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“State of Emergency”: Special Report on California’s Criminalization of Growing Homeless Encampments

StoryOctober 25, 2019
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In a Democracy Now! special report, we look at the rise in homelessness in many major cities across the United States. California has become the poster child for this economic and humanitarian disaster, with growing encampments in Los Angeles and the Bay Area as more people are forced onto the streets. The state is home to 12% of the country’s population but half of the country’s unsheltered people. As the crisis deepens, so has the criminalization of homelessness, with increasing efforts by city and state officials to crack down on unhoused people occupying public space. President Donald Trump made headlines this month for attacking California’s politicians over the homelessness crisis, threatening to destroy encampments, increase police enforcement and even jail unhoused people. But advocates say California has already employed hostile policies that criminalize homelessness, from laws against unsheltered people sitting on sidewalks to frequent sweeps of the encampments that have popped up on thoroughfares and under freeways across the state’s cities. One of these crackdowns is currently unfolding at a massive Oakland encampment that Democracy Now! visited just a few weeks ago.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON EDMOND: [rapping] If I could change, I’d get my momma back from the grave / We ain’t got too much lovin’ because we livin’ in the last days / Crime pays, goin’ raw could get you AIDS, you gotta wear a strap these days / All the time I stay high, tryin’ to hide my stress / 'cause the people of the world tryin' to put me to rest / Last night I had a talk with my momma before she died / and I asked God, did she serve her purpose before she died? / You see it in my eyes, brotha wanta slow down / see I ain’t mad at ya daddy that you didn’t come around / I know the times is hard, but you can make it / You see the opportunity, you take it / But what about my little baby, I got a mouth to feed / but I still wanta hang in the streets and smoke weed with the OGs / [tape] My homies rest in peace in the game / I don’t think you even know the pain / I wanta change / Fast living got me trapped in this street game / Before I die, I hope I have a chance to make a change / Fast living got me trapped in this street game / Before I die, I hope I have a chance to make a change / Fast living got me trapped in this street game / Before I die, I hope I have a chance to make a change.

AMY GOODMAN: Crooked Eye, singing “If I Could Change” by Master P and Steady Mobb’n. Crooked Eye is now homeless in Oakland. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to the crisis of homelessness in the United States, which is on the rise in many major cities. California has become the poster child for this economic and humanitarian disaster, with growing encampments in Los Angeles and the Bay Area as more people are forced into the streets. The state is home to 12% of the U.S. population, but half the country’s unsheltered people.

As the crisis deepens, so has the criminalization of homelessness, with increasing efforts by city and state officials to crack down on unhoused people occupying public space. President Donald Trump made headlines this month for attacking California’s politicians over the homelessness crisis, threatening to destroy encampments, increase police enforcement, even jail homeless people. But advocates say California is already doing that — criminalizing homelessness, from laws against unsheltered people sitting on sidewalks to frequent sweeps of the encampments that have popped up on thoroughfares and under freeways across the state’s cities.

One of these crackdowns is currently unfolding at a massive Oakland encampment that Democracy Now! visited just a few weeks ago. Just outside a Home Depot in East Oakland, between busy streets and in sight of the freeway, some 100 unhoused people have been living for months, sometimes years. The people living in this encampment make their shelter in cars, tents, makeshift structures and tiny houses. It’s one of the largest and most visible encampments of at least 90 in Oakland. But Tuesday, city workers descended on the sprawling encampment, cleared part of the site. Unhoused people were forced to leave the area for the sweep, which took two days. The other part of the encampment is expected to be cleared next week. The city of Oakland has vowed to permanently close the encampment by the new year, but the people living there say the city has not offered them viable housing alternatives. Homelessness in Oakland has grown by nearly 50% in the past two years.

Well, Democracy Now! visited the East Oakland encampment earlier this month to speak to people that live there and their advocates about the housing crisis in the Bay Area. We began with Candice Elder, founder of the community and organizing advocacy group The East Oakland Collective.

CANDICE ELDER: We are in a huge lot that is privately owned, that unhoused residents have moved onto. And there are RVs, trailers. There are cars. There are people living in their vans. And then there are some self-built structures. And then there’s also people’s commuting cars, and then there’s also animals. And then what you see here is also this encampment suffers from a lot of illegal dumping. So they are experiencing some blight issues, but, you know, either the city will come pick it up or sometimes the residents will put it all into piles. But so — and then you see people here, they’re cooking, they’re burning their trash. So, even though it’s early in the morning, there’s a lot of activity going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who lives here.

CANDICE ELDER: So, it’s a very multiracial encampment, a lot of African-American residents. We have some single mothers here. We have senior citizens. We have a large Latino and immigrant population here, a lot of Spanish speakers, and a good mix between men and women. Yeah, so, this community has been open for four to five years now. Some of the original residents are still here. But the community has grown significantly. It is huge.

