“This is the model,” Derrick Soo told me one cold but sunny, fresh-after-the storm February morning. We were standing in front of the 77th Avenue Rangers homeless encampment in East Oakland, California. “This is the silent model for a homeless camp that they are not talking about,” he said of Oakland’s first self-governed, city-sanctioned homeless camp.
“The first part that we have to do is stabilize people. That’s the baseline of this camp,” said Derrick. He gestured to the line of 15-20 tents and other shelters lining the sidewalk of this dead end street located in an industrial zone, just blocks from the Oakland Coliseum and the Oracle Arena. “We stabilize people here, we have showers, we have food, we have medical, we have social services down here.”
“Come here and wait, we will help you,” he said, smiling.
The 77th Avenue Rangers Camp is home to some 35 people. It has been a permanent presence for over a year and a half, although Derrick has been living on the site for over five years. A city with a traditionally large low-income population yet one of the fastest rising rent rates in the nation, Oakland has become a homeless hotspot in recent years, with tent camps popping up all over town.
Just days before, I witnessed Oakland police and workers bulldozing homeless encampments around Lake Merritt, the city’s large central park, in the freezing rain. For homeless people, the lack of stability is not only one of the biggest barriers to moving out of homelessness, but one of the largest threats to their survival in general.
And this is what makes the 77th Avenue Rangers different.
City-Sanctioned Homeless Camp Provides Sense of Safety
“This is the first time I have ever felt safe at a homeless camp,” said camp resident Stormy, as she heated water to clean dishes with several other camp residents. She has lived here for nine months, and said it’s the best place she has been since she began living on the streets.
“I can show you one of the non-city sanctioned camps,” she said. “There is one right around the corner, and I can show you the difference right away.”
Recognizing that Derrick and the half dozen or so loose group of campers in the area were not causing problems, the City of Oakland granted the site a city sanction status and provided them with some basic hygiene facilities like porta-potties and a washing station. The residents themselves later built a hot water shower facility that works like the tank system used on boats. It is even fitted with a solar powered nightlight.
“This is a City Safe Zone and we are actually approved by CPS to have children in this camp, the only camp in Oakland, and that’s because of my firearms license,” Derrick said, showing me the small .32 caliber automatic he keeps clipped to his belt in open-carry style.
The camp is also self-governing. While Derrick helps keep things orderly, he has allowed other residents to take on leadership roles.
“Everybody goes to Cynthia now for pretty much everything except for security,” Derrick said as we walked the length of tents, vans, and makeshift shelters forming the camp. “Then there is Connie. She is the compliance officer. She makes sure everybody is in compliance with our agreements with the adjoining businesses in the neighborhood. That’s part of our good neighbor policy.”
Location Is Key for City-Sanctioned Homeless Camp
One of the reasons that the city granted the 77th Avenue Rangers a city-sanctioned homeless camp status is because of their location. Surrounded by just a couple large industrial businesses, there are no residential neighbors to upset.
“There are times that we encounter complaints from surrounding businesses. So, as a whole I got to go to each person and talk to them. We do what we need to do in order to keep that business from wanting to put us out,” said Camp Compliance Officer Connie. After being unhoused in Oakland for four years, she has now found some sense of stability at the camp after moving in last September.
“We try to live in peace out here. It’s hard enough, every little thing we need. It is a struggle trying to get,” she said outside the leaky van she and her husband call home. “It’s like if I get a hamburger and he wants half of it, we going to share it. You know what I’m saying?”
Support for 77th Avenue Rangers Homeless Encampment
The self-governing homeless encampment has garnered support from many area businesses and organizations including the Roots Community Health Clinic. The non-profit full service medical clinic visits the camp on a weekly basis and provides medical services. Founded in 2008, Roots Community Health Clinic provides quality services to low income residents of East Oakland. It also offers free face-to-face physician visits to both children and families in the area, including the homeless population.
“Roots come here once a week either on Wednesday or Thursday. They tend to all of our medical needs,” said Derrick. “And food comes not just from the food bank but we got a lot of Oakland businesses that support us directly because of our Facebook page.”
