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On the Brink: Homelessness Before and During COVID-19

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On the Brink: Homelessness before and during COVID-19

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. many of us were told to “shelter in place” in order to minimize the spread of disease. But, for a lot of people who are forced to live on the street, its not possible to just close the door and retreat into safety. Today’s show is about homelessness. We start by following two women as they undergo several evictions, even thought they’re already living in encampments. And we talk about the impact these ongoing displacements have on their mental and physical health. Then, we take a look at how homeless communities are dealing with COVID-19 and finally, we talk about market forces in the housing crisis and how to fight for “the right to housing.” 

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Transcript below.


  • Mouangjoi Tracy Saelee, Kimberly Medrano and Morgan – former residents of an encampment at East 12th Street and 23rd Avenue in Oakland, California.
  • Joe Devries – Assistant to the City Administrator in Oakland
  • Candice Elder – Executive Director, East Oakland Collective
  • Noni Session – East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative


  • Reporter – Lucy Kang

Making Contact Staff:

  • Producer and Host – Salima Hamirani
  • Staff Producers – Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Salima Hamirani
  • Executive Director – Lisa Rudman
  • Audience Engagement Manager – Kathryn Styer


  • Blue Dot Sessions – Kirkus – Architect – Music for Video – 2019
  • Blue Dot Sessions – Gambrel- Architect – Music for Video – 2019
  • Blue Dot Sessions – Li Fonte- Architect – Music for Video – 2019
  • Blue Dot Sessions – Curiously and Curiously – Calumet – Music for Video – 2019
  • Soft and Furious – Superconnected Sleep – The Merfolk I Should Turn to Be – 2017




Salima Hamirani:

I’m Salima Hamirani.  And on today’s Making Contact, as the housing crisis expands across the country, more and more people find themselves living in encampments, trying to create a home with whatever they have. But even then, they face displacement.


Tracy: I just couldn’t believe it. Like I’m back on the streets. I couldn’t believe this. Why would you guys do that? Like, you guys give us hope and now… You guys know that we’re getting like we’re fighting another woman and we’re fighting with dudes, men.


Salima Hamirani:

We take a look at the housing crisis in Oakland, California, and the waves of evictions people face even when they’re already living on the street. And we talk to activists working with homeless communities during the coronavirus pandemic.


The Bay Area has one of the highest homeless populations in the United States. In Oakland, for example, new encampments sprawl under freeways and abandoned lots. And they are something many residents have taught themselves to ignore on the way to work. Less visible, however, are the cycles of evictions unhoused people face at the hands of the city and the toll it takes.


Reporter Lucy Kang follows two women as they struggle to find peace and safety on the street.


Tracy Seeley: These are not even animal living standards, I don’t think because I wouldn’t even my dog living here, seriously, look at this place it’s a dump.


Lucy Kang:  Tracy Seeley is putting on fake eyelashes in front of a mirror.


Tracy: I was using a mirror,


Lucy Kang: she’s sitting on the porch of a tiny house on a dirt lot. We’re at the corner of Oakland’s East 12th Street and 23rd Avenue, next to an overpass and train tracks. Most people would call this place a homeless encampment, but for people like Tracy, it’s as close to home as they’re going to find in the Bay Area, one of the regions that’s hardest hit by the housing crisis. I visited in January of twenty nineteen. That’s when I met Tracy. I also met a woman named Kimberly Medrano who lives here. Like Tracy, she says it’s hard living in the encampment. There’s been a lot of problems like trash.


Kimberley: They only allow the trash to be picked up twice a week. You won’t let us have garbage cans or dumpsters to put it in. So we’re just throwing it on the ground. The rat population is crazy.


Lucy Kang:  There’s also a problem with the toilets. Officially, the city provided porta potties, but the contractor didn’t clean them on schedule, so they overflowed.


What I do, I crap in a bag and get rid of the bag or I use a bucket and then pour out the pee.