AMY GOODMAN: How many unhoused people are there in California, San Francisco, Oakland?

CANDICE ELDER: So, recent news has said that California has the most unhoused population in the country, which is why we’re seeing like a lot of attention — also, you know, no thanks to Trump’s rhetoric on cleaning up California streets. But between Oakland and — well, between the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, and between L.A. County, particularly in the Skid Row area, you will find the most concentrated numbers of unhoused residents in California. The Bay Area is experiencing a huge, huge boom, so much to the point where we’re probably about neck and neck with L.A. County.

Since the latest point-in-time count, the count that happens, I think, every year, year and a half, that counts the number of unhoused people on the street in just a short period of time, really early in the morning, produced numbers that there are about 5,000 to 6,000 unsheltered people in Oakland, which is a 47% increase for us since the last point-in-time count.

Community advocates and other data from healthcare organizations actually show that there are more than 9,000 unhoused people in Oakland. That is more of a realistic number, because that counts vehicle dwellers, it counts people living in their RVs or trailers, it counts people who are couch surfing. There are even — we have college students now who are riding rapid transportation. They’re riding the BART. They are riding the bus, you know, at night in order just to have some type of shelter. So, we are — and that’s why we use the term “unhoused,” because it covers the whole gamut of people facing housing insecurity. So those numbers are high. And we need the city to actually — the city government to be realistic about those numbers, so they can apply the proper budget and resources.

AMY GOODMAN: These words — “unhoused,” “homeless,” “unsheltered” — talk about the choice of words, the description. Do you think it matters?

CANDICE ELDER: It definitely matters. You know, how we talk about the problem, how we talk about people matters. So, what I have learned from folks who are living the experience, they do not like the term “homeless,” because, you know, “home” is actually what you make of it, right? So, this is people’s new homes. It’s their new temporary homes. So they’re not necessarily homeless; they either are unsheltered or unhoused.

AMY GOODMAN: What has caused this latest surge in numbers of people who are unhoused?

CANDICE ELDER: Not being able to afford to live here. So, we have a high rate of living, which includes very high rents. So, the high rents, which have like doubled or tripled in some cases, people cannot afford to live here anymore. We need more renter protection. We need eviction defense. You know, a lot of people have been evicted from their apartments. They didn’t have the proper legal resources or representation to even fight it, so they’re on the streets. So, we have to kind of fix these economic, social and housing barriers in order to be able to address the homelessness crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the racial disparities when it comes to people who are not housed?

CANDICE ELDER: So, in the Bay Area, particularly Oakland, over 70% of the unhoused population is African-American. So, it —

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the population overall of Oakland?

CANDICE ELDER: Overall of Oakland, we are 28%. So, we’re very low numbers as far as the entire population.

AMY GOODMAN: Oakland is a quarter African-American —


AMY GOODMAN: — but three-quarters of the unhoused population here.

CANDICE ELDER: Yes, yes, yes. And the numbers of African Americans in Oakland has — you know, we’ve seen a sharp decline due to displacement, due to gentrification. So either folks are pushed out or they’re pushed onto the street. So, it really speaks to these discriminatory practices and policies in housing.


CANDICE ELDER: Such as renter protection, such as a decades-old history of redlining, you know, black folks not being able to get housing loans, being pushed out from certain neighborhoods, and this influx of the STEM, you know, and these really high-wage jobs, but not enough lower-wage jobs. And also not —

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “influx of STEM,” you mean science, technology — 

CANDICE ELDER: Yes, yes, yes. So we’re seeing these influx of tech jobs and influx of people to those jobs, but it’s pushing out the most vulnerable and lower-class residents, which is the African-American population here in Oakland.

AMY GOODMAN: Your name?

MARKAYA SPIKES: Markaya Spikes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you live here at the encampment?


AMY GOODMAN: You built this house, or someone did for you?

MARKAYA SPIKES: No, actually, this house was donated to me from the Oakland School of Arts.

AMY GOODMAN: Has it made a difference?

MARKAYA SPIKES: Yes, it has. It’s actually a real house that was actually formed by some kids. You know, they actually put it together. They brought it out, put it back up. So, it made a big difference.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many people live inside?

MARKAYA SPIKES: Me and my daughter.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about having animals so you could be safe. What do you face in terms of safety?

MARKAYA SPIKES: Well, from just being outside, period. Since I’m a female by myself, I’m facing being raped. I’m facing being assaulted. I’m facing harassment from the police department by itself. I’m facing harassment from Home Depot, just because I’m here and I’m unhoused.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about homeless shelters?

MARKAYA SPIKES: That’s a good question. To an extent, they’re OK for a temporary situation. But right now, with the way everything is going, all it is is pushing people from one shelter to another shelter. It’s called shelter hopping, which is not a good thing. I think if a shelter is in place and supposed to help you with housing, that’s what they need to do while you’re there, so other people can come in and get the same help. Certain shelters are picking and choosing who they want to help and how they want to help. And that’s another situation on why I’m out here.

