By Alastair Boone
Jesse Smith wasn’t homeless when he started running for Mayor of Oakland. He decided to run for office in December, because he thought his background as an activist would help him be a more effective mayor.
Having worked on political campaigns before, Smith is drawn to the idea that being a politician could help him make his community better. But not long after he announced his candidacy, Smith lost his job, and was denied his last three weeks pay. “I kind of saw [homelessness] looming in the distance as a possibility, and then it became more and more inevitable,” he said. “Then there was a point where I could have left the area and gotten back on my feet, but I had committed to [running for mayor].”
This is a common story for many unhoused people in the Bay Area, where rent is so high that many are just one unforeseen obstacle away from homelessness. Smith is well aware of this fact. “I think I might just be an example of an average person,” he said. “One of the things I’ve noticed in the last year is that when I when see people I haven’t seen in a while, one of the questions we ask each other is ‘Are you outside?’”.
According to a point in time survey from 2017, homelessness has jumped by 25 percent in Oakland in the past four years. Smith’s story helps illuminate that statistic. Having lived here for the past 15 years, he has watched the city around him grow less forgiving. Where in the past rough economic situations didn’t leave him unhoused, the displacement of his friends and neighbors have left him with less of a safety net. “I no longer have a network of friends to help me with couch surfing or employment or food,” he said. “That social network has been destroyed.”
Despite the fact that Smith himself is now living outside, his platform is not centered around homelessness. His primary concern is police reform. He is advocating for what he calls “soft abolition”—a set of changes that would eliminate the political influence of the police. Under Smith’s model, there would be no chief of police or internal affairs department. Instead, a civilian administration would run the department, and police officers would become employees of a larger organization that is not run by the police. “It’s like a janitor in an education system,” he said. “There would be a union, but not the ability to influence the whole organization.”
Smith has met a number of people who support his police reform agenda, but it has been difficult to do much hard campaigning. It can be hard to make it to the mayoral forums while also planning ahead to make sure he is rested, has a way to get there, and a place to store his belongings. “I am door knocking, but it’s people without doors. Door knocking the door-less,” he said.
Though his platform is centered around police reform, Smith has learned a good deal from his own experience about what’s not being done to help unhoused people get back on their feet. For one, he believes that Oakland’s Tuff Shed camps are both impractical and inhumane. “[As mayor], I would issue an apology for them,” he said. “[When residents first move in,] they’re terribly organized…the whole process is traumatic.”
He also believes that it would make a big difference for all homeless people to have a place to store their things during the day. “It kind of creates a separate type of homeless experience, a different caste of homeless people: Those of us who can lock up our things are having a completely different experience than those who can’t,” he said.
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.