The Village Oakland is made up of housed and unhoused folks taking the housing crisis into their own hands. The movement is intended to provide support and services in getting Oakland’s most vulnerable on their feet to achieve their goals and transition into permanent housing. It officially started on Trump’s inauguration night in 2016 and is led by activist Anita be Asis Miralle, who is known as Needa Bee (also Oakland’s Lumpia Lady). Needa Bee founded Healthy Hoodz and Feed The People.
Since the onset of COVID-19, The Village has been pushing for the most vulnerable of the unhoused to get emergency shelter now as part of the NoVacancy CA Coalition. The NoVacancy CA Coalition includes three Oakland-based organizations: The Village Oakland, The East Oakland Collective, and Love and Justice in the Streets. Since the onset of COVID-19, they have ramped up their food and critical supply distribution, installed more hand washing stations in encampments, and are launching a solar shower project with Phat Beets Produce.
Leader and activist Needa Bee shares her insight on the troubled relationship between The Village and the City’s various departments, how volunteers have been helping during COVID-19, and how for years, the unhoused of Oakland have had to mobilize and advocate for themselves.
Why was the Village Oakland created?
We started The Village Oakland to bring attention to the lack of conversation happening before our very eyes and to show how easy it was to upgrade people’s services onsite while living curbside.
It started off as a direct action. We started the first village on Jan 20th, 2016, the day Trump was inaugurated, which also happened to fall on MLK weekend. Every MLK weekend since, we have created new villages on empty and neglected public land. On Oct 28th we started another village. All except the ones started during MLK weekend have been bulldozed by the mayor [Libby Schaaf] and her administration. It has grown into a movement that does advocacy, policy work and massive upgrades to curbside communities. This is still not something politicians are talking about. They see homelessness and homeless people as a problem we see it as a humanitarian crisis and that can only be solved by one thing, and this is permanent housing.
Since the onset of COVID-19, how have your efforts changed? How are you now meeting your community’s needs?
What we were doing before COVID-19 has multiplied. Many folks are not working, so we have this constant volunteer base. We have been able to build more houses, which is what needs to happen for people to properly shelter-in-place. Our food distribution has tripled in size. With people sheltering in place, many autonomous efforts such as churches and soup kitchens are closed. This has created a massive food shortage and scarcity among unhoused folks. Due to the virus, with our food distribution, we have added personal sanitation distribution—masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and bleach. We also have been putting port-a-potties and hand washing stations in the curbside communities that didn’t have those prior to this crisis. Before COVID-19, the city had provided about twenty encampments with handwashing stations. They have increased that number now to forty. But we have more than one hundred and twenty encampments in Oakland. So we are trying to cover all those areas.
We are also building solar showers. Originally, we were only doing it in encampments that have houses but due to COVID, we are expanding that and bringing it to any encampment that would like one. Part of the prevention is to keep clean. We are also doing a clean water project and are working with Phat Beets Produce. We will start in North Oakland and build it out from there. We hope to provide gallons of clean water to folks. With the rationing that’s happening on many products, we cannot just buy water anymore. And for a lot of folks, we are the only access to clean water that they have so what we are developing with Phat Beets is huge.
The biggest and latest push that is really crucial is the emergency hotel rooms. As you know, the county (of Alameda) and state (of California) has purchased over 390 hotel rooms. What we’ve seen is not surprising in terms of how slow the process is, the total lack of information on how to get people into hotels, and part of the inconsistency on who the hotel rooms are for. It is supposed to be for folks who tested positive, folks who are awaiting test results, folks who have been exposed, and for the most vulnerable I have worked with people who have been tested and exposed and they still are not being granted access to hotel rooms.
There have been multiple COVID positive cases at several encampments. The county’s numbers are not accurate. Most recently, there was an outbreak at an encampment in East Oakland and one unhoused person who contracted the virus in the East Lake neighborhood passed away two weeks ago. If homelessness had its own civilization and it does, that particular encampment is the hub of that civilization. Other encampments like this one no longer exist because they have all been bulldozed. This hub is the last standing and it spreads out from there. If they do not offer those folks in that encampment housing in the emergency hotels, what we are about to see the virus spread to all the encampments.
I’ve tried to express this to the people in the county and they don’t want to hear me. These are people who have never been homeless and who don’t understand the intricacies of a network inside of an encampment. Another level of this work is reading up on the emerging information on how the coronavirus impacts the African Diaspora and how it is showing up differently in our communities. The virus is being misdiagnosed or missed until it’s too late. This is also compounded by the many pre-existing inequities in the healthcare industry.
How have the independent COVID-19 response efforts of The Village, East Oakland Collective and Love and justice in the Streets progressed?
When our unhoused outreach workers were brutalized and profiled in the parking lot on April 24th while giving out resources to our unhoused, we were in the middle of moving more folks into hotel rooms that our fundraising efforts have been paying for. That move (on April 24th) was interrupted because of that incident. But then, we were able to move in 36 unhoused folks into two different hotels. Twenty-two are African American, nine are seniors who all have pre-existing illnesses, and the children are between the ages of 10 months and 15 years old. Part of what we are doing is showing how easy it is to start moving people. We got the money and started moving people within the week.
The city has the resources, infrastructure, support and everything they need and they are just trickling people in. We also want to show that giving emergency shelter to the unhoused doesn’t have to be criminalizing.
