by Kheven LaGrone
“Oakland Residents Say Tent Encampments Threatening Neighborhoods,” according to the headline on SFGate.com on July 31, 2017. The article highlighted Ms. Hillary Nevis’s fight against the homeless.
Nevis moved into her West Oakland home only about a year ago. She had seen the homeless encampment near her new home grow and she claimed the citizens had gotten bolder and threatening. She complained to the city and about the city.
Homeless people live in fear of violence and dangerous conditions. Yet, the SFGate.com article never followed how Nevis’s actions added to the hurt of any individual already at the lowest point in his life. Thus, the article privileged Nevis to appear blameless for the conditions of people living in the encampments. The article insulated her.
Nevis and other gentrifiers, the City of Oakland and real estate developers all share responsibility for gentrification — the process and system that created that encampment.
For years, Oakland leaders wanted to make Oakland a hipster playground. They invested in making Oakland attractive to outsiders/gentrifiers. City planners courted businesses and high-end condos that catered to them. Making Oakland into a hipster playground meant whitening, or at least “de-blackening,” Oakland. This would be necessary to attract more white hipsters. They would even market the “new” Oakland.
In order to create the “new” Oakland, many native Oaklanders would have to be displaced. They knew this and often said about certain parts of Oakland that, “They’re going to get those Black folks out of there because the while folks want it.”
When asked what her biggest challenge was for marketing a “new” Oakland, then-mayor Jean Quan told the National Journal: “My challenge is to let people know what the new Oakland looks like. Somebody just sent me an email saying, ‘Oh, you should have more black police since more than 50 percent of your residents are black.’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, no, 28 percent of my residents are black, but we’re pretty evenly divided between blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians these days.’ But that’s their image of Oakland — and this is somebody who lives in the Bay Area.”
In order to encourage a visible white hipster presence in this “new” Oakland and attract more gentrifiers, the City allowed them to break safety laws. A white artist told the City Council that when he came to Oakland in 2005, he felt welcomed. He had fun ignoring Oakland’s laws against unlicensed parties and living in illegal warehouses. In 2015, a party organizer even defied a policeman when caught breaking the law. However, the City treated those illegal parties as low-priority infractions. (see East Bay Times, September 18, 2017, “Officer’s 2015 Report on Illegal Rave at Ghost Ship Was ‘Low Priority’”). Eventually 36 people were killed in one of those parties.
City leaders, developers, the media and politicians bragged about Oakland’s “new diversity” and “changing demographics.” But they didn’t ask where the poor and displaced Black Oaklanders had gone. In fact, many Black Oaklanders would not find new housing easily. Landlords found ways to evict current Black tenants and get white tenants. Landlords with apartment vacancies openly discriminated against African American applicants. Thus, many displaced African American Oakland natives became homeless and some moved into the encampments.
While SFGate.com informed its readers of the struggles of Ms. Nevis, the article didn’t address how many of those people living in the encampments were displaced to make room for people like her. The article didn’t even mention that most of the people living in the encampments were displaced native African American Oaklanders. Thus, the article avoided burdening its readers with an example of institutional racism.
Today, in the “new” Oakland, we see “cool” new nightclubs across the street from encampments. The hip new people stand in line to get inside the club. They hang out in front of the club. The “hip” people seem not to care about the homeless people facing them — and whom they helped displace.
Yet, the fact that the “hip” people are mainly white and the people in the encampment are mainly African Americans reminds us that not everyone benefited equally from the “new” Oakland’s “new diversity.”
Now, investors are buying up SRO hotels in downtown Oakland. They’re evicting the poor African-Americans. They will renovate the buildings for privileged newcomers. When the renovation is completed, the investors will most likely not tell the newcomers that poor African Americans were displaced for their benefit. They will be privileged to enjoy the building with no blame or guilt.
According to SFGate.com, “those with and without homes feel like the city hasn’t done nearly enough to solve the crisis.” It’s not just the City’s responsibility to help find homes for the homeless. Developers and landlords also helped create the encampment problem for the benefit of people like Nevis; they should help solve the problem too.
Simply complaining to the city is not enough. Demanding that the City evict the homeless won’t work; the homeless have nowhere to go.
Nevis believes that “we’re not in this together.” That is not true. We, including Ms. Nevis, are in this system/institution together. Nevis moved into a community with encampments, now she has to live with the reality — just like people in the encampment have to deal with their reality.
The media also has a role. They must remind the public that the homeless are full citizens; they are not vermin to be removed. The homeless people are just as entitled to City protection as Nevis.
The City must also defend its homeless citizens against being harassed, vilified and treated like vermin — just as the City would protect Nevis. Perhaps Nevis feels unsafe living near an encampment, but it is even less safe for the people living in the encampment.
More important, if we are to solve the problem, we must not be distracted from the real problem. The first step to solving a problem is to identify it. The problem with homelessness is not Nevis’s discomfort. The problem is that people are homeless due to a system beyond their control and others benefited from it. And we must remember that the encampments are the results of bad city planning.