And then there were fires, fires there all the time. Every other day there was some kind of fire. There’s been major fires over there. People know.


Lucy Kang: And there were even a number of deaths.


Tracy?: five deaths have happened. Ever since I’ve been here, five people have died on this ground because of natural causes. They claim natural causes, but I don’t think so. I think because of them being outside and so cold, they get sick, you know. So then, you know, their body can’t take the cold and they die.


Lucy Kang: Despite all the problems, the residents of the encampment tried to make as best a life as they could. Take, Kimberly for example, she lived in a wooden structure with a smaller tent inside for a bedroom. She used a propane stove for heat and she got her water from a nearby faucet.


Kimberley:  And I would heat a little bit on the stove. And I have my bowl and have my mirror right there.  And then I’d wash my face, brush my teeth, and whenever I needed to do take a bath sometimes, full bath.


Lucy Kang: Kimberly carved out a home in East 12th and 23rd that gave her some feeling of autonomy and stability. She stayed for that. And because there was no other place to go. The thing is, this encampment was the product of other evictions.


Back in 2017, the city of Oakland, California, promised this land to an organization called The Village that ran a self-governed unhoused community. It was grassroots, backed by local support, and it had the potential to be more stable than most places. But things didn’t work out.


Tracy was living on a median strip on East 12th and 16th Avenue, a few blocks away. And then the city made her move, which it did to a lot of unhoused people around Oakland.


Tracy One day the city dump truck came over. Told us we had to move from there or they are going to throw all this stuff away, and if the people can’t move their stuff they’re going to get thrown away or whatever. They were literally put on a dump truck, came in and dumped us out here.


Lucy Kang: Oakland assistant city administrator Joe DeVries says it was necessary to shut down the East 12th Street median.


DeVries: That location was extremely problematic and some of the activity that was happening there. There were some fires. There were people that had built structures in the trees.


Lucy Kang: And the city thought it had a better idea. They evicted everyone off the median and then said they could move to East 12th and 23rd, where the city was just starting to provide some services. But there were too many people for this limited plot of land.


DeVries: We did encourage them to move down to East 12th and 23rd. It was a small group we think around 12, maybe at the highest 15 people.


Lucy Kang: What does encouraged mean?


DeVries:  Well, it was one of the few times where people said, where should we go? And we said, well, if you want to go down here, there’s going to be port-a-potties, weekly garbage service and hand-washing stations, which was a new thing. So at the East 12th median, we’re like, all right. Yeah. We are closing this. It’s dangerous. You can’t be here. We really feel strongly that we have to close this encampment. That one’s just down the street. You can be there. It seemed like a logical thing to help with that process.


Lucy Kang:  Around the same time, the city evicted several homeless encampments across Oakland and word got out that the city was letting people stay at East 12th and 23rd. Here’s Kimberly again.


Kimberley: There’s a hundred people there. Hundred people. How much garbage do you think? And then people were just dumping stuff, like their garbage or their furniture. And we’d have to stop and say, look, people live here, don’t do that. It made us look bad. We’re not all bad people. We’re not all lazy people or, you know, because all it takes is one person to mess it up.


Lucy Kang: At east 12th and 23rd. Everywhere I look are tents or tiny houses and piles of clothes, broken furniture and trash bags. It feels like a place in transition. And that’s because people are getting ready to move out. Not because of the overcrowding or the overflowing toilets, not even because of the rats, but because the city is just days away from evicting everyone. It turns out that the city let the Village build a community here before it knew the site had to be cleared for construction. So now everyone has to move again into another situation that the city thinks is a better idea. The eviction takes place over several days. As it starts, City workers descend on East 12th and 23rd. Kimberly describes frantically trying to save her things before they’re destroyed.


Kimberley: It was really muddy. It was slippery. There was garbage everywhere, people’s stuff in the way. There was so many police officers and public works people. It was ridiculous. I mean, had to go around them. So everything was broken in the street and everything. Nobody’s helping us with traffic. Me and three of my neighbors at least were flattened. Already there was nothing left.