The hotels should be used to help people properly shelter-in-place. But that is also the funny thing. The government should have pushed to move people in before they got sick, which would have helped prevent the spread. It speaks volumes to the anti-homeless sentiment, anti-Black, anti-poverty sentiment of our politicians that let folks stay in the street and not help them shelter-in-place.
The approach is very much like the death sentence. The message that homeless folks are hearing and internalizing is: “Your life does not matter, we will wait until you get sick, oh well.”
What do you think is the cause of the city’s lackadaisical response to this issue?
They have a complete disregard for the value of a homeless life. They do not value homelessness which is systemic and their responses are showing this. They do not see worth in someone who is Black and poor. With The Village putting pressure on them since 2016, we have yet to see the solution, which is to permanently house people. In the four years of advocacy, we have not seen that. We’ve been saying that this is a public health issue prior to COVID-19 and how they are choosing to respond is clear: They do not care about the unhoused people, period. They invest in gentrifying Oakland. They do not have the will to solve gentrification’s outcome: homelessness.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The views expressed in the interview do not represent the views of Oakland Voices or the Maynard Institute.
To donate towards emergency shelters, upgrading communities and helping to provide meals donate to The Village Paypal here.
Hear directly from persons who are now in hotel rooms from donations that have already been received here.
Find out other ways you can get involved by visiting The Village Oakland website, and following their social media channels : IG @villageoakland, Twitter @VillageOakland and Facebook @TheVillageinOakland. #feedthepeople
What is the “Fill Hotels, Not Graves” Fundraising Campaign?
“The purpose of #FillHotelsNotGraves is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst Oakland’s most vulnerable unhoused populations, ultimately saving lives.
This program helps not only unhoused folks, but housed folks. Unhoused folks do not exist in a vacuum: we still shop, we still pump gas, we still check on our housed friends and families. Unhoused folks cannot properly shelter-in-place, making us vulnerable to this virus. We cannot stay at home, we cannot wash our hands, we cannot take showers, we cannot stay warm through freezing nights. When you take care of the most vulnerable in your community, you end up taking care of everyone. It’s a domino effect. Amongst the unhoused, the most vulnerable to this virus are seniors, folks with immune compromising medical conditions, and infants, children, and youth. The criteria for this program is to be have a valid ID, currently live curbside in Oakland, and belong to one of the three groups I listed above.
We selected hotels with large rooms and kitchenettes. And we have two locations in Oakland. Due to privacy and security we are not making the names of the hotels public. Residents are required to test negative for COVID-19. We have professional medical professions to support folks with pregnancy, infant and pediatric medicine, general medicine, addiction and recovery support. The residents we have moved in who were seriously ill have immediately stabilized. Some residents clearly had death hanging over their heads and now they are full of vitality. It’s amazing. Our residents who were living with and struggling with being chemically challenged have also stabilized. Three of our residents have gone cold turkey off meth. And others have stabilized their abuse of narcotics. Being in these hotels is life saving in so many ways. This intervention was needed before COVID and will be needed after COVID. We have a successful and supportive partnership with the hotel staff, management, and corporate offices.
This pandemic has illustrated not only is housing a human right, but a public health intervention. This pandemic has also made it clear that bureaucrats do not care about unhoused, and in Oakland, more than 70% of our unhoused are Black, so they are also showing how deep anti-Black racism runs and the impact it has in decision making and resource distribution.
We have 36 folks now, including 8 children ages 10 months to 15 years, in hotels. We are almost at $60,000 (through the GoFundMe). We have enough to keep everyone for the next two weeks. We are developing an exit plan with the residents. We cannot in good conscious exit people back to their tents or small cars. Across the board, folks’ physical health has stabilized and improved. Across the board, from infant to senior folks’ mental health has totally stabilized and improved. To exit back to their situation prior to the hotel rooms will be too traumatizing and rehabilitating. So we are using the $20,000 from EBCF, private investors, and more grassroots fundraising to fund solid exit plans. We are buying trailers and our village volunteer builders will build tiny homes on wheels with kitchenettes and bathrooms to exit folks out of. We also will be purchasing and helping folks register campers and RVs. And more longer term, we are getting ready to purchase residential units to move people into permanent housing.
Please check out 37MLK’s Facebook page to support getting residents who do not meet our program criteria into hotel rooms too. All of Oakland’s unhoused need to be moved to hotel rooms immediately. Let’s double the number of folks in hotels. Will you help us purchase 60 hotel rooms through July?”
-Needa Bee, as told to Aqueila M. Lewis
To donate to the Fill Hotels, Not Graves fundraising campaign, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/hotels-not-graves.
Aqueila M. Lewis-Ross is a multi-talented, award-winning Bay Area Native well-versed in singing, poetry/spoken word, and journalism. Aqueila has studied and performed throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and is a graduate of Napa Valley College and University of California, Berkeley. Her book of poetry, Stop Hurting and Dance, published by Pochino Press, is a collection of stories overcoming fear, oppression, gentrification, and police brutality; she honors what it means to live with resilience, love and prosperity. She holds the titles of Ms. Oakland Plus America 2014, SF Raw Performing Artist of the Year 2015, and was an Oakland Voices-KALW Community Journalist awardee in 2016 and Greater Bay Area Journalism Awardee in 2017.