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On a November afternoon, beneath the Interstate 580 freeway in West Oakland, volunteers loaded folding tables with everything from homemade cookies to socks and Narcan.
Originally, Punks with Lunch, an organization that provides food and harm-reduction resources to underserved communities in Oakland, chose the location because it was next to a homeless encampment. And for the past six years, rain or shine, it has set up there every Sunday, providing mutual aid to anyone who needs it.
As Oakland’s homeless population has nearly doubled in the past five years, the city’s response has been insufficient. So unhoused Oakland residents have turned to mutual aid organizations, which exchange and redistribute food, provide harm-reduction supplies, create housing opportunities, and serve as a voice in the media. To meet the community’s needs, many organizations have expanded the aid they provide beyond their original missions.
According to a 2021 Oakland city auditor report, more than 4,000 residents are unhoused. The same audit notes the city’s many challenges in addressing the crisis, citing a lack of adequate resources and sufficient planning. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation and worsened public health concerns for the population.
When official support systems fail to keep people safe and healthy, as is the case with the unhoused community in Oakland, organizations band together to provide mutual aid. In Oakland, many nonprofits are filling the void.
“What mutual aid is not, is members outside of a community coming in to give resources,” said Anita De Asis Miralle, known as Needa Bee, who founded the Oakland-based direct action group The Village. “My understanding of mutual aid is folks from the same community that share a common identity, a common experience culturally, racially, who come together to support those in the community. The reason it’s mutual is this reciprocity.”
The city’s response to homelessness
Activists like Bee have turned to mutual aid because they say the city isn’t doing enough.
That same city auditor report showed that between 2018 and 2020, the city incurred $12.6 million in encampment management costs that were not budgeted and not tracked, which resulted in money and resources being pulled from other departments.
“They didn’t have a formal encampment program. They didn’t have money and they didn’t have clear direction early on,” City Auditor Courtney Ruby said. “That is alarming at best, because if it is a number one or number two priority of our residents, the budget should represent that.”
Ruby says the city is behind in implementing the new encampment management policy because the homelessness administrator’s position has yet to be filled and is temporarily held by Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons.
Pandemic worsens the problem
Though Oakland has extended its citywide eviction moratorium, the pandemic has put people at an increased risk of homelessness due to high rates of job loss and inability to pay rent. At its peak in April 2020, the Alameda County unemployment rate was 14.6%, more than five times what it was in 2019, according to county data.
“There are hundreds of people who are tenants who became homeless during the pandemic, so the homeless population has grown,” Bee said. “This year alone, there have been more evictions of curbside communities than any of the past years. And we’ve never seen this many tows happening.”
The stay-at-home order at the beginning of the pandemic halted most direct aid from the city, charity and nonprofit organizations, Bee said.
“When the charity ended, people were literally starving in the streets,” Bee added.
Oakland officials were forced to rely on 2019 Alameda County homelessness statistics when allocating resources to the unhoused population during the pandemic, because the subsequent counts were postponed until 2022.
During the pandemic, the city offered 67 recreational vehicles through Operation HomeBase, 104 hotel rooms through the state-funded Project HomeKey and 60 tiny homes through its community cabin program.
Founder of Punks with Lunch Ale del Pinal criticized the city’s pandemic response.
“The city has done nothing short of providing RV camps and providing literal Tuff Sheds for people,” del Pinal said.
Oaklanders provide resources, housing and media
Del Pinal founded Punks with Lunch with a small group of friends out of her kitchen in 2015, providing weekly lunches to their unhoused neighbors. Now 30 to 40 volunteers also provide harm-reduction supplies like Narcan and syringes four times a week, which has been essential during the pandemic, when opioid deaths have increased.
Between August 2020 and August 2021, Punks with Lunch passed out 4,100 canisters of life-saving Narcan. Del Pinal said the group recorded 670 reversals but the number is “probably double that.”
Randy, a marginally housed Oakland resident who asked that only his first name be used, has been coming to the weekly table event in West Oakland for four or five years. He said he appreciates that the volunteers offer help without judgment.
“It’s really difficult dealing with health care because drug addicts are just looked down upon with such scorn, that this is a nice change of pace,” he said.
Punks with Lunch is made up of people who are from the community they serve, as are those who volunteer with The Village.
Bee, who has provided mutual aid for unhoused people in Oakland since founding The Village in 2016, said the pandemic prompted the group to expand its Feed the People program so that it serves 500 to 600 more meals each week. Volunteers who are unhoused, housing insecure, or formerly unhoused, provide hot meals, groceries and drinking water to other unhoused residents.