Lucy Kang: When we think of displacement, we typically think of people being pushed out of apartments or houses or people forced to move far from cities they used to live in. But there’s another type of displacement that’s happening in cities across the country. It happens over and over again. Nearly every week. On the street, in tent cities or encampments, underpasses or public parks, people who have already lost their homes are forced to undergo the trauma of eviction not once, not twice, but multiple times. People like Kimberly and Tracy.


So what happens after Kimberly and Tracy get kicked out of East 12th and 23rd? Usually they’d move to another encampment or back onto the sidewalks to await another eviction. But the city had launched a new program at the end of 2017 to temporarily shelter people in dozens of Tuffsheds, basically rudimentary two person cabins made by the company that also makes backyard tool sheds. Oakland city officials call them community cabins. The city run Tuffshed sites are meant to provide emergency shelter to residents for six months and then connect residents to support services.


DeVries: I’m not sure if they have a one particular unit they want you to see or not.


Lucy Kang: Assistant City Administrator Joe DeFreeze shows me the new site right before it’s set to officially open.


DeVries: you can see actually that they’re not they’re not tool sheds. There’s bats of insulation underneath here. And then they have this one.


Lucy Kang: They may be more stable than a tent under an overpass, but they also lack a lot of things houses would have.


DeVries: They don’t have full electrical in part due to just cost and due to safety. We don’t have running water at the site. That’s a that’s a heavy lift from a contracting point of view, from a construction point of view. But we do have Lava Mae providing shower services a few times a week.


Lucy Kang: The city’s strategy was to open these sites while closing surrounding encampments and not just on East 12th Street, but all over Oakland. The city originally said there would be enough space at the Tuffshed site for just about everyone getting displaced. But it turns out they didn’t have enough spots for everyone. Here’s Joe DeVries. four months after the eviction.


DeVries: there were more people at the site than originally were there when we did the census. It was really hard to figure out who actually lived there, who didn’t.


Lucy Kang: sort of from the beginning, there weren’t enough spots at the Tuffsheds to accommodate all the people from the encampments, no?.


DeVries: Well, it does mean that, but we don’t have enough spots to accommodate the homeless in Oakland and emergency shelter right now. I mean, that’s that’s absolutely true.


Lucy Kang: That means the city forced a lot of people back onto the sidewalks after they closed the encampment at East 12th and 23rd. That’s after the city encouraged people to move to the encampment. Fortunately, Tracy and Kimberly didn’t end up on the street, at least not right away. They were both given spots in the Tuffsheds, which sounds great. A little cabin all to yourself and one other person, a little warmer and more protected. But the sheds come with their own set of problems. They all had to agree to rules.


DeVries: The rules are pretty lax. You pretty much just can’t start fires. You can’t sell drugs, and you can’t be physically violent towards another person.


Lucy Kang: But there are more rules. Leave for more than 72 hours and you lose your spot. You’re not allowed burners or open flames. And if you break the rules, you’re asked to leave. According to figures the city sent me in July 2019, over 40 percent of people who left the Miller Avenue Tuffsheds were evicted for violating the rules. And after living self-sufficiently on the streets or rather being forced to, some people found it hard to adjust to rules and authority. Here’s Kimberly Medrano again.


Kimberly Medrano: Well, come to find out. We’re not able to cook here at all. So it’s hard. I’m used to cooking. We’re starving, you know, and then we’re at the mercy of whatever they cook for breakfast. Watch out. Really cook anything for breakfast? Maybe they heat some up here. You’re kind of at their mercy. And, you know, it’s at the end of the month. I mean, I’ve lost weight. I know that by my bras way too big. unfortunately, that’s where I lose it first.


Lucy Kang: And in the end, the tough sheds are not a permanent solution. You’re only allowed to stay six months.


DeVries: The hope is that we can move people out of there and into housing so that we can invite more people in.


