After three months, The Village homeless camp confronts problems from overcrowding

Protesters rallied outside the Wiley Manuel Courthouse on Friday, March 16. (Photo by Caron Creighton)

Protesters rallied outside the Wiley Manuel Courthouse on Friday, March 16. (Photo by Caron Creighton)

Every sunny weekend since mid-January, volunteers have been building houses for the unsheltered residents of a local homeless encampment called The Village. Despite construction being pushed back due to rain, they are almost ready to move their first resident into a home.

The Village is an activist-led group that’s been working to provide transitional housing to the homeless by building tiny homes on a plot of land at East 12th Street and 23rd Avenue, under a highway overpass in Oakland. The Village is considered a “Safe Haven” site, and last year the city provided the land as a space to build homes. There are currently about 80 people on the lot, with about half as many houses planned for construction.

But the Village’s relationship with the city has been rocky. This is actually the second incarnation of the Village—the first one was an unsanctioned site they built in February, 2017, in Grove Shafter Park. Their unregulated encampment was quickly torn down by the city, spurring several months of negotiations that eventually led to their current agreement.

But even now that they have agreed on the land parcel, Village leaders say they have faced a number of challenges in the early stages of their project, many of which they blame on city administrators. Most of these tensions stem from overcrowding: In February, a small cooking fire broke out on the west side of the camp, and most recently, one resident attacked another with a two-by-four. The Village also faces the likelihood that they’ll have to move later this year—although both activists and city officials agree this may be a positive development.

Co-founder Anita de Asis, who goes by Needa Bee, claims that when The Village took over their plot of land, the city had already moved a number of people from nearby encampments to the area. This can cause problems when people who have known each other for years, and may not get along, end up living in close proximity to each other, Bee said.

Bee believes this was done deliberately, to make their process more difficult. “When you go to the encampments and ask folks how they got there, they’ll tell you the city moved them there,” said Bee. She feels that the city would not have moved people from nearby encampments if it were a strictly city-run project. “They would’ve never done that … and we know it’s an act of sabotage,” she said.

“This situation was created by the city of Oakland,” said Michael Lee, a member of The Village who is formerly homeless, and now lives in Berkeley. “They went out and found the worst of the worst [and] put them on there to create a situation simply to sabotage a community effort … to build housing for our houseless neighbors.”

Joe DeVries, who serves as assistant to Oakland’s city administrator, and works on a number of homeless-related issues throughout the city, said that he did instruct the Public Works Department to move a group of people from a nearby encampment to the land that was given to The Village. DeVries said he moved this nearby encampment, previously located on a street median, because of problems with traffic safety.

“There was a very small number of people that we did move there [to The Village]. But after that there was a marked growth in the population that we had nothing to do with,” DeVries said. “People moved there. We don’t control them. … Word gets out on the street.”

In addition, DeVries said, there was already an existing encampment on the lot when the city offered it to The Village. He said the city was doing regular cleanup at this location, and had provided portable toilets and a wash station. DeVries indicated that the city offered this land to The Village largely because of these resources.

“A lot of people did migrate there [when] they saw that the city was providing resources,” DeVries said, addressing the issue of overcrowding. “The Village has indicated that they can’t possibly manage this site, and I understand that.”

Village organizers believe that overcrowding and tensions between residents led to an assault in mid-February, when, according to leaders at The Village, a resident hit a woman with a nail-studded board, and another resident stepped in to protect her from the assault. The police were called, and two members of The Village were arrested.

Bee believes the assault is a symptom of overcrowding, and caused by people moving to the camp who have had past disagreements with each other. “Had we had empty land, this would’ve never happened in the first place,” Bee said.

Bee claims the alleged attacker was one of several people who were moved from nearby encampments to The Village in October, and that he has mental health issues that The Village volunteers are not equipped to deal with. “He also needs housing. He also should not have been herded into that encampment. He also should have been given mental health care so that he wouldn’t be in a situation where he could just attack anybody,” Bee said.

Last Friday, a small group of activists gathered outside the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland to show their support for the two arrested people, who faced misdemeanor assault and battery charges. Both claimed they acted in self-defense. Bee called the situation “unjust,” saying, “They should have not even been arrested, much less charged.”

Ultimately, charges were dropped against both members of The Village, because the person who made the complaint against them did not come to court, according to a representative from the District Attorney’s Office.

Several attendees of the rally shared the sentiment that the city of Oakland administration should be focusing more on solutions to Oakland’s issue with homelessness. “This case is only the most recent example of the city’s criminalization of homelessness instead of finding real solutions that would provide safe, affordable and permanent housing for everyone in Oakland,” said Sara Pritchard, a deacon at the First Congregational Church of Oakland.

DeVries said the city tries to offer social services to its homeless population, but understands that it may not always be effective. “The unsheltered population is extremely vulnerable,” DeVries said. “They’re not necessarily willing to engage with service providers, especially law enforcement.”

The Village members were recently informed by city officials that the camp will have to relocate in November, because the city is planning to rebuild the highway overpass over the camp. In response, Village organizers are demanding access to four empty parcels of land where they could move their existing settlement. “We’re going to keep building because folks still need homes. November’s several months away,” Bee said, indicating that the homes they’re currently building could be easily moved with a forklift.

A bridge near the Village serves as a ramp to the 880 freeway, and DeVries indicated that the city was recently informed that its reconstruction—a project 10 years in the making—just got approval. The ramp will be rebuilt in October or November, making it unsafe for residents of The Village to continue living there during construction, he said.

Both Bee and DeVries agreed that having a fresh start on a new plot of land could be a good thing. “We have some time to plan this, which is a lot better than what we sometimes deal with,” DeVries said. He said that he hopes the city can continue to work in partnership with The Village and other service providers.

Bee shared a similar sentiment, indicating that despite her frustration at having to move again in the fall, the move could be what she called “a blessing in disguise” for The Village.

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