ANITANEEDA BEE” DE ASIS MIRALLE: Hi, my name is Anita De Asis Miralle. Everyone calls me Needa Bee. I’m the founder and lead organizer of The Village and Feed the People, also a co-founder and member of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group and the Bay Area Landless People’s Alliance and Housing & Dignity Project.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about city housing policy. We are in a state of emergency here in Oakland?

ANITANEEDA BEE” DE ASIS MIRALLE: Yes, we are in a state of emergency, and a shelter crisis declaration has been declared in 2016. We just got the declaration reinstated this past Tuesday. What the declaration states is that it admits that there is not enough housing, whether not enough units or not enough affordable units, to house everyone. And the state of emergency, the homeless state of emergency, which was put in place in February of this year, kind of continues that narrative, that not only is there not enough housing, but because there’s not enough housing for folks to have access to, there is a state of emergency in homelessness that’s happening. And it’s happening across the country. You know, I think California might be the epicenter of it, but it’s happening across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: What you think is the solution right now?

ANITANEEDA BEE” DE ASIS MIRALLE: The ultimate solution is building deeply affordable housing, right? Who is being — so, if you look at the city’s goals and numbers, between the next — in the next four years, there is more than 50,000 market-rate and above-market-rate units that are scheduled or approved to be built. There are 1,000 affordable units, which in dealing with like the median market-rate price is $79,000. Right? Affordable or deeply affordable units, which is going to be for no-income, low-income and working-class folks, 200 units. And in the past two years, homelessness has increased in Oakland, California, by 48%. So, their permanent housing pipeline is not to scale to the crisis. But the only way they’re going to nip this homeless crisis in the bud is by building permanent housing. That’s the first thing.

And then the second thing is to stop trying to control the crisis so much. Release some public lands where people can be, and provide them with basic sanitation services — water, sanitation, porta-potties — and then depending on the needs of each encampment. Each encampment is totally different. Like —

AMY GOODMAN: How many encampments would you estimate are in Oakland?


AMY GOODMAN: Nine-zero?


AMY GOODMAN: Made up of how many people?

ANITANEEDA BEE” DE ASIS MIRALLE: It depends. Some encampments are as big as six, and some are like a hundred, like more than a hundred, like High Street.

AMY GOODMAN: Do these encampments provide community? Do they provide safety?

ANITANEEDA BEE” DE ASIS MIRALLE: Absolutely. They provide community. They provide support. I mean, homeless folks are some of the most resilient people, most resourceful people, most creative people you’ll ever meet. And the little stability and support and security that people have been able to build for themselves when there is nothing is amazing. And so, when the city comes in and knocks these encampments down, they’re literally knocking people who are on like one leg up, down on both knees.

I think what’s also interesting is, you know, with Trump just coming to California and making his big grandstanding about herding everyone and put them in government-run camps, and then you have people like Libby or Gavin Newsom, you know, puffing up their chests and being like, “No, you can’t do that” — if you actually look at what they’re signing in law — or, in Libby’s case, what she’s actually doing — they’re doing the same exact thing that Trump is threatening to do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and California Governor Newsom. Right now, when it comes to San Francisco and Oakland, what do you think would be the most important thing to happen?

ANITANEEDA BEE” DE ASIS MIRALLE: I think, on an immediate level, releasing public lands, where people can park their cars or people can build homes — like safe homes, like those — to kind of weather this crisis, weather this storm, until, like I said, the permanent housing is actually built, which isn’t going to happen immediately. You know, if we’re talking about brick and mortar, like traditional brick-and-mortar housing, that’s going to take five to seven years. But if we’re talking about alternative housing, like tiny homes, which the mayor is completely opposed to, because she said it’s too permanent. So that kind of lets you see their agenda. Their agenda is to build for the new Oakland and to ignore what we call “The Town,” right? That’s why everything they’re doing is temporary. But to just release public lands and, in those public lands, provide services. You know, this is a disaster. And if it was a fire, if it was an earthquake, the response would be so quick. But this is an economic disaster. This is a cultural disaster. This is a housing disaster. But they’re not treating it like all the other natural disasters, and they need to.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your name?

ELIZABETH EASTON: Elizabeth Easton.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. And is this your tiny house?


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you came to be here?

ELIZABETH EASTON: Yes. I was living in Beaumont, Texas. I have children here. But I was living in Beaumont. And Harvey hit. Hurricane Harvey. And it was devastating, so I had to leave from there. I came back here.

AMY GOODMAN: How has it been to live here?