Lucy Kang: But the city’s data from July twenty nineteen shows that only about a quarter of people at the Miller Avenue Tuffshed site went into housing after six months. For the remaining three quarters, people either abandoned the program or were kicked out.


And what happens to them next underlines the human cost of these ongoing displacements.


After the Tuffsheds, a few lucky residents did find housing like Kimberly. Kimberly got subsidized housing through a program run by Kaiser Permanente and Bay Area Community Services or BACS. She seems much more relaxed the next time I talk to her.


I guess specifically, how is your day to day like life changed?


Kimberly Medrano: Well, basically, I’m getting some sleep, which I wasn’t getting with the roommate I had in the Tuffsheds and in the chaos. It’s a lot more quiet. It’s nice to take a shower everyday if I want to.


Lucy Kang: The program was subsidizing most of Kimberly’s rent, but that stopped earlier this year. I wasn’t able to reach Kimberly, though a BACS spokesperson did tell me that all participants were still in housing. I should also mention that a recent KPIX News investigation questions BACS’ long term effectiveness. Ultimately, Kimberly says she wants to be on her own. She wants to buy a trailer.


Kimberly Medrano: It’s like a little home and it would be mine and I could pay house for it.


Lucy Kang: Most people, however, are not as lucky as Kimberly. Tracy, for example, is back on the streets, a block away from the old spot. When I talk to her this time, she’s with Morgan, who’s not using her real name. They were both in the Miller Avenue new Tuffsheds around the same time, and they both got evicted after physical altercations with other residents, Evictions aren’t new to Tracy and Morgan, but getting evicted from the city run Tuffsheds hit hard because it was a place they were supposed to feel safe.


Tracy: I just can’t believe it. I’m back on the streets. I can’t believe this. Why would you guys do that? You know, give us hope. And now you guys do us, like you guys know that we’re getting like we’re fighting another woman and we’re fighting with dudes, men.


Lucy Kang: And for them, it’s literally a life or death situation. Morgan says she was scared to go to sleep after she got evicted from the Tuffsheds.


Morgan: On several occasions, one of my girlfriends, she woke up and there was somebody having sex with her and the reason why she woke up to that is she had been up for so long trying to stay awake that finally she passed out and went to sleep, didn’t mean to, but went to sleep. And when she woke up, that’s what she woke up to.


Lucy Kang: Sexual and physical assault are disturbingly common among unhoused women. A 2014 study in San Francisco showed that 60 percent of unhoused women experienced violence, including sexual violence, in the last six months. The women I spoke to thought about it a lot.


VOICE: as a woman, you know. I shouldn’t even have to go through what I went through. And as a city, you know, they should have, you know, low income housing for people to be able to stay inside so they don’t have to live out here. To put themselves at risk like this, you know, because I’m fortunate that I’m still alive. Other people would not have made it like, did you know?


Lucy Kang: It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the scale of homelessness and stories from women like Tracy and Morgan and Kimberly, but women like them are also on the forefront of changing how the city responds. Oakland is a testing ground for solutions that come from unhoused people and women in particular.


They include self-governed tiny house encampments like the Village or the orchestrated squatting campaigns like Moms for Housing that target corporately owned buildings sitting empty all over Oakland. At least some of the answers to the homelessness crisis will come and have to come from unhoused people themselves, living on the streets and know all too well what’s at stake if they can’t find safe places to live. This is Lucy Kang reporting for Making Contact from Oakland, California.


Salima Hamarani: You were just listening to reporter Lucy Kang talking about the ongoing raids on homeless encampments and the emotional and physical toll they take on the people who live there. And you’re listening to Making Contact. To listen to any past shows, visit radio project dot org. Subscribe to our podcast, get our updates or support our work at radio project dot org.


Reporter Lucy Kang worked on that piece before the coronavirus pandemic. So we wanted to do an update on her segment by taking a look at how homeless communities are dealing with Covid 19. And for that, we got in touch with Candace Elder, executive director of the East Oakland Collective.


