Monday, November 26 U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam heard arguments to decide if the City of Oakland has the right to evict the residents of Housing and Dignity Village—a group of unhoused women of color and their families who have been living on a city-owned lot in East Oakland since late October.
On Wednesday, October 28, he made his decision: Judge Gilliam denied Housing and Dignity Village’s motion for an injunction. Now, it is up to the city to decide if/when they will evict the families who live there.
Here’s what happened: When the curbside community was formed, how they ended up suing the city in a federal court, and why the judge did not rule in their favor.
Lead by example: How the women of Housing and Dignity Village built a home, resisted eviction, and sued the city
At 2 a.m. on October 27, a group of unhoused women of color and their families, alongside housed community members, cleared debris from a vacant city-owned lot in in the Brookfield neighborhood of East Oakland. After clearing the debris, they established Housing and Dignity Village, an encampment—otherwise referred to as a curbside community—housing thirteen individuals.
“We helped reclaim this public land that’s been vacant for at least two decades,” said Candice Elder, founder of the East Oakland Collective, a member-based community organizing group. Once the lot was cleared, residents put up tents and infrastructure to shelter 13 unhoused residents, mostly Black and Brown women and their families.
In addition to housing these families, Housing and Dignity Village (HDV) has provided food, medical care, and sober community space for their housed and unhoused neighbors in East Oakland. It existed without formal complaint from neighbors until the city posted a “Notice to Vacate Illegal Encampment” for Saturday, November 10. That morning, approximately fifty people showed up prepared to support residents in their resistance.
In response, residents of Housing and Dignity Village filed a restraining order against the city of Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf, and Assistant City Administrator, Joe DeVries.
Their suit argued that evicting the residents would be violating their 8th and 14th amendment rights—a precedent set by Martin v. Boise, a ninth circuit court case which was decided in September. It was temporarily approved by a judge until the case could be heard in court, on Tuesday, November 13.
Housing and Dignity Village is a sober space that provides shelter and living space for these 13 residents, as well as community support such as meals, clothing, medical services, and a garden for the community. They have a fully functioning kitchen, solar lighting, a seating area, composting toilet, tents, and community security. The common space is open to neighbors on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and the weekends. They provide services to housed and unhoused neighbors including meals, a safe space to convene and a place to use the restroom.
Some residents of HDV, as well as housed community members, were prepared to be arrested instead of complying with the eviction if police officers did show up on the 10th. As of 3:00 p.m. that Saturday, police had not arrived.
With 50 people at hand but no imminent eviction, volunteers and residents painted signs, cooked food, organized common spaces, and built risers to lift residents belongings off the ground. Aiyahnna Johnson, an HDV resident and former leader of Occupy Oakland, said the community is fighting the eviction because the city’s approach to curbside communities is “just belittling to anybody who deserves the human rights in this. They’re looking at the money instead of the actual people. And that’s a problem. They don’t care about the resources that they can provide or the help that they could provide.”
Jodii, a community member that uses Housing and Dignity Village services and is a resident of The Village—another curbside community in East Oakland—said the city should actually be trying to help instead of “looking like they’re helping us with press conferences in front of St. Vincent de Paul Shelter and then selling off our land. Need trumps greed every time.”
Brianna Gilmore, a housed resident of the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, was prepared to be arrested if the city came to clear the lot today. She said she has a responsibility as a housed person and a new resident to hold the city accountable for their inability to provide housing solutions for all residents.
In the leadup to the hearing, HDV resident Aiyahnna Johnson was hopeful that Housing and Dignity Village can show Schaaf and other city leaders that the people most impacted by the lack of quality, affordable housing are the best people to develop encampment systems that work, and allocate funds to support them. “So if we get this land we can build and show her what she’s supposed to be doing. Maybe if we lead by example maybe that will change her mind and turn some heads.”
After the hearing on November 13, the Judge Gilliam decided he needed more information from the city before he could make his decision. A second hearing was scheduled for November 26.
The hearing: Why Judge Gilliam ruled against Housing and Dignity Village
On November 26, the City of Oakland, represented by Deputy City Attorney Jamilah Jefferson, argued in court that Housing and Dignity Village residents were trespassing on city-owned land, and if the residents were permitted to stay, the city would be liable for anything that happened on the lot.
