This month’s Splash Pad News is venturing into the kind of issue we’ve rarely, if ever, broached. Namely, a serious discussion about Oakland’s homelessness crisis with content provided by myself and photographer, Joanne Devereaux, with much needed input from Pastor Jim Hopkins.
I’d preface this discussion by noting that we’ve long had a homeless presence. As early as 2004, the negative impact on the newly opened Splash Pad Park prompted me to organize a community forum at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church which led indirectly to the City establishing a scaled down version of San Francisco’s Operation Homeless Connect. For several years, I was actively involved as a volunteer but, over time I became increasingly frustrated by the lack of results while simultaneously becoming increasingly perturbed about all the negative consequences.
I’m happy to say that I currently have a new perspective thanks to a Lava Mae “Christmas With The Curry’s” Pop-Up Care Village on December 21 (see photos) that was co-sponsored by the Curry Family Foundation and Kaiser Permanente. As impressed as I was by the event itself, my own epiphany began the day before.
INTRODUCING PASCHAL NNAJI
by Ken Katz
I already introduced Paschal to Splash Pad News readers last month when I included the above photograph and described him as the newest member of the Splash Pad Grand Crew volunteer team. What I didn’t mention is that he’s homeless and living in the parking lot under the freeway, which is where I first met him, while publicizing the Lava Mae event. He volunteered his name; asked mine; and thanked me for the flyer. I was immediately impressed by his demeanor and the fact that his encampment was neat as a pin with cardboard carefully stacked and blankets crisply folded.
At the Splash Pad Grand Crew’s 4th Sunday monthly work day, in December, I asked him if he’d like to volunteer and he was happy to oblige. He did so again last weekend and, in between, took it upon himself to help keep the park clean. When rakes weren’t available, he swept the plaza (which hadn’t been this clean in quite some time) with palm fronds. He’s also volunteered twice at the Morcom Rose Garden and, without exception, staff and fellow volunteers have been dazzled by his strength, work ethic and affability.
So, you may rightly ask, “How did someone with all these positive attributes become homeless?”
Paschal was born in Chad but grew up in Nigeria, which in the 1990’s was in turmoil surrounded by warring factions. In 2000, at the age of nineteen, he migrated to the US and after a brief stay in Maryland, he moved to Oakland. His first job was working as a fry cook in the Lake Park Kwik Way followed by a stint driving taxi cabs in San Francisco. After moving to Pittsburg in 2004, he established a successful business as a licensed landscaper and supplemented that income with construction jobs where he worked as a carpenter and concrete mason. Along the way, he married twice and had five children – the youngest, four and the oldest nineteen, and also purchased a home.
That world came tumbling down when his second wife sued for divorce after learning that he had cheated on her. Ashamed of his behavior, Paschal chose to not contest the divorce and about seven months ago, packed his pick-up truck with his clothing and tools and moved back to Oakland where he had a job lined up with a local contractor. Encamped near the Home Depot, his pick-up truck and tools were stolen. When the construction job in Oakland wrapped up, without transportation, he was unable to accept a job from the same contractor on the San Francisco peninsula, but after four men attacked him in the middle of the night – breaking his jaw, he did move to our Grand Lake neighborhood. Even here, he had most of his belongings ripped off during a brief absence.
In the past month, as more people have become aware of his situation, there’s been an outpouring of support. To cite a few examples, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church donated a warm winter coat and a big bag of groceries (more about that later). The Oakland Museum White Elephant Sale donated additional jackets, pants and a brand new backpack to replace the one that was stolen. Jesset Sidore read about Paschal in last month’s News and hired him to fix her fence. Kimberly Leo, owner of Namaste Yoga, gave him cash for food and Zach Zegle, the Pestec technician who has been doing rat abatement at Splash Pad, gave him enough for a bike lock for the bike that had been stolen and later recovered by OPD.
The corollary to the question that started this discussion is, “How does a person with all those positive attributes become whole again; employed and into a secure environment”?
This past Friday, after sharing some Arizmendi pizza, I told him his situation was like being mired in quicksand but I was confident that he had the strength and determination to pull himself out. I came to that conclusion knowing that he had, during the previous couple of days, ridden his bike to Pittsburg to pick up a letter regarding unemployment benefits and, on the return trip, after both brake levers snapped off on a steep hill, had ridden the rest of the way using the soles of his shoes as brakes. As an encore, two days later, with his bike out of commission, he walked to and from San Leandro to pick up work boots and a hard hat that he’d need if he lands a full-time construction job in San Pablo.
