Oakland homeless camp residents face frequent thefts

The Village encampment is located at E. 12th St. and 23rd Ave. (Photo credit: Ali DeFazio & Katey Rusch/Oakland North)

The Village encampment is located at E. 12th St. and 23rd Ave. (Photo credit: Ali DeFazio & Katey Rusch/Oakland North)

Experiencing theft is a fact of life for residents of homeless camps. Other residents—or just random strangers—often steal basic necessities they need to survive. “People always need something. If they don’t have it, they’ll just come and take it. If I don’t have no water, then I’m going to go over there and take somebody’s water,” said Sean Mo matter-of-factly. Mo is a longtime resident of The Village, a sprawling encampment in East Oakland.

“God, it’s a major setback,” said Lalonnie Rivera of the theft she’s experienced living at The Village. She and her common-law husband, James “Seymour” Moore, Jr., live with their small dog, Curious, in a tent elevated on a short wooden platform. “We’re outside. We’re not in a secure place,” Rivera said. “Criminals just know how to do things. Look at where we’re at! A person can just fit in and just snatch anything they want.”

On any given day, 80 to 100 people stay at The Village, according to co-founder and coordinator Anita de Asis, who goes by Needa Bee. Oakland District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo estimates that, due to the recent fire, that number is currently smaller: likely only 30 or 40 inhabitants.

Residents and elected officials alike have decried various types of crime happening at Oakland’s camps—from drug use to domestic violence to assaults to arson. But one of the most frequent complaints is theft.

Rivera and Moore’s neighbor Kenny, who did not provide his last name, said that someone had stolen an extra tent and an amplifier just an hour before an Oakland North reporter spoke to him. And, he pointed out, when a bus retrofitted with showers and toilets was parked adjacent to the encampment for its residents to use, someone broke in and stole its innards. “First day they put that bus out here, man, they broke into it and stole all the copper,” said Kenny. It was never fixed, he said.

Without it, Kenny said, he now bathes outside of The Village. I got avenues, you know. I got places,” he said.

Any object that can be carried away by hand is vulnerable to theft in the camp. Mo said he’s lost a whole slew of possessions to theft: “Cell phones, pipes, lighters, shoes, coats, chargers—everything they can get their hands on. Tools, water, everything.”

 “They stole my phone with all my kids’ pictures in it,” said Aaron Edmond, who has lived at The Village for about a year. “There are times you just can’t replace it.” When asked why people steal, he responded: “To get food, to sell it, to support a drug habit, eating habit. Whatever it is that they think.”

It’s easy for someone willing to steal to do so. Most people live in tents. Some live in makeshift lean-tos. Others, in small wooden cabins built by volunteers. One can easily cut a hole through a tent made of nylon, reach in and grab whatever happens to be at hand.

In West Oakland under the I-580 freeway, at another homeless encampment known to its residents as “Tent City,” an elderly man who goes by the name “Spicy Mike” responded to the question of whether he feels safe with “Hell no!”

“People be stealing. Cars be coming by throwing shit at us. You know, kind of feces and shit,” he added.

Some camp residents say that living out in the open makes them feel vulnerable. Village resident Rivera said she’s experienced trauma in the past and still lives with the fear of it reoccurring. “I’m a woman that’s been raped twice,” she said. Being alone makes her feel susceptible to attack, so she only feels safe when her husband is present. Even then, she said, sometimes she’ll stay awake for most of the night and go to bed at 5 or 6 in the morning for a few hours of much-needed shut-eye.

Her husband suffers the consequences of this, too, she said. “It’s hard because he has to go to work,” she said. “He can’t even do nothing, because he has to be here with me, because I’m scared to be by myself.”

Rivera said she wouldn’t think twice about acting in self-defense, if necessary. “I will not hesitate to take a person’s life if they’re trying to take mine,” she said. “I’m going to take them before they take me, if I feel threatened in any kind of way.”

“And if they come in this area right here,” she continued, motioning to her small outdoor living space, “to me, you’re trying to kill me or hurt me or rape me or something, that’s what I think, so I’m going to do everything possible.”

Another resident who didn’t want to be named because she didn’t want her family to know she was living at The Village said she has had similar experiences and uses similar self-preservation tactics. “I try to stay up at night, and sometimes I sleep in the day,” she said, “because you never know what’s going to happen. To be a woman out here by myself, it is kind of scary at night.”

“There is no real security,” she added. “There’s no consequences to what anybody does here.”

Village co-founder Bee said sexual violence is common in homeless camps, and even when victims do report to authorities, many times they are ignored or re-traumatized. “I have heard dozens upon dozens of women who have told me they have been raped or sexually assaulted. Usually, the assaults happen in the middle of the night,” Bee said. “On the rare occasion reports were made, the reports never led to an arrest or court.”

Talya Husbands-Hankin, a member of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group coalition, said that these crimes tend to be perpetrated by outsiders. “There’s oftentimes outside predators who do not live in the encampment who will come into the encampment and prey upon people,” she said. “It’s not coming necessarily from internally, but it’s usually externally.”

Bee agreed, writing in an email: “Predators who do not live in the camps come to the camps and prey on the folks. They rob, sexually assault, rape folks in the encampments [because] they are easy prey. I see that the most vulnerable and weakest are preyed on: women, disabled, the elderly and those with mental health [disabilities].”

Some people who live in houses and apartment buildings near camps also raise their own concerns about crime—but they are worried about camp residents committing crimes, such as trespassing and burglary targeted at their own homes and neighbors. “It’s really dangerous to live by them. I’m telling you, seriously,” said Afshan Khan, who lives about one block away from Tent City in West Oakland. “I really want to move.”

