Oakland Dismantles Tiny Houses at Homeless 'Village'

On Thursday morning, scores of Oakland police officers in tandem with the Department of Public works, showed up to clear a unique homeless encampment called “The Village” at 36th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, near the MacArthur BART Station. The camp had been a grassroots partnership between homeless residents, local neighbors, and activist groups like Feed the People and Asians for Black Lives.

On inauguration weekend, they had begun building tiny homes and other amenities here in a public park, which they say the city had neglected for decades. They say this camp was in direct response to the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area and that around 16 people had taken up full-time residence here.

For nearly two weeks, scores of volunteers had helped build four tiny homes from pallets and plywood. Others had served hot meals from a makeshift kitchen, spread mulch over muddy grass to prepare for edible landscaping and provided 24/7 security for the dozen or so homeless people they say were residing there full time. They had also pulled together a donations tent, an information tent and a medical tent — all run by volunteers. Some had started calling it “The Promised Land.”

So when police and city workers arrived to vacate and demolish it, they were met by a passionate crowd of nearly 100 of the encampment’s supporters -- some wearing neon-green “legal observer” caps from the National Lawyers Guild and others chanting and carrying signs that said “homelessness is not a crime.”

One of the camp’s regular volunteers is Linda Grant. She’s an Oakland-born mother of six children. She said she’s been homeless before and understands how hard it is to survive on the street.

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“For the city to say we can’t make this type of village ... well, what else are you guys doing with it? You turned it into a dog park. Dogs before humans?” she said, referring to the dog run that borders one edge of the park. “I don’t get it.”

Red, a former resident of "The Village," works on the second floor of his shelter one day before Oakland officials tore down the encampment.
Red, a former resident of "The Village," worked on the second floor of his shelter one day before Oakland officials tore down the encampment. (Erasmo Martinez/KQED)

Oakland spokeswoman Karen Boyd said the encampment was in violation of 18 health, safety and fire codes. She said the city had also received several complaints from neighbors.

Boyd was on-site as Oakland police working with the Department of Public Works dismantled The Village with large machines Thursday. She said the solution to homelessness is permanent housing. But taking over public parks without permission is not the way to go about it.

“Had they come to us with ideas and said, ‘We have money for porta-potties. What can we do? Where can we do it? Where would be a safe place?’ That would have been different,” Boyd said.

She pointed out that the city has a pilot program called Compassionate Communities, which has sanctioned a homeless encampment at 35th and Peralta streets for a six-month trial period, sending in sanitation and social service workers to get people into housing.

But residents of the now-destroyed Promised Land said other homeless encampments, including the one at 35th and Peralta streets, are plagued by drugs and violence. This one, many of them said, was the best home they had found in a long time because it was founded on principles of self-determination, love and mutual respect.

One Village resident named Red, who didn’t want to give his last name, said he’s been homeless since 2010. He was building his own tiny home in the far corner of the park.

“You can always replace the wood,” Red said. “But you can’t replace the people and the hearts.”

As the Bay Area heads into more than a week of forecast rains, most of the homeless residents here, several sitting on the sidewalk with their few belongings stacked up beside them, said they have no idea where they will go to find shelter.

Above video produced by Erasmo Martinez.