In the Last Hours of the 85th/Edes Rv/Vehicle Community, Broken Vehicles and Stranded Lives

Posted on July 15, 2019

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A few weeks ago, the City of Oakland opened the first site in its new sanctioned RV parking program, ostensibly designed to help homeless people living in their vehicles escape from the cycle of living on the street. Located adjacent to the Oakland Coliseum, the first RV parking site promised room for 30 operational RV’s and trailers that could be driven in [with an operational vehicle]. But the City of Oakland never hid one of the salient goals of the program—providing cover for the eradication of a long standing series of homeless communities living in RVs and cars along the industrial areas on 85th Avenue and Edes. The city announced, and local corporate media duly transcribed, that part and parcel of the new sanctioned RV-camp was the eviction of the existing one on the 85th/Edes corridor. Though local media soon forgot about the city’s promise to remove the encampment within the coming weeks, the city is making good on it today and tomorrow.

Oakland police rolled through the corridor on Thursday, July 11, putting orange stickers that warned of mandatory towing within 72 hours—that deadline is today, Monday. Public works placed signs declaring “encampments” along the corridor illegal, and warning of imminent eviction by 8am Tuesday. The city has also used a local ordinance that gives it wide discretion to declare streets no parking areas along the corridor—though posted signs say that the purpose is construction, an excuse those I spoke to along 85th/Edes found laughable.

The 85th/Edes corridor is a long shotgun in East Oakland, with just a couple of off-streets. It tees into Edes, which spans 98th to Hegenberger. The industrial corridor has long been attractive for homeless people: it’s adjacent to some key social services buildings, but there are no dwellings there, no neighborhoods and only a few storefronts. Fed Ex and Prologis have large campuses that span both 85th and Edes, but the buildings are several dozen feet behind wrought iron fences. There’s no one to bother here. The sidewalks are an after-thought–rarely used, seemingly belonging to no one.

At one point, there may have been as many as 70 vehicles and trailers along the corridor functioning as last resort housing for at least as many, if not more, people. But over the past weeks, as word of the imminent eviction came, many fled for other sites. After the orange towing stickers came last Thursday, many more made their way elsewhere.

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The areas where overnight parking will no longer be outlawed are in red. The area covered is vast, perhaps unprecedented in its scope and is probably at least 3 miles worth of linear parking space.

 

Today, there are perhaps ten to fifteen remaining vehicles targetted for towing and eviction between today and tomorrow–all recognizeable by their orange stickers. Their occupants are, for the moment, stranded. Some don’t know where to go. Others are in vehicles that either don’t run, or they are in trailers that need to be towed and they lack a functioning vehicle. It’s diverse group of people that share one common factor—the fragile buffer of vehicles between themselves and life on the hard sidewalk. The vehicles are a lifeline that is nevertheless unstable, arduous and depressing.

I spoke to several people today that have lived along the corridor anywhere from several months to several years. Most of them are in a critical situation as they live in autos or RVs that are non-operational, and are waiting to be towed by friends or acquaintances to new sites they know little about.

Jennifer, who lives in a crumbling trailer with her partner became homeless years ago, after losing her job, and then apartment after she suffered several strokes and heart attacks. She and her partner have a vehicle, but it’s fallen apart over the years—the car stopped running a few months ago, and with it, Jennifer and her partner lost their main way to stay mobile. If their tow were to fall through today, they’d lose both the car and the trailer, leaving them with nothing.

Tanya is three months pregnant and single. She has a trailer, and a vehicle. She told me she ended up homeless by making some bad decisions as a younger person, decisions she couldn’t seem to escape now. At 32, she’d been homeless for ten years, but dreamed of finding her own apartment. Though she has a functioning vehicle to tow her trailer, she wonders where she’ll end up that won’t make her a target for theft, or for complaints from neighbors.

Alejandro is an immigrant who lives in his car on 85th–he speaks little English and has been precariously housed for years. He was waiting on a tow when I spoke to him yesterday, but he was in the same spot today. The friend hadn’t come through, and he was worried that they wouldn’t today either. If that happens, he’ll lose his car, and be forced out on to the street.

Oscar had been homeless for several years, but was suffering under the burden of probation and garnishing of his wages, trying to keep a trailer around for his brother when he gets out of jail. Like the other people I spoke to, he wondered aloud why the city was subjecting them to this, and the risk of getting towed. “This is our home, it will just make things worse if we get towed”.

Some of the people I spoke to received the city’s so-called “invitation” to the permitted RV site, even cars and vehicles that were obviously not allowed to move there. The people I spoke to were all surprised when I told them that the evictions and towing were linked to the city’s sanctioned RV camp, a site most of them are barred from accessing.

“Why is it suddenly so illegal to park here?” Jennifer wondered aloud. Even in a vehicle, she told me, life is hard, and she had considered suicide since she’d become homeless, and especially in the past few days. She was frustrated about the stress of hoping that her friendly tow comes through, having high blood pressure and prone to heart attacks. “It feels crappy”, Tanya said. “Why are they messing with homeless people?”

Oscar was also frustrated. He told me he and his partner had ended up on the corridor after a self-described community activist had called the police on them and gotten them banned from their previous site. “He collected money, too, for us” he told me, “and then kept it for himself.” Many people told me that people representing organizations such as Operation Dignity had come by vehicle by vehicle in the past months, promising to help relocate them to a transitional living situation–but they’d never been heard from again.

Some people from the corridor in similar situations had already found their tow and alternate site by last night, but even their experience reflects the challenges of relocating for people in vehicles. Dave, an elder who’d lived on the block for years had moved with the help of another corridor resident late in the evening on Saturday. But on Sunday morning, he was quickly warned that his new site on Railroad Avenue is already a zero-tolerance camping site, patrolled regularly by the Alameda County Sheriff. Within hours, the Sheriff had descended—and Dave and his friend, whose vehicle also lacked registration, faced towing. But Dave managed to get a few hours reprieve, and was able to move to a new space. A space, he acknowledged, which had few guarantees itself.

Tanya had also vacated early on Sunday. But she told me that it wasn’t long before someone broke into her vehicle at her new spot, and she was forced to leave and come back to 85th, where she knew people, to weigh next steps.

One important thing it seemed everyone would lose in the move was the sense of community found on the corridor–a support system, some level of security and neighborhood. Moving to a new location brings worry, new scrutiny and dangers that no one I talked to was excited about. Oscar, for example, joked that the adjacent San Leandro Street’s “condos”–a reference to the ramshackle housing recently sprouting on the bike and pedestrian greenway under the elevated BART tracks—seemed promising, but that he’d heard that there are a large number of break-ins there. Dave was also wary of San Leandro Street because of how open it was, unlike the more manageable area on the 85th/Edes corridor he was giving up.

Jennifer told me she’d expected there to be some kind of outreach after the stickers were placed, but she repeated what I had heard from many—a sort of muted shock that no one had come by to facilitate their relocation. The only people they’d really had to ask questions to were law enforcement who had few answers other than confirming that the end was inevitable. Almost all of them told me that the police barely acknowledged their presence when they came to sticker the vehicles last week, moving from one vehicle to another without a word. Dave told me something similar when I asked him if anyone had come by to offer assistance or inquire about his welfare since Thursday. “Just you,” he told me.

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