The day before Thanksgiving, I went out to a Pallet shelter site in Oakland. Dozens of sturdy, white tiny homes had been built on an empty lot along with a few outbuildings for service offices and bathrooms. A chain-link fence surrounded the structures and included entrances secured with a modern security system. The pathways inside the village were well swept and orderly; the structures looked new and a bit, although not exceedingly, utilitarian. There was no sign to indicate what all this was; if you were walking by, you might just assume it was a construction site with an unusual amount of temporary outbuildings.
The grounds appeared to be almost completely empty, which the Pallet representative said was pretty normal. Some of the people who live here work during the day and others go out to see their friends and family.
While I was there, an elderly woman stood in front of the fence and held up a picket sign that read “Honk for Peace.” She said her name was Assata Olugbala. (Assata Olugbala Shakur was a former Black Liberation Army leader who escaped to Cuba after being convicted of the murder of a police officer and whose writings have been chanted at Black Lives Matter protests across the country.)
This Assata is a fixture at Oakland City Council meetings, where she speaks on everything from Colin Kaepernick to the city’s public library system. Accompanying her was Nino Parker, another well-known face in Bay Area homeless circles. Olugbala and Parker told me that some of the units in the village had been offered to people who did not live in the nearby encampment and that an initial promise — that the tiny-home village would be exclusively for the people who lived in the surrounding area — had been violated.
Kevin Cockerham, a site manager at the village and a peer counselor for the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, wouldn’t comment on Olugbala and Parker’s claims. He did say that after two and a half weeks, the village had 25 residents in 54 single units and a list of 80 people from the nearby unhoused communities who had expressed interest. Part of the work, Cockerham said, was tracking down those people to tell them they now had a place to stay.
In what remained of the nearby tent encampment, some residents huddled around a smoking charcoal grill. A middle-aged woman named Victoria was handing out meals from the trunk of her car. “I stay around here,” she told me. “And I always think this could be me.” From where Victoria and I were standing, we could see the vast, green expanses surrounding the Alameda County Courthouse, where the Black Panthers held their famed “Free Huey” rally in 1968 after the arrest of one of its founders, Huey P. Newton.
All this is history, I guess. But it’s not hard to see how what happened around this site in the past informs the encampment that’s here today. The Panthers, for example, gave out free breakfast to disadvantaged children in Oakland and provided social services in the city in the 1960s and ’70s before they were violently repressed. In the ’80s, during the Reagan years, public housing was stripped away. And over the past decades, thousands of poor people have been processed through that courthouse into incarceration, many of whom have eventually found themselves living on the streets. Standing by an encampment makes you aware of these narratives, but I’m not sure what knowing all that does for any of the people who live in the tents.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”