The Village also teaches unhoused people carpentry skills to build their own homes, which Bee says empowers people.
“I can’t tell you how many lives I’ve seen transformed because we said, ‘Here’s a hammer, go help build a house.’ I’ve seen people with drug habits since they were children, since they were 12, 11, 13 years old, stop doing drugs because they helped other homeless people build their house,” Bee said.
Since its launch 25 years ago, POOR Magazine has operated as a poor and Indigenous-led media organization and education program, expanding in 2011 with the co-housing project “Homefulness,” which provides four to 10 permanent housing units for unhoused and marginally housed families.
Through donations, the Oakland-based organization purchased a duplex on MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland. Before donating, people are encouraged to first attend a workshop called “People Skool,” where they learn the significance of wealth redistribution to support the efforts of marginalized organizers.
Homefulness functions like a community land trust, effectively removing the property from market pressures. Residents pay for utilities and taxes, but nobody is a landlord, nobody is evicted and nobody pays rent.
“We can think, we can dream, we can vision, and we can support each other. It’s an unspeakable thing. And the whole difference about that is it’s rent free,” said Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, co-founder of POOR Magazine and one of the five first residents of Homefulness.
Homefulness resident Israel Muñoz said he used to feel judged by people when he was unhoused, but at POOR Magazine, he feels empowered and recognized for what he has to offer.
“For me, here is like therapy,” he said.
Once a week, families line up outside Homefulness to get free groceries, hot meals, and diapers, in a program called the Sliding Scale Cafe. The site also houses POOR Magazine’s community garden and community-led media center, through which it tries to reframe the debate on poverty.
“The reality is we have the ability and the ideas and the visions, as poor people,” Gray-Garcia said. “We just aren’t being listened to.”
Street Spirit, a monthly newspaper written by unhoused people and their advocates, also focuses on issues that impact the unhoused community. Editor-in-chief Alastair Boone believes Street Spirit plays a vital role in shifting public opinion about homelessness and makes pushing policy change easier.
The paper also acts as a source of direct mutual aid. Unhoused or marginally housed vendors purchase the paper at 5 cents a copy and sell each for a $2 donation.
Both the content of the paper and the act of purchasing a paper from a Street Spirit vendor bridge the gap between housed and unhoused people, creating a larger sense of community, Boone said.
“Through that interaction, the whole unsheltered community is also humanized in the sense that you now have a personal connection to the issue. And you now understand maybe a little bit better that these are just people who have had complicated lives, just like you have. And for whatever reason, for them, that meant that they ended up on the street,” Boone said.
Replication and limitations
Because mutual aid works outside the confines of governmental bureaucracy, the models can easily be replicated in other communities. Instead of scaling up and becoming a mega-nonprofit, many mutual aid organizations encourage replication, even providing tool kits for how to do so.
“The way that we looked at it at Punks with Lunch is that even if you had showed up, and if you were somewhat inspired by it, maybe you could go back to where you come from or do something similar along these ethos of being consistent and involving your community,” del Pinal said.
There are five autonomous Punks with Lunch chapters across the United States. West Oakland Punks with Lunch provides guidelines and resources for starting a chapter. The only requirements are to provide food and harm reduction and to be consistent.
POOR Magazine provides the Homefulness Handbook and works with other organizers to teach them how to implement the models themselves. They are currently raising funds to help people in the Pacific Northwest start their own Homefulness project.
Although mutual aid can fill the gaps left by the city, most homeless advocates suggest that there are vast limitations to what they alone can do to combat the larger crisis. Without the resources, personnel or funding to meet the incredible demand for assistance, most mutual aid agencies are not capable of the policy and structural intervention needed to rectify the problem.
“I think employment and housing and health care are really big things that Street Spirit is not built to provide, that the city is built to provide,” Boone said. “But I think there are some ways that the project of Street Spirit does help people fill those holes.”
At times the city itself can create barriers for projects. POOR Magazine encountered multiple hurdles when trying to launch a new Homefulness site, including property taxes and parking requirements. And The Village took a huge loss when its administrative vehicle was towed along with unhoused people’s vehicles in early November.
Despite all obstacles, Bee still believes in the power of mutual aid.
“You know how they say, ‘A chain is only as strong as its weakest link?’ I want to make those weakest links unbreakable, because if the weakest links are unbreakable, that means that whole chain is strong,” Bee said. “I really want to see my community strong and prosperous and liberated and self-determined.”