As a kid, I vividly remember asking myself, how does someone end up homeless? How could you collect change all day and not have enough for a place to stay? How could there be so many empty buildings downtown, with the lights on at night, while there are people sleeping outside?
I never brought those questions to the people sleeping at the bus stop, surviving under the freeway or living in temporary shelters on the sidewalk. But I should’ve asked. That’s how to get the real story about how someone becomes homeless, and how we can help them.
Last month, I sat at a 20-foot-long brown lunch table in the multipurpose room of Oakland SOL Middle School in East Oakland as Mitzi Lewis, a formerly unsheltered woman, engaged in a dialogue with over 40 students.
After an eager trio of students asked the first questions, the rest of the inquisitive 6th graders rapidly followed suit. It was like watching a pack of post-game reporters.
“Do unsheltered students go to school?” and “What can the Oakland SOL math class do to help the unsheltered?” the kids asked.
Lewis used her lived experience to provide answers.
“I’ve never stayed at a shelter,” said Lewis. “Some are safe, some aren’t. Especially for women."
She told them about dialing 2-1-1 on these ancient things called pay phones to get information on food and health services. She mentioned the double standard of churches, “where they tell you to ‘come as you are’ but judge you when you walk in the door.”
She told them about the compromise people face when they send their kid to school while homeless; fearing that if a staff member finds out, they’ll report the family and have child taken away.
She mentioned the unexpected death of one of her daughters and the depression that came thereafter. That depression led to lack of motivation, and subsequent unpaid bills, which ultimately led to homelessness.
Lewis spoke at Oakland SOL Middle School with Nick Houston, who serves as the Community Engagement Officer for The East Oakland Collective, an organization that works on a multi-tiered approach for community betterment, through civic engagement, economic empowerment and initiatives on homelessness.
The collective has only been around for just over two years, but during that short time, it has become a conduit for local residents to voice their concerns and take action. There’s the Facebook page, which is updated multiple times per day. There are community forums, where politicians listen to their constituents. And then there are the food giveaways, the most recent of which brought out over 300 people to make lunches and toiletry bags at 7am on the Oakland SOL campus. The next one, on Apr. 15 , is expecting even more volunteers. (You can sign up here).
The collective even worked with Lewis to get her off the street and back on her feet by running a successful GoFundMe campaign. Lewis got the keys to her new house just days prior to speaking to the students.
Less than an hour after Lewis’ talk with the preteens concluded, Houston and I were on the streets of East Oakland. He allowed me to come along during a check-in on a nearby encampment. This is something he does a couple of times per week, sometimes during his off day from his full-time job or after work.
“I’ve been checking in the Deep East Oakland encampments; they’re the most overlooked encampments in Oakland,” said Houston. “But I’ve touched every encampment in Oakland.”
He told me about the work he does as we walked through the rain-soaked grounds. The fraught landscape looked almost like another country.
We came to a plot of land bordered by train tracks ran to our right and busy San Leandro Street to our left. Houses made of plywood and camping tents stood adjacent to a mound of old bike parts. There was a noticeable spot where a fire had recently occurred, one of the many encampment fires as of late.
“The misnomer is that the homeless population are drunks or on drugs. Most of these folks work or have income,” Houston told me as a BART train ran overhead. “They just can’t afford $2,200 for a one bedroom, or $6,000 to move in! I can’t even afford that.”
He followed up by telling me another reason he does the work, “For one, people don’t look at them like they’re human. And for two: shit, this could be us!”
The problem of homelessness is multilayered and needs to be tackled on multiple levels. So while Houston is checking encampments, Marquita "Keta" Price, an Oakland native who serves as the collective’s Urban and Regional Planning Officer, is networking with other stakeholders. Price says that The East Oakland Collective has worked with Alameda County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, BART and the East Bay MUD, to name a few.
“The networking has been the greatest gain,” Price told me over the phone. “The networking has allowed us to gain insight on what these agencies are doing.”
Price, a college student who works with Oakland City Councilmember Abel Guillen says, “on my lunch break, I’m taking calls for EOC.”
She finished by telling me that The East Oakland Collective provided an opportunity for her to apply her vision for cooperative economics, and she credits Candice Elder for that.
Elder is the founder and director of the East Oakland Collective. She’s a former paralegal and President of the Museum of African Diaspora Vanguard Board. She left her job to do work full-time in the community she grew up in.
“Driving through the East, going down Hegenberger and commuting to S.F., I could see the lack of resources,” Elder told me. “Nothing has changed, as far as development, in years. All these places I remember fondly as a child, and they were thriving. This area is the last frontier. We have to do something, I have to do something."
She simply started with a Facebook group. “If I'm feeling this way, I wonder how many other people of like mind are feeling this way?” She questioned.
And from that, a grassroots organization grew. It’s membership based, with an application process, but fees are waived. “We are more concerned about building community power than charging people,” says Elder.
“We want dedicated folks who want to make change in East Oakland.”
What better people than the youth? And what better way to inform their efforts to create change than to give them firsthand accounts of the issues at hand?
Going back to the conversation between Mitzi Lewis and the students, there was an exchange that I heard just before leaving the campus of Oakland SOL Middle School that still resonates with me.
“What do our unsheltered neighbors need?” One student asked toward the end of the discussion.
“Other than housing,” Nick Houston added.
“Peace of mind,” said Lewis. Adding that a simple “hello” goes a long way.
Lewis concluded by saying, “You go back to your parents and tell them, just because we look different and don’t have housing, don’t judge us by the way we look.”
Like most kids, I was taught to not talk to strangers, and to be aware of “crazy” people. And I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with that philosophy, as safety is a priority. But, if I would’ve had a platform to engage in dialogue with people from my community, I bet it would’ve erased some of the “stranger danger," the fear or preconceived notions surrounding homelessness — and that might have opened up more channels to assist people.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.