Joshua Piovia-Scott, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that clearing the lot would violate a precedent set in Martin v. Boise, which ruled that if shelters were at capacity or had restrictive requirements that prevented unhoused people from staying there, the city had no right to arrest individuals for sleeping on public property. Jefferson argued that the city’s notice to vacate doesn’t apply to Martin v. Boise because the notice to vacate referred to clearing out property, not arresting individuals. However, because individuals have no place to take their property and legally set it up in a manner that allows them to live, Piovio-Scott argued that the notice to vacate, usually delivered and enforced by Oakland Police Department, carries with it a threat of arrest.
Aiyahnna Johnson, a plaintiff in the case, said the residents were doing the work of sheltering and providing services for the community that the city has failed to do. She thinks HDV should be allowed to stay in the location “for transitional support until they can find actual housing for the homeless. Because it’s a community, it’s not an encampment. It’s a community that helps build itself up.”
The City of Oakland also argued that some residents of Housing and Dignity Village occupied the abandoned city lot instead of setting up encampments on land chosen by the city. Piovia-Scott clarified that “those encampments are not the encampment that is at issue in this lawsuit, which is the encampment that these people actually live in…What the city has failed to do is to provide them with a location for this particular encampment of sober women and their families to enable these people to create a community, to get back on their feet, and to get housed and to get off the streets.”
Jefferson admitted that the City of Oakland has a homelessness problem, consistently redirecting the judge to consider the procedures the city has in place to manage homelessness in the city. However, she made two parallel and seemingly contradictory arguments about the relationship between an unhoused individual and the city. She frequently said that individuals were trespassing on the city lot. However, she took pains to argue that there was no clear relationship between any individual unhoused person and the responsibility of the city to find them adequate shelter. The collective group was served with a notice to vacate, but she argued that the notice itself was not a threat to cite any unhoused individual.
Piovia-Scott consistently argued that the city has failed to provide viable solutions for unhoused people; the number of unhoused people far outpaces shelter beds, and shelters don’t meet the needs of many unhoused residents’ living circumstances such as the age and gender of children they may have, hours they work, or their religious needs.
Toward the end of the hearing, Jefferson said the city doesn’t have a responsibility to provide individual solutions to people based on their individual circumstances.
What was not said—but was clear throughout the gap between Piovia-Scott and Jefferson’s arguments—is that despite not being able or interested in meeting the individual needs of unhoused people, the City of Oakland is not interested in accommodating the community solution enacted by Housing and Dignity Village on public land as a way to meet shelter needs given these circumstances.
Piovia-Scott said the judge had the opportunity to rule in a manner that forced the city and Housing and Dignity Village to collaborate on a solution. “I would hope that pragmatically, solution-oriented activities and negotiations would come out of this lawsuit. That’s what the plaintiffs would like. They would like a chance to either stay here or stay in another location that would allow them to create this very powerful and important community they have created.”
But on Wednesday, October 28 Judge Gilliam denied Housing and Dignity Village’s motion for an injunction, saying that the city’s claim that they will provide shelter beds to the 13 residents disqualifies residents from 8th Amendment protection established in the Martin v. Boise decision. Judge Gilliam acknowledged that the City of Oakland was in a housing crisis, but said it was not the court’s role to make a decision about whether or not the city’s policy approach is the ideal solution. Instead, his ruling was based on whether or not “the Constitution forbids the city from making difficult decisions it judges to be in the best interests of all its residents by implementing a policy it believes appropriately balances the important individual and community rights implicated by encampments on public land in Oakland.”
Judge Gilliam said if the city chooses to initiate the removal of Housing and Dignity Village, it will need to initiate a new notice to vacate at least 72 hours in advance, comply with the city’s policies and procedures as submitted to the court during the hearing, and offer shelter beds to each of the 13 individuals.
“We are very disappointed with the Judge’s order,” said Needa Bee, a plaintiff on the lawsuit and a founder of The Village, said in a video statement on the East Oakland Collective Facebook page after the decision. “What we can assume is that he is taking the City’s word at face value and he’s believing that what they’re saying is how they actually handle the encampments. But…we know…that this is not how the city operates.” She noted, for example, at 7 a.m. on the morning the judge made his decision, the department of public works and OPD officers showed up an encampment in Snow Park—a small park by Lake Merritt—with the intention of evicting the residents who lived there. Almost none of them had received notice.
Grover Wehman-Brown is a freelance writer and is the host/producer of the Masculine Birth Ritual Podcast.