“It was more than a camp—it was our paradise.”
My heart broke, then cheered when I heard a woman on the radio utter that sentence. A former resident of a homeless camp that had been (let’s say) “disassembled,” she knew the critical importance of having a place to live in community, and could speak to it.
When I heard it, I was home, snug in my favorite armchair crocheting, listening to “California Report Magazine” carried by KVPR. That night it was a half hour-long piece on one of Oakland’s homeless camps called Wood Street, which reporter Erin Baldassari had been following for some time. Eviction of the camp took place in early September 2022, and Baldassari was reporting some of the outcomes for the former residents.
As I listened, I heard echoes of my own beliefs and needs coming through the mouths of these people. Seeing only through my mind’s eye, the images of a real human community took shape from their stories. They had their own food bank and clothing closet to help each other through scant times, as well as for newcomers needing a place to lay their heads. They made gardens and community kitchens, meeting spaces and recreation areas. They built their own homes out of refuse and wrecked vehicles and kept their possessions inside, guarding them from being stolen like any of us would do, but from the sound of it, they also shared freely. They gathered what they needed and rebuilt their lives there, recovering from any number of tragedies that befall our species.
And they took civic action when Caltrans informed them that they had to go, that they were illegally residing on state land—a scrap of unused, wasted space below freeway overpasses at the western edge of Oakland. “The area had long been a forgotten place. That’s what Jessica Huffman found most appealing,” said Baldassari as she introduced us to one of the residents. It was a place where homeless people could be comfortably invisible as they started trying to rebuild their lives. As the stories unfolded, I realized these folks of Wood Street were not now homeless or unhoused, despite the use of those terms for them. They were home-makers and community-builders, sheltering themselves and caring for each other on unused land owned by the people of the state. Yet the state decided they were violating some law, and destroyed the homes, possessions and community these people had created out of our cast-offs and junk. Like so many civic efforts across the country, whether to defend a lake or a river or a mountain or some other sacred space, their efforts to protect their place did not succeed.
If you want to read the article, go to www.kqed.org and search for “The End of Wood Street: Inside the Struggle for Stability, Housing on the Margins of the Bay Area,” posted May 17, 2023. The photos by KQED’s Beth LaBerge are beautiful and compelling, and they also help us learn to see the beauty of such places which our eyes normally view as repelling. That repelling is what I want to talk about now.
Whenever I drive Highway 99 and see the encampments at the freeway interchanges, or notice tents tied to cyclone fences behind landscaping along the right-of-ways, I turn my eyes away, and not just to protect the privacy of whoever lives there. I turn away so that I won’t think about the pain and vulnerability of those people in contrast to my own socio-economic condition and status as a homeowner.
What’s offensive to us about these encampments, I think, is not just the visual chaos or the threat of strangers. It’s the threat to our status system, which gives far more credibility than is warranted to people with four-car garage homes on spacious lots maintained by a landscape crew. This is the status system we’ve built after The Fall, east of Eden. After Paradise was lost.
What we find so challenging about these encampments, I think, is the evident reality that Paradise can be regained. Taking care of themselves and each other, turning waste land into a place called home, the so-called homeless people of those encampments have something to teach us. Perhaps, instead, we should think of them as Gardeners.
Trudy Wischemann is the daughter of a carpenter/community-builder who writes. You can send her your favorite shack-living stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.