ELIZABETH EASTON: It’s hard, because it’s a lot of different, you know, cultures, and we have problems with users and some that don’t. So, it gets kind of difficult sometimes. But so far, it’s getting better. I think so.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it compare to Texas?

ELIZABETH EASTON: Ah, I’ve never experienced anything like this in Texas. Never.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ELIZABETH EASTON: People have a tendency to, when they see someone homeless, they help. They help. They’ll find you a place to live. As far as a place to live and food, go to Texas. You’re not going to see much of this at all. At all.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel forgotten here?

ELIZABETH EASTON: I know I am. I know I am tossed aside.

AMY GOODMAN: Tossed aside. That’s Elizabeth Easton, one of the residents of the East Oakland encampment, partially cleared earlier this week. Her tiny house remains standing, but most of the surrounding shelters have all been destroyed by the authorities.

After leaving that encampment, we traveled just down the road, passing a number of tents under the freeway to arrive at a smaller encampment, where at least 10 people were living in trucks and makeshift structures. Enclosed by fencing on a busy street corner, the encampment sits near the freeway and just blocks from the Fruitvale station, where 22-year-old African American Oscar Grant was shot to death by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009. Some of the people living on this cramped lot were forced there when a larger encampment across the street was shut down by the city earlier this year.

When we got to the area, one of the people living there came out to greet us: Aaron Edmond, known as “Crooked Eyes” or “Crook.” In the '90s, he was a member of the hip-hop duo Steady Mobb'n, whose first record made the Billboard Top 40.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your name?


AMY GOODMAN: And how long have you lived here?

AARON EDMOND: I’ve been here for about two-and-a-half to three years. Yeah, I was herded down here from the city of Oakland. They got a lot of people on 16th, which is like four blocks up, and they had all the police round us up and say all the homeless people are designated to come down here to this — that gate, that gate. That land that’s gated up right there used to be open land. And they told us all the come down here. And they even picked us up and dropped us off down here.

AMY GOODMAN: They picked you up like in buses?

AARON EDMOND: They picked us up in police cars and drove us down here and told us this is where we have to be. It’s either this or jail.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you came down here, and then what happened?

AARON EDMOND: We came down here, then they wanted to take the land back. As the city, they — it seem like they don’t care. All they want to do is acquire land to build property for the rich to make more money off of, and the poor is just being decimated at every turn.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re just going to move inside this encampment, because the noise and the fumes from the truck, from the street, it’s a little overpowering. If you were to apply for a job, you need to be able to give an address. What would you do based on you living here?

AARON EDMOND: I would give the gas station’s address or, you know, an address that’s close to me, that’s right here or something like that. That’s all I could do. I mean, I have no — no home, no way to — you know? Or — 

AMY GOODMAN: So how long have you been without a home?

AARON EDMOND: For about five years.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does it make you feel? What does it do to you?

AARON EDMOND: It makes you almost feel unhuman. I mean, because society stereotypes a homeless person as a person that’s on drugs, a person that don’t want to do nothing, a person that’s just given up on life, that just want to go sit by the wayside and do drugs and just give up on life. That’s not true. A lot of us was here — like, I receive Social Security, you know, for my mental health state. But —


AARON EDMOND: Yeah, I’m on SSI. But when they raised the rent, and I only get $850, and now where I was paying $450, it’s raised up to $900, and I only get $850. I mean, where’s the room for groceries, PG&E, light and gas, water? I mean, it leaves no room for nothing. So, when that happens, you have two choices: either you’re going to go commit crime and try to stay up in there, or you’re coming out here.

AMY GOODMAN: How has being without a house changed you?

AARON EDMOND: It has humbled me. It has made me very grateful for when I did have a home. And for all those that you do have a home, you know, that you really have something special, I mean, because when — at nighttime, when it gets cold, you have adequate shelter. You don’t feel the wind. I feel the wind. I feel all the elements. You know, I have next to no shelter. And it’s like, I really feel humbling. It’s a humbling experience.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you live here?

AARON EDMOND: Right now I live in the vac truck that’s right behind this structure right here. It used to be a U-Haul truck, and I made it into a little room and shelter, you know, to keep me from the elements and to try to keep warm and dry at times.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you show it to us?

AARON EDMOND: Oh, yeah, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you dream of living?

AARON EDMOND: I dream of living anywhere that’s a home, that’s a house, that has running water, a faucet, a bathtub. I would really love to take a bath for a change. I mean, I would really like that. I mean, that would mean the world for me, just to take a bath or a hot shower, you know, normally, like other people, anywhere. I mean, anywhere I would be given a chance to stay, I would treat it like a mansion. I mean, it would be like — it would be like my everything.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Edmond. He said he last took a bath maybe more than seven months ago. He’s known as Crooked Eye or Crook. In the '90s, he was a member of the hip-hop duo Steady Mobb'n, whose first record made the Billboard Top 40. Now he is homeless in Oakland.

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