In early April, members of The Village finally moved their first residents into what will serve as their home until next fall. The activist-led group has been working since mid-January to build houses for the homeless in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood.
Barbara Verduzco, 65, now lives in the dark brown plywood-paneled home with her partner Charlie Griffin. The small space, 10 by 12 feet in all, fits a queen-sized bed, a large armoire, and a small chair and table. But it’s a tight fit when Verduzco tries to move around the space in her wheelchair.
She and Griffin have taken the time to decorate their new home. Pasted on the wall near the front door are a handful of colorful feathers. On another wall are several paintings, including an image of a man in a Native American headdress–a nod to Verduzco’s heritage–and a small sign that reads: “Bless this home.”
Verduzco says her life has changed a lot since moving into her tiny home. “It’s got a door, windows,” she says. “I never have to sleep outside, don’t have to worry about cold, [or] people breaking in.”
The lot, which is located at the corner of East 12th Street and 23rd Avenue, is home to about 80 people. Most live in tents and makeshift shacks while they wait for more tiny houses to be built. The construction is volunteer-led, with most of the work taking place on weekends. Two other houses are currently under construction. Members of The Village leadership have said that they have enough funds to build four more houses, and are planning to do more fundraising.
Needa Bee, co-founder of The Village, says their first priority is to provide housing to elderly, sick and disabled residents. “She’s disabled, she’s very sick, so she got the first place,” says Bee of Verduzco. “I’m happy for them. I’m happy how happy they are. They’re comfortable, they’re warm, they’re sleeping well.”
Verduzco has been homeless for eight months, and said that moving to The Village was the first time she’d had to live in a tent. She has trouble walking because of severe arthritis in her knees, and spends most of the time in her wheelchair. It can be difficult for her to get around The Village, since the ground is covered in mulch, and the otherwise simple task of crossing the yard to use the bathroom–a portable toilet that’s maintained by the city–becomes even more difficult in rainy weather. “I need help,” says Verduzco. “My back tire always gets stuck in the mulch.”
Verduzco has been wheelchair-bound for over a year, after a bad fall that put her in the hospital. She doesn’t remember what caused the fall, just that an ambulance picked her up and took her to the hospital.
“They built that ramp for me. It [the house] didn’t have a ramp at first, but since I’m in a wheelchair they built that little ramp,” says Verduzco, gesturing toward the dark brown plywood ramp she’s sitting on. “I hate this wheelchair.”
While Verduzco has been homeless for less than a year, she says her life in Oakland has been difficult since her teenage years. Verduzco and her family moved to Berkeley from Wisconsin when she was a child. Soon after, the family moved to Oakland, where Verduzco attended Roosevelt Jr. High. Here, she says, “Everything just went bad.”
“Every Friday my father would get drunk and started beating up my mom, so we had to call the police on him,” Verduzco says. Around this time, she says, she began acting out in school, and faced her first arrest after threatening a teacher.
“Most of my life, about half of it’s been in jail,” Verduzco says. “I’ve stolen ever since I was a little girl.” Verduzco says she often resorted to theft to fund her long-time drug habit. Verduzco is proud to say she’s been clean for a year and a half, but heroin was a tough habit for her to kick after she started using in her early twenties.
“When you don’t have it, you wake up sick in the morning. Nothing is nice about it. That’s why a lot of people go out and steal,” to pay for their drug habit, says Verduzco. She says she switched to methadone in part because she was “tired of going to jail” for stealing. But methadone wasn’t necessarily a great alternative. “[I] had to kick that methadone,” says Verduzco. “Methadone ain’t no joke.”
Prior to living in a tent at The Village, Verduzco says she spent time in a convalescent home in Alameda. She then went to live with her sister in their late mother’s home, which sits less than four blocks from where she lives now at The Village. But she says she and her sister had a disagreement that eventually caused Verduzco to resort to living on the street.
On this particular afternoon, a number of different volunteer groups are passing through The Village, most handing out food, water, and clothing. One group is a family of five. They’re handing out sack lunches and socks. A 10-year-old boy approaches the house with a box stuffed with socks. Verduzco asks for two pairs, one for her and one for Griffin. After passing her the socks, the boy walks away saying “God bless you.”
The boy’s mother comes by a moment later. Tasha, who didn’t give her last name, and her family go out on a monthly basis to pass out food and clothing to the homeless. Her husband is a pastor in Oakland. Tasha asks Verduzco if she can pray for her, and with Verduzco’s consent, holds her hand. Both women close their eyes and lean their heads toward each other. “Father God in the name of Jesus … give her strength,” she prays. “Let her know she’s going to have bigger and better things as long as she trusts in you.”
Verduzco often speaks of her hope of having her grandchildren visit, which is something she couldn’t do when she lived in a tent. On Sunday, her eldest granddaughter, who is eight, spent the afternoon at The Village, helping to paint the exterior of the house next door a light shade of green. “It’s really good, I’m close with them,” says Verduzco. “I like kids. They love me so much.”
Verduzco is periodically interrupted by the loud hum of a passing BART train; the tracks run just above the back door to the house. Interspersed is the sound of a circular saw being used by volunteer builders just next door. They are close enough that occasionally a light stream of sawdust sprays toward the front door, where Verduzco sits on her ramp.
A volunteer walks by, holding a small brown dog with an orange collar. He asks Verduzco if she knows who the dog’s owner is. Griffin’s voice can be heard from inside the house. He says he thinks the dog belongs to someone named “Meathead.” Griffin briefly steps into the doorway and calls out across the lot—“Hey Meathead!”—but receives no response.
Verduzco begins slowly unwrapping the bagged lunch she received from the pastor’s family, and starts tearing away at the turkey sandwich. She finishes the can of 211 Steel Reserve that she’s been nursing for the past couple of hours, crushes it, and places it on the ground next to her wheelchair.
“My main problem, too, is drinking. I started pretty young,” says Verduzco. “Drinking is bad because my liver is messed up.”
A few minutes later, Meathead walks up and says hello. He quickly launches into a story about how he came to the United States from Honduras as a child, and had to learn English as a second language. He’s now 23, and speaks perfect, accent-less English.
Meathead is wearing a white sleeveless shirt and jean shorts, and has hospital tags on his wrist. He tells Verduzco about how he recently got out of the hospital because of an issue with his liver. Verduzco tells him that she has cirrhosis of the liver.
The sun is blazing. The only available shade is far across the lot, under the highway overpass, where many people have placed their tents. Griffin re-emerges from inside the house, stepping into the doorway. He pulls out a comb and, standing behind her wheelchair, starts brushing Verduzco’s hair as Meathead looks on. “I want to be thought of in a flattering manner when whatever you’re writing comes out,” he says from the doorway.
In March, residents of The Village were notified that they will have to relocate in the fall due to planned construction on the 880 freeway ramp that sits next to the camp. But co-founder Bee says that they’re still going to continue construction. “What else are we supposed to do?” Bee asks. “Life’s a struggle.”