by Kheven LaGrone

More and more, we see homeless encampments throughout the city of Oakland. Many have become desensitized to seeing them.
“I don’t feel sorry for them,” one “progressive” church woman told me in order to justify her lack of compassion. “They are lazy and don’t want to work.”
She was oblivious to the fact that many of the homeless worked or were evicted and couldn’t find anything affordable.
City leaders blame lack of funding and the shortfall of affordable housing for the growing homeless encampments. But a city that has the money and space to support numerous “doggy day camps” has plenty of extra money and space. In truth, these homeless encampments are the result of a society that lacks compassion.
Compassionless city and business leaders engineered this “new” Oakland, a “cool” playground for hipsters and techies.
Even as existing citizens were being evicted and displaced from Oakland, city and business leaders continued to market and promote Oakland to attract more outsiders to move into the city.
For example, Oakland’s mayor proudly announced that Uber was moving to Oakland and bringing in 3,000 jobs. But how many of those jobs were going to Oakland residents? How many Oakland residents would be evicted to make room for any Uber employees moving to Oakland? How many of those displaced Oakland residents would find nowhere better than a tent to move to?

Loss of Compassion

I witnessed recently how much compassion has been lost in our society. I was standing in a crowded BART car at the Lake Merritt station. All the seats designated for disabled and senior citizens were taken by young people playing with their gadgets. They were obviously too young to be sitting in the seats for seniors.
An older man using a walker entered the BART car. Not a single young person in those disability/senior seats looked up from their gadget. Suddenly, the train started moving. The older man in the walker fell onto the people sitting in the adjacent seats.
Not a single person in the disabled/senior seats looked up from his or her gadget. Not a single one helped the older man up or offered him their seat.
The newly engineered Oakland has so devalued human life that the city itself would clear out a homeless encampment to make a parking lot for a pot dispensary. This “new” Oakland would not support families and children.
The media had few stories on schoolchildren or high school sports. There would be few announcements of activities that were suitable for families and children. Instead, the media featured “cool” new restaurants and coffee shops that were too expensive for families. They promoted parties that were inappropriate for children.
Some newcomers to the city felt so self-important that they felt entitled to be unsympathetic to poorer Oakland natives living in encampments. A new resident complained about walking his dog past an encampment; he claimed the homeless people made his dog uncomfortable.
A property manager complained that he could not rent an apartment because a homeless encampment blocked its beautiful view of a park.
As Oakland’s Lake Merritt became more popular, the newer residents asked people from the encampment to move elsewhere because seeing homeless people ruined “their” beautiful lake. These new people around the lake made at least one homeless man feel like “trash.”
Another newcomer justified displacing native Oaklanders, because, in his words, “they weren’t doing anything with their neighborhoods anyway.”
The editor of East Bay Express called President Trump’s base of voters “bloodlusty.” What would he call these Oakland newcomers?

Volunteers serve breakfast at a homeless encampment in Oakland. While some offer compassion, many others bitterly resent the poor. Kwalin Kimaathi photo


A City of Strangers

Oakland has lost its humanity. Money and tech gadgets cannot replace community or roots. History and wisdom cannot be programmed or coded. Oakland has become a city of strangers looking for connection, identity, home and community. Some newcomers prefer to complain about Oakland rather than simply move.
Homeless encampments remind us that our lives don’t matter. The unexpected and unknown could hit any of us. We can lose our job or suddenly get too sick to work. If the city doesn’t support us, any of us can end up in an encampment. Many people don’t want to think about this, so they look away or ignore the encampments. But do they ask themselves if anybody in that encampment was displaced so they could get an apartment? Are they avoiding any feelings of guilt?
Some people blame homeless people for their situation. Are they also denying their feelings of guilt? They convince themselves that their own intelligent actions will ensure that they will not end up abandoned in an encampment. But few people planned or anticipated living in an encampment. A few years ago, encampments were unheard of. So blaming a homeless person could also be covering up one’s own insecurity.

Bringing Compassion Back

More and more Oakland citizens are talking about the growing number of encampments. They ask what can be done to help. They wonder what has gone wrong with Oakland to have this growing problem.
When the Auset Movement started serving breakfast and bringing clothes to the encampments over a year ago, we felt overwhelmed. We didn’t see anyone else helping. The City of Oakland had declared a shelter crisis, but seemed too wrapped up in bureaucracy to make significant improvements to the crisis.
However, Oakland is changing. Today, we see many private citizens, churches and groups bringing food and clothes. People often call us to give us clothes for the people in the encampments.
Such compassion has moved some of Oakland’s city leaders as well. City Councilmember Desley Brooks has attended the homeless encampments with the Auset Movement. I’ve watched her fight for homeless people at the City Council and try to get more services to the encampments. She told me that we inspired her. Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s “Compassionate Communities” has helped mitigate living conditions in an encampment as residents were being moved to more permanent housing.
Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District, has become a very supportive liaison between businesses and their neighbors living in the encampments. This has helped reduce crime, distrust and fear in her district.
While Oakland struggles with bureaucracy and funding problems, such compassion from private citizens directly helps people living in the encampments.