Activist Stefani Echeverría-Fenn chained herself to a window in one of the rooms at the motel to call attention to the need for more hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic. (Erin Baldassari/KQED)
After a nearly 16-hour standoff, a woman barricaded inside an Oakland motel room left peacefully Saturday morning.
Stefani Echeverría-Fenn had chained herself to security bars outside a window at the Palms Motel in Oakland to protest the lack of hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. Supporters glued the door shut and used furniture to block the entrance.
She and supporters have been paying to house 14 homeless people in hotels for the past few weeks, including many who are older and have serious health conditions. But their money was running out, and they want the city of Oakland to step in.
"We have had a small army of volunteers trying to access the hotel rooms that the city claims are available for unhoused folks," Echeverría-Fenn said, "but the bureaucratic red tape is immense."
The Oakland City Council unanimously approved a resolution on March 24 requesting the city administrator acquire facilities, such as hotels, to house people experiencing homelessness and to seek reimbursement for those facilities from the federal government.
Berton said the mayor has no power to "commandeer" hotels or private properties.
"It’s important for our residents to know that underneath the demand for officials to overtake a private property," he said, "there is no legal authority or power to do so."
But activists disagree, citing powers explicitly laid out in the city's Code of Ordinances, which state the city administrator can, in times of emergency, "obtain vital supplies, equipment, and such other properties found lacking and needed for the protection of life and property ... and, if required immediately, to commandeer the same for public use."
As of May 20, county officials said homeless residents occupied 411 rooms in hotels the county has leased, including some rooms with more than one person. The rooms are available to people who have nowhere to self-isolate and have tested positive for COVID-19, are awaiting test results, or are medically vulnerable to the virus.
However, Jerri Applegate Randrup, a spokesperson for the county, said there are no more rooms available for people who are elderly or have underlying health conditions.
"We know the need is far greater than our resources," Applegate Randrup said in an email to KQED, "and we're working tirelessly to secure more rooms."
Although the demonstration wasn't successful in forcing the city to pay for more rooms, Echeverría-Fenn said it spurred people to donate money, which allowed the 14 people already in hotel rooms — plus some others who wandered upon the demonstration and sought help from the group — to stay one more night.
Rachel Clemente and her husband, Martin Clemente, natives of San Francisco and Oakland, respectively, were staying at a shelter in Berkeley before the pandemic hit. But Rachel Clemente said she didn't feel safe there because the beds were too close together and there wasn't enough space to socially distance.
They had tried to get into one of the county hotel rooms, but hadn't moved off a waiting list, they said. At 47, she has health problems that make her especially vulnerable to the virus. The couple had been using Rachel Clemente's disability checks to pay for motel rooms.
"We've been spending $85 here, $85 there, but now," Martin Clemente said, stopping short. His wife finished his sentence: "Now we don't have nowhere to go."
The couple met up with organizers outside the Palms Motel, where they helped get the Clementes a room for the night. Later that evening, the organizers did the same for a man and his young son, who also happened upon the protest.
"We have thousands of people in Oakland right now who don't have the ability to shelter in place because they are living in encampments, cars and RVs," said Talya Husbands-Hankins, an organizer with Love and Justice in the Streets, an advocacy organization for people experiencing homelessness. "This is a life and death emergency, and what we need is to save people's lives."
Last summer, Echeverría-Fenn cut through the chain link fence bordering a vacant lot at 37th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in West Oakland, where she lives. The lot used to hold a gas station but had sat fallow for more than a decade.
She started helping unhoused neighbors move into the lot. Dubbed 37MLK, or "The Garden," it serves as home for around two dozen people. Unlike many encampments that line major thoroughfares in Oakland, the lot is neat and organized, has port-a-potties and a solar shower. It's home to primarily older women who grew up in West Oakland.
But then one of the resident's boyfriends tested positive for the coronavirus, putting all the other residents at risk, and supporters of the encampment moved to get people into rooms, where they could better self-isolate.
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They raised around $4,000, Echeverría-Fenn said, including about $2,000 of her own money.
Eric Aikens is an Oakland native who has been living in his car for the past year. Although he doesn't sleep at 37MLK, he often comes by to take advantage of donations distributed there and was one of the people Echeverría-Fenn helped put up in hotel rooms. He has a variety of health issues, include lung problems that necessitated surgery and arthritis that makes it difficult to sleep cramped in his car.
Staying at the hotel, even for just a week, has made a difference in his health, he said.
"It makes you feel human," Aikens said. "I don't know how else to say it, but human."