Khan said she has also observed drug dealing and prostitution, and she worries for her and her family’s safety because there are children in her household. She’s been living in the area for almost 12 years, and she feels there was a noticeable increase in crime in the years following the formation of the encampment.

On the other hand, resident Marguerite Rischer, who moved to West Oakland two years ago, feels that the neighborhood has actually improved in recent years. “This is a very safe neighborhood to live in,” she said. “When I first came over here, this neighborhood wasn’t like this. They really cleaned it up. The neighbors did. It was worse, yes it was.”

Homeless Action Center (HAC) managing attorney Heather Freinkel argues that the focus of public dialogue should not be on crimes committed by camp residents, but rather, on the ones for which they are the victims. “People are afraid that a homeless person is going to steal their things—break into their car or rob them,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t think there’s any data to support that homeless people are any more likely to commit a crime than anybody else. But what we do know is that homeless people are disproportionately harmed by [crime].”

Tracking crimes in and around homeless camps is difficult because while crime might be common in the area, it’s hard to know exactly who is responsible for it. For that reason, Oakland Police Department Public Information Officer Johnna Watson said that the department would have to research further to obtain data regarding crime rates in or near the camps, as it is not readily available.

Watson supplied the same response when asked whether residents of the camps are disproportionately more likely to be perpetrators or victims of crime than the general population. “This data we would have to obtain for you,” she wrote in an email.

But she did give some information regarding the department’s security efforts at homeless camps: “OPD conducts patrols and works with security at sanctioned encampments (Navigation centers). The policy is currently being rewritten,” she wrote, without going into further explanation. She continued: “OPD works along with Health and Human Services, Operation Dignity, and the Housing Consortium of the East Bay.”

Neither Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator, nor mayoral spokesperson Justin Berton responded to requests for data about crime at camps or to comment on the difficulty of collecting this data.

Gallo, the councilmember who represents the district that includes The Village, said he has not noticed an increase in “shootings and killings” since the camp went up, but he is very concerned with drug use and blight around encampments in his district.

“My role is to take care of the needy in government, but right now it’s a real big challenge due to the fact that some of [them] are caught up in drugs big time,” he said in a phone interview. “I recognize there are some people that are in great need that we can help, train and support. There are some just that their minds are shot. There are some that can’t let go of their drug. So we have to deal with those populations. Otherwise for me to raise my children, send them to school down the street, it’s becoming a challenge.”

Referring to the area around The Village, Gallo said: “Right now on 23rd and East 12th you have the auto shops, mechanic shops that are directly across the street. That was only supposed to be a three-month temporary location. That’s a commitment I had made and the city had made—that they were going to keep it clean every day. And you saw it, it’s out of control.” He was referring to the blighted conditions at the camp, which include problems with trash, rodents and basic sanitation, and which he visits weekly to help clean.

He mentioned a site at Foothill and 36th Avenue which is also being considered for a camp. “We’re trying to change that environment because it’s been full of shootings, prostitution, trash, illegal dumping—the whole bit,” Gallo said, adding that he would prefer to build senior housing on that lot. “These are seniors and we’re trying to work with the senior housing development, related development, to have access to that property there, that city lot where they can build a senior community center.”

“I’m just trying to keep the businesses that are here so they can employ my kids and the neighboring kids,” said Gallo.

A representative from the office of Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents the District 3 area that includes Tent City, did not return a request for comment.

Some camps do have formal security workers. At one of the city’s three Tuff Sheds sites, at Castro Street and 6th Street, a security guard sits behind a locked gate at all hours. A guard who would only give his name as “Mr. Murphy” said he has been working at this site for about six months. “Everything has been pretty smooth,” he said. “Don’t really have any challenges. Maybe at a different site it’d be different, but this site it’s perfectly fine. There’s really no issues.”

“What I do here is I check the people in and out who leave—the residents and the guests—in and out. I walk around and make sure no one that doesn’t belong here that didn’t check in didn’t hop the fence, didn’t come in here,” Murphy said, describing his job. “There are certain rules, so if you obey by the rules, that’s fine. If you violate the rules, you can’t come back.”

“If there was an argument or dispute, I would let each party talk and I would settle it for them. But it’s pretty safe. It’s like a family environment, really,” he continued.

Karen Boyd, communications director for the city administrator’s office, said that employing security guards was a lesson learned early on in the city’s endeavors to create livable communities for the homeless. “One of the important lessons we learned in an earlier 6-month pilot program that began October 2016 was the importance of having 24/7 site management and security at each cabin community,” Boyd wrote in an email. (She did not respond to follow-up requests asking for specifics on the problems the pilot program encountered.)

“Although program participants can come and go freely 24/7,” she continued in the email, “there is a secured pedestrian call gate, and each cabin has a front door that locks. In addition, there is secured storage for participants’ belongings.”

Advocates for the homeless like Bee think that, in the short term, the city could reduce theft by providing lockers at more camps. “Other cities have provided storage lockers for unsheltered residents, and not only has that curbed theft, but allows folks to have the needed mobility to stabilize their lives,” she wrote in an email. “How are you gonna go take a shower, or go to an appointment or go to work if you know if you leave your tent, it will be ransacked?”

But in the longer term, she and Freinkel agree that the best solution is providing people a permanent place to live. “What we need is housing. If you want to talk about keeping people safe, we need to put them indoors immediately,” said Bee. “That’s really the only answer to the homeless problem, to the issue of safety, to the issue of crime. All of that goes back to housing.”

“The only difference between them and anyone else,” Freinkel said, “is that they don’t have enough money to pay rent.”

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