A sign tied to the fence of the Palms Motel reads "Act now for 37 MLK". The Palms Motel sign stands in the background.
Signs were attached to the Palms Motel fence on Friday morning. (Alastair Boone)

Some 30 people gathered outside Oakland’s Palms Motel on Friday to demand that the City of Oakland take immediate action to move more unsheltered people into hotel rooms. The action was led by the residents of 37 MLK—an encampment of 14 people, most of them black seniors, that sits in a formerly empty lot just half a mile away. The unsheltered leaders of the encampment made one demand: more hotel rooms.

“I need a place to stay. A roof over my head. I need that so bad just to be sane…and to get my life back on track so I can go back to work,” said Dolores, a 50-year-old resident of 37 MLK who grew up in Oakland and has been unhoused for the last 12 years.

The protest is the latest in a string of similar actions across the state being organized by No Vacancy! CA, a group of housed and unhoused activists working together to demand that governments open up hotel rooms for unhoused people.

Dolores, a resident of 37 MLK. (Alastair Boone)

Outside the motel, encampment residents gathered on McArthur Boulevard with signs that said “Mayor Schaaf we need hotels now!” and “hotels not graves.” They explained that due to the local emergency the city declared in March, the City Administrator has the power to commandeer hotel rooms at a low price as a way to house people. They called on Mayor Schaaf to exercise her legal authority to direct the City Administrator to do so.

There are currently three hotels in Oakland being used to shelter about 300 people. An additional 130 unsheltered people have been housed in FEMA trailers donated by the state. However, the majority of those who have been moved into the hotel rooms were previously living in shelters. The city’s 3,000 plus unsheltered homeless people, who are not already in the county’s coordinated entry system, have largely been unable to access the rooms.

Stefani Echeverría-Fenn—a formerly homeless woman who helped create the encampment—said that when the city first declared they would be housing the homeless in hotels, encampment residents were excited. But over the last two months nobody in their community has been able to earn placement in a hotel.

“It was just this completely Orwellian system in which it seemed like it was designed to wear you down,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “Folks were being refused rooms because they were 64 instead of 65, or refused even though they had profound health problems. One of our residents has sickle cell anemia, but because it didn’t fit the shortlist of the allowed disabilities, this resident could not access a room.”

Over the last month, residents of 37 MLK have become increasingly anxious about moving off the street. Echeverría-Fenn says that the encampment has struggled to maintain its clean and comfortable standard of living because the pandemic has weakened their volunteer support. Whereas before volunteers came by on a daily basis to pick up garbage and drop off clean drinking water, these visits have become few and far between. And then, they found out that one encampment resident had come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Despite this, the resident struggled to access a hotel room.

(Alastair Boone)

This was the last straw for Echeverría-Fenn. She drained her bank account and started moving the residents of 37 MLK into hotel rooms, one by one. Using her own money and some funds she raised online, she was able to keep everyone inside for about three weeks. But now, the money has run out. That’s when the unsheltered leaders of 37 MLK decided they needed to protest.

“It really comes out of desperation,” Echeverría-Fenn says. “People cannot go back on the streets after being in motel rooms for weeks. It’s a huge trauma, and our camp, because everyone has been away, has kind of fallen into disarray. It’s literally a 911 level public health emergency.”

Talya Husbands-Hankin sat in her car outside the protest to maintain social distance while showing her support. “Over 70 percent of unhoused people living in Oakland are black, so this is a racial justice issue,” she said. “We know that black people are getting sick and dying at a higher rate across the country and that is also reflected in our local numbers, so this is really an emergency situation right now.”

When asked for comment about the action outside the Palms Motel, Karen Boyd, the City of Oakland’s spokesperson, replied with the following:

“Oakland is supporting the County in the acquisition of 2 additional hotels in Oakland for COVID response and for eventual permanent homeless use. Two weeks ago, we opened our Operation HomeBase site with 67 FEMA trailers, and have been bringing vulnerable, unsheltered East Oaklanders inside to respond to the virus. We continue to support the County in making referrals into their hotel programs. Moreover, our emergency COVID-19 budget proposed additional support for motel vouchers and for funding to help people exit homelessness into permanent housing. And Mayor Schaaf is pushing our partners at the State hard for money in the next budget that would support not just buying additional hotels and buildings, but also operating them and ensuring they have adequate services. We are taking every step to address this crisis—and are doing so in a thoughtful way that positions us for long-term success.”

On Friday afternoon, county officials told KQED that no rooms are currently available for medically compromised or older homeless people. “We know the need is far greater than our resources, and we’re working tirelessly to secure more rooms,” Jerri Randrup of the county’s health care services agency said.

Stefani and a supporter smile for a photo as Stefani is chained to her room at the Palms Motel. (Courtesy of Stefani Echeverría-Fenn)

Meanwhile, Echeverría-Fenn remained chained to the bathroom window at the Palms Motel long after the protest outside had dissipated. She said she did not want to unchain herself until her bare minimum demand is met: that the city provide hotel rooms for the residents of 37 MLK.

“I think they’re waiting me out, hoping that I will get too tired and leave without incident. But they are deeply underestimating my commitment to 37 MLK. We are a family.”

Echeverría-Fenn remained locked inside through the night with a small group of supporters keeping watch outside as hotel management grew increasingly angry: changing the locks on the door and leaving her inside as well as disposing of her belongings.

But just before 5:00 a.m., enough money was raised to house 15 residents of 37 MLK in hotels. After nearly 20 hours of occupying the Palms Motel, Echeverría-Fenn allowed herself to be cut free. No arrests were made.

37 MLK has continued fundraising to keep their residents in hotel rooms for the duration of the pandemic. You can donate online here, or on Venmo at this handle: @ars_hoetica.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.