So, Candace, how are people you’re working with, particularly the homeless, responding to Covid 19?


Candace Elder: They are responding as best as they can. Curbside communities have experienced sanitation issues before Covid 19., this lack of access to showers, portable toilets, hand-washing stations, trash pickup. And in the Covid 19 shelter in place, folks who had gym memberships, you know, the gym is closed. So they came to use the gyms to take a shower, to wash your hands, to clean up. There were the mobile shower buses, and I believe some of them have suspended their services due to health and safety concerns. So people are relying on supplies, but then the supplies are scarce. You know, there’s like no hand sanitizer in the world right now.


Salina Hamarini: And how are people in curbside communities dealing with the shelter in place order?


Candace Elder: So I think our unhoused residents are very resilient. Especially like the seniors that I work with who are living on the streets, they kind of shelter in place anyways for safety reasons. So they’re afraid. You know, they go outside, if they are away for too long that their stuff will be stolen. You know, they have pets and things to watch over. I am seeing the fear starting to increase a little bit because they’re lacking supplies. And then now with curbside communities are suffering from food scarcity. That’s when it hit home for a lot of people. So the agency such as EOC and a lot of my colleagues, a lot of the even larger like nonprofits, the soup kitchens, folks are closed. So EOC, we have been scrambling to find new food sources. Pre Covid 19 we were serving 400 meals a week and our caterer closed. So now we have been scrambling and working with generous and gracious donations from restaurants. We’re exploring getting excess produce from farmer’s market. So we’re just having to improvise.


Salima Hamirani: across the country, homeless encampments are among the most vulnerable communities when it comes to disease. And that’s been true even before Covid 19, there have been outbreaks already in streetside communities of diseases like hepatitis and even so-called mediæval diseases like typhus. And that’s because of sanitation problems and because it’s hard to do, quote, social distancing on the street.


Chant: Hotels for the homeless.  These protesters are in their cars outside of the Moscone Center in San Francisco.


The Moscone Center is basically a huge open auditorium in which the city wanted to house the homeless during the pandemic. Beds were placed on the floor six feet apart and residents would be breathing in the same air in an enclosed space. It’s basically a massive shelter. And that makes Candace worried.


Candace Elder: because shelters is just a mass of people in one room. They’re sleeping, walking and breathing in very close proximity to a lot of people. Then that’s the problem with shelters. That’s the problem with the city of Oakland. Tuffshed cabin communities, when there’s two strangers to a room. So we’re trying to lessen contact between people to prevent the outbreak.


Salima: Candace, like the protesters you can hear, have a better idea.


Protester: We’re outside London Breed’s press conference right now where she has also said that she was going to put in the thousands of people who were on the streets of San Francisco into housing, into hotel rooms. She hasn’t done it yet. We’re demanding that those people get into housing and get to the safe, healthy spaces to live. We need housing for the homeless in hotels, for the homeless, to fight the spread of Covid.


Candace Elder: Let’s open up these hotel rooms not only for those who are sick or showing symptoms, but, you know, hotel rooms for any unhoused person so that they can actually shelter and truly, truly shelter in place.


Salima Hamarani: That was Candace Elder, executive director of the East Oakland Collective. And just as an update. The protest outside of the Moscone Center successfully convinced the city of San Francisco not to shelter the homeless there. Protesters are continuing to push the city to use empty hotel rooms instead. So when the first half of the show, our reporter Lucy Kang, followed two women as they underwent several evictions, even though they were already homeless, we wanted to end our show talking about why so many people are forced to live on the street and what we can possibly do to combat the housing crisis. Joining us is Noni Session.


Noni Session: My name is Noni Session. I am a third generation West Oaklander, an anthropologist, researcher and the executive director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Co-operative


Salima: Noni argues that we need to totally change the way that we think about homelessness.


Noni: There is this sort of overall thing we call the housing crisis, which is not really a housing crisis. It’s a distribution crisis. It’s a political crisis. There’s the thing called mass homelessness. Right. But what it is, is racialized displacement.


