Every weekend afternoon since mid-January, “The Village,” a small community located on a plot of land between the 880 freeway and the BART tracks in East Oakland, has been bustling with activity. The Village is one of the new safe haven sites sanctioned by the city of Oakland where people are allowed to build tiny houses for homeless people on previously-unused land. This is a new attempt by the city to move homeless people into permanent or transitional housing, following the Oakland City Council’s declaration of a shelter crisis two years ago, and again in October.
On this particular Saturday, volunteers are spending the day outside, spreading mulch, preparing and serving tacos with a generous side of guacamole, and helping to build the frame for what will become the first house at The Village.
Anita de Asis, who goes by Needa Bee, is a co-founder of The Village, and runs the show. With her dark hair pulled back in a loose bun, Bee is always moving around, and often seems to be pulled in multiple directions at once. She’s constantly drawn into something on her cellphone, or pulled away by an urgent phone call concerning general operations at The Village.
Today, in the span of about twenty minutes, Bee is approached by a number of people seeking her assistance. First, a new volunteer, a young woman with her hair wrapped in a light blue scarf, comes up asking how she can get involved. Bee assigns her to help spread mulch with a few other volunteers. Next, a woman and her two high school-aged kids hands Bee a small wad of cash, calling it a personal donation. Bee responds by asking their names and giving her sincere thanks. Later, a Spanish-speaking couple approaches, wondering how they can sign up for housing for them and their three small children. With the help of a translator, Bee adds them to the list and tells them they’ll be a priority for housing, since they have children.
Building the houses has been a slow process so far. Construction started on February 2, and on Saturday, volunteers were completing the frame for the first house on the lot. Bee says that they’re hoping to build 40 homes for about 50 people, but it can be tough, since the program is run entirely by volunteers, and most of the construction only takes place on weekends.
“We’re trying to get the residents into it,” Bee says of the building process. “But everyone is in such a different state of crisis and survival, it’s not easy.”
The first house is being built for an older woman named Barbara, who has been homeless for six months after leaving a convalescent home in Alameda. Barbara is wheelchair-bound, and currently lives in a tent on the lot. She says that she hates living in her tent “because of the rats” that are drawn to the lot due to trash and illegal dumping.
Most people living on the lot now are in tents and makeshift shelters. The previous weekend, a small fire had broken out on the west side, causing police and fire trucks to show up. This fire came just days before a man was killed in a similar fire in an unsanctioned homeless encampment in North Oakland. No one was injured, but the fire raised concerns about how the city might respond in relation to Village members’ future construction plans. Although some people worried that city officials could try to use the fire as an excuse to shut down the project, that hasn’t happened yet.
This isn’t the first time members of The Village have tried to build tiny houses for the homeless. In January, 2017, they felt called to action after the presidential inauguration. The group got together in Grove Shafter Park and began building houses, but without the blessing of the city. The city demolished the homes within the month, due to various health and safety violations. Members of The Village spent the rest of the year fighting with the city to get the right to build, and finally got approval in December.
“They’ve been pretty hands-off,” says Bee, of the city administration. However, she is excited about a new plan for nighttime security that she’s been organizing with the help of Oakland City Councilmember-at-large, Rebecca Kaplan. “When the lights go out is when the security’s really needed,” she says, referring to homeless women who have been raped at the site, and residents who feel unsafe in their tents.
Bee is optimistic about the potential for The Village. She says she hopes to be able to move most people into permanent housing, but understands the limitations of the space, when considering the number of people who are applying for housing. There are currently about 80 people living on the lot, with only half as many houses planned to be built.
While unpeeling a ripe blood orange—one of the many food donations they’ve received from enthusiastic neighbors and supportive community groups—Bee talks about some of the restrictions of The Village, and their ultimate goal of moving residents to permanent housing. One issue is that they aren’t equipped to provide mental health services, although Bee would like to make those resources available to residents. “The reality is that some people will never be ready to be self-sufficient,” she says.