“We have a lot of different sources that come down here to bring food. In fact, one of our favorite ones is this one. It’s the East Oakland Burrito Roll, a burrito shop that’s close by. They made these shirts for us,” Derrick explained. He turned his back to show me the T-shirt he is wearing, which was made by the volunteer-run organization that gathers together to cook and deliver fresh Mexican style goodies to homeless people around the San Francisco Bay Area.
Homeless Encampments Are Not Permanent Solution
As successful as the 77th Avenue Rangers Camp is though, it is not meant to be a permanent solution to housing the homeless. Rather it is a solution to the instability that the un-housed population faces as they wait for more permanent housing to come through from the city or state, which can often take a very long time.
“I’ve been on at least five different lists,” Derrick said. “The closest that I came to getting housing was number 1032. And that was with senior priority, disabilities and limited income.”
While people wait for more permanent housing, they often sleep on the street or parks. That is until the camp is swept away by the city, like I witnessed at Lake Merrit. While a recent Supreme Court decision requires the government to provide shelter if they destroy a homeless person’s housing, this usually means a city run shelter or camp that is temporary by nature, including the famous Tuff Shed villages built by the City of Oakland.
“The Tuff Sheds are not built for human habitation,” said Needa Bee of The Village in Oakland housing project. I met Needa at Lake Merritt during the homeless eviction in the freezing rain. She was distributing booklets outlining five reasons why people shouldn’t be housed in structures meant for storing tools and equipment.
Number three on her list, “health violations”, ticks off hazards right from the manufacturers own material safety data sheet. These include “allergic skin reactions”, “respiratory irritation” and the fact that the sheds are built from engineered wood that is classified as a 1A carcinogen.
According to Derrick, Tuff Shed villages also lack services his camp provides like cooking facilities, social services and food.
Establishing More City-Sanctioned Homeless Encampments
Needa’s Housing and Dignity Village program is instead hoping to create several different city-sanctioned but self-governed homeless encampments. These function much like the 77th Avenue Rangers, on pieces of unused public and private property in the city.
Homeless residents could build their own shelters with assistance. They could even learn carpentry and construction skills in the process. The group’s attempts so far have been met with resistance. Several successful village encampments have even been torn down.
“We had another group over here on 66th avenue that was working with our model,” Derrick said. “But then they got cleared out this week by the city of Oakland.”
As we head over to his large, military-style tent, which is also the informal camp headquarters, Derrick continues.
“The city is working with us better now. We are getting more cooperation from law enforcement and are getting a lot of support from DPW. But still, it’s hard out here. Our biggest challenge right now being winter is cold. And so, most of the shelters you have seen have propane heaters. So the biggest challenge is keeping enough propane supply for everyone right now during these cold months.”
Council Set to Vote on Homelessness as a City Crisis
The Saturday after the Lake Merritt evictions, I attended a Police Advisory Commission meeting in the historic Taylor Memorial Church in West Oakland. Here, un-housed citizens and homeless advocates voiced their concerns. Both Derrick and Needa also took to the mic, expressing concerns over Tuff Sheds and problems with lack of police response to problems, respectively. Near the end of the meeting, and after hearing dozens of often harrowing testimonies, Oakland City Council Member Nikki Fortunato Bas announced that because the problem has grown so large so quickly, the city council will be voting on naming homelessness a city crisis within the next couple of weeks.
“What we are still looking to get is housing, permanent housing,” Derrick explained outside of his tent. He added that we could be building container homes like they do in Europe and house thousands of people immediately. Even using steel hulled barges to create floating homes is an option in unused parts of the Oakland waterfront.
“A lot of countries use these types of homes already. And they are self-sufficient. They are off-grid living. They have solar systems, and their heating system is radiant heating in the floors. Here in California we have a concern with greywater. So, in my models we also add in greywater evaporators,” he continued, smiling in the cold winter sun.
Derrick also said he is also going to run for mayor of the City of Oakland in 2022.