Salima: In fact, she argues that we need to start thinking about housing as a right, a human right, and not as something that we’re forced to earn through the market.


Noni: If there was someone withholding water, right, withholding food from a family, it would become very clear to you that that was cruel, that it was anti-human. Right. If we extract housing from that really kind of insidious symbolic framework called the commodity, then it brings it into a question of humanity and the purpose of cities and governments, which is to take care of its people and make sure its people have their basic needs.


Salima Hamirani: Activists have been pushing governments to treat housing as a basic need for decades now, like this group of women who took over empty homes in Los Angeles. They call themselves Reclaiming Our Homes, and they’re modeled on a similar direct action that started in Oakland called Moms for Housing. Here are some members of Reclaiming Our Homes.


Good morning, everyone. My name is Ruby I’m a parent of three. We’ve been having a very difficult housing situation for some time. We are urging that vacant houses become homes. What we’re gonna do is we’re going to occupy this house, make it a home. We’re going to bring life to it, not only in the inside with human beings, but on the outside.


Hello, my name is Marta Chudero. I am from Reclaiming Our Homes. I was born and raised here in California.


when I was growing up, Skid Row was in downtown L.A. And now all of California is Skid Row, that’s a shame on the government. There are houses here that are abandoned for 30 years. There’s people in tents. Families in fear, the most vulnerable. And that’s why I’m urging the governor to stand by our side and meet our demands. We want all of these houses to be occupied by human beings. Now, immediately, right now. with the corona virus, it is really a safety hazard. To have all these people on the streets. while, there’s empty houses. They’re state owned. and they’re empty. We’re not doing anything wrong. All the reclaimers are in vulnerable housing situations. For myself, I’m a mother of two daughters and we’ve been in unstable housing for a year and a half. And they have this anxiety due to that increases our vulnerability to illness, not only mental health, but physical as well. This is a health hazard. Housing is a human right.


Salima: OK, so Noni, you know, we just heard from some members of reclaiming our homes, who had to forcibly take over an empty building for shelter during Covid 19. And my question for you is, what surprised you about the way the cities responded to Covid 19 and what they say they can and cannot do?


Noni: The thing that has most surprised me is that the capital has become available to emergency house folks when folks have been struggling with our city and municipality for at least since 2011 to provide emergency housing for folks, to get them off the street and to channel food and support and resources to them. When we’ve been told that there is no money available for it.


There’s no organization or infrastructure, a way to hold that work. But it has suddenly appeared out of budgets that were opaque.


Salima: So, OK. Do you think there’s a way to use that momentum in a time of crisis to keep pushing society to be more fair?


Noni: This is the thing about capitalist production is emergency capitalism is how we’re all kept off balance. There there’s always capital available for the emergency because there is always reserve capital. But when you are trying to access that capital, to normalize people, to build dignified housing, there is when you are not going to be able to access capital under this new economy that needs to have really vulnerable and destabilised people.


Salima: Noni So then you think the shift, the excess capital we’re seeing right now is temporary?


Noni: I like what I’m seeing, right? I’m seeing a lot of solidarity networks forming, and so where I believe that we can extend our organizing is where almost every sustained political movement has extended its organizing to actual black and brown folk who are the subject of the capitalist mill. Right. And so it’s really great to see the white folk and the privileged folk and even the working class and working poor folk coalescing around this vision. And we need to bring a larger segment of our community into this vision and into this conversation.


Salima: You were just listening to Noni Session, executive director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Co-operative, talking about market forces and the housing crisis and how to combat them.


And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. We want to hear from you.


What do you think about the housing crisis and coronavirus? During the conversation on Facebook or Twitter, handle is making underscore contact. And on Instagram, we’re making contact radio project. The  Making Contact team includes Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Aysha Choudhury, Lisa Rudman, Kathryn Styer.


And I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to making contact.



Author: Radio Project

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