborhood years and even decades after the recycling center with walk-in customers began operation.
The Oakland Planning Commission, in three successive hearings, after listening to the complaints of nuisance, blight, and illegal activities and personally visiting the recycling center, voted unanimously that the recycling center was not a nuisance.
Beginning in 2014, the City of Oakland, this time under the authority of the City Administrator’s Office of Nuisance Abatement, fought on behest of the complaining neighbors to shut down the recycling facility.
The City’s novel theory was that even if the use is allowed by the City and City Ordinances, and under the 2009 Stipulation, the bringing of recycling materials in shopping carts to the recycling center can still be deemed a “nuisance.”
California recycling statutes bar cities from barring the manner in which recyclables are brought to recycling centers. If the recycling center refused to accept material from walk-in customers, it would be in violation of state law.
In fact, the nuisance alleged by the City of Oakland was against the people, the homeless, and the very poor, and not the activity of recycling itself.
Therefore, it was the City’s written position that the recycling center could stay and avoid nuisance allegations if the center refused to buy material from the walk-in customers with shopping carts.
Moreover, the emails from people demanding the close of the recycling center, complained only of the walk-in customers, not the activity of recycling.
The recycling center, in several meetings with City of Oakland staff, asserted its right to continue to serve the walk-in customers, AND agreed to work with the City to accept further operational conditions to address the stated concerns of the neighbors.
The City stated that because the customers bringing their carts to the center often walked in the center of the street because of the size of their load, this constituted a “blocking of the right of way” nuisance.
My response to the City was that since recyclers are permitted under every local and state law to walk to the center, there had to be a way for them to do so. I asked to meet and confer on a method of walk-in delivery that would not be a nuisance.
The City’s response was 42 citations for nuisance, 35 of which were for blocking (by walking) the public right of way. Within a month, a second set of Nuisance Citations arrived, 95 percent for the same issue — people with carts in the street.
In communication with the City, the Nuisance Abatement Administrator stated unequivocally that the Nuisance allegations would continue unabated until the center refused to serve walk-in customers.
The owners realized that even if they prevailed in each hearing, the legal costs and the personnel costs made continuing in business impossible. They agreed that if the City of Oakland dismissed the fines and penalties, they would shut down within 12 months, or this August 2016.
The result is that more than 400 customers of Alliance Metals will lose their only source of income. The over 60 percent that have housing will lose that housing, compounding Oakland’s homelessness.
Ironically, these recyclers didn’t come from Mars. Almost all of them grew up and/or live in West Oakland. With the closure of the recycling center, the complaining neighbors will be confronted by 200-300 new homeless people right in their neighborhood.
A Prayer for the Blessing of Love
by Lyn Christophersen
Let the tarnish of our mistakes, regrets,
and the dents of experience
flit away aimlessly, like moths who are free.
Bless us, instead, with the warm light of universal love
which refreshes our souls and heals our hopes.
May we be blessed with the strength to see ourselves as others so graciously reflect in us,
the beauty of a universal truth; in that we are inherently good and easily loved, even when we doubt.
Forgive our need to doubt ourselves and our fine efforts in a universal and perfect light of grace.
We chose these imperfect bodies and human weaknesses to learn how priceless our souls truly are.
Finally, let us bless each other with enough grace to accept our human roles and journeys. Enough grace to believe that this is only a test and we need the humor to laugh at our challenges and doubts, that we may celebrate our efforts and many successes in the name of grace.
May we try to count our blessings as easily as we count our weaknesses and misgivings. May we never forget gratitude is actually the truth in our spiritual balance.
Lyn is a former clinical mental health therapist, and a special education teacher for emotionally or learning disabled students, preschool through college.