If he’s hired, unless retroactive unemployment benefits (that he may or may not receive) are sufficient to buy another pick-up, he’s planning to bike to work on San Pablo Avenue – which as most cyclists will attest, takes steely nerves. And even with a job, can he be sure that his campsite won’t be raided in his absence? As long as he’s unsheltered, how can he stay healthy while exposed to the elements night after night? And most importantly, where will he be able to find affordable housing in a marketplace where the average price for a studio apartment in Oakland is $1,761?
Those are just some of the obstacles that Paschal will have to overcome – despite all the attributes working in his favor. For the majority of the homeless – particularly those who are long-term, those obstacles are incrementally much greater.
by Joanne Devereaux
Eighteen years ago when we first moved to the neighborhood there was one, quite visible homeless man in the area. When my daughter, as a toddler, played at the Mandana Green, she asked me why he didn’t have a house to live in like we did. Many years later, as an almost adult she, asked me another broader question, why didn’t I do something about the homeless?
It was soon after that question I came across an article about an architect in Seattle who was greatly impacted by the homeless he saw. Rex Hohlbein had a successful architectural firm, but was disturbed seeing so many unsheltered people living close to his office. In 2011, he started a Facing Homelessness-Seattle Facebook page (that now has 50,000 likes) on which he began quite simply to share the stories of local homeless men and women. The photographic portraits have had a big impact, and have allowed for an outpouring of support in the past eight years to the specific individuals who have been photographed and profiled.
Three years ago, within a few hours of reading this story I contacted his office and talked to Rex about homelessness here in Oakland. He sent me their mission statement along with other guidelines, and invited me to do similar photographs here in Oakland which led me to follow in his footsteps.
Initially, it wasn’t easy to approach and talk to people living on the streets. Most often I started with a simple, “hello”. Over time, as I felt more comfortable doing this, I was surprised by the extent to which people welcomed these conversations. To cite one example, two sisters living on a bench along Lake Merritt for almost a year never let me pass by without checking in with them. Another example is Buck – a man many readers may recognize because he spends a good part of his day in front of Peet’s.
The photographs and text in italics below are selected from my posts on the Facing Homelessness Oakland Facebook page.
Photo copyright Joanne Devereaux
April 2016 Buck, came here when he was 30 years old. He was hesitant to talk to me, said he liked my shoes and I guessed he had been in the military. He laughed showing a nice smile, full of mostly missing teeth. He brushed both his hair and his beard and said the picture was a gift and I agreed. He is 62.
Photo copyright Joanne Devereaux
October 2017 Buck is a tall man and hard to miss when you see him on the street. Over a year ago I met him for the first time. He was sitting down so I didn’t realize how tall he was until I saw him last night walking down Grand Avenue. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him but was glad to see he is OK. Homelessness isn’t generally OK or a good place to be. The stories are complicated and never easy. Sleeping in the doorway of a retail store or restaurant is difficult at best. Buck sleeps on Grand Avenue and is not a part of our neighborhood. Say “hello” if you see Buck.
November 2017 Buck is back. On Grand Avenue early this morning, before either of us had any coffee, I had a chance to talk to Buck again. He is a VET born in 1954 from New Jersey originally. He said he wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today so I’m glad I stopped to see him again.
January 2019 Over the past few years Buck has lived in the Grand Lake area. He slept in the doorway of a local shop for months. My last photo of him was taken over a year ago. He has since become quite thin and is less able to hold a conversation.
THE PARTICULAR CHALLENGES POSED BY MENTAL ILLNESS
Eighteen years later, the disheveled individual Joanne Devereaux referred to is still a permanent fixture on Lakeshore and Grand. I marvel that he has been able to survive this long given his constant exposure to the elements along with his questionable diet. Although the clinical diagnosis is unknown, he’s clearly mentally ill. Periodically, he’s disappeared and returned clean shaven, wearing clean clothes and possibly medicated. On those exceedingly rare occasions, someone not familiar with the neighborhood, might assume he’s perfectly normal. Neighbors, concerned about his welfare, have, in the past, worked with OPD and the Social Service system to have him picked up on a 5150 complaint and taken to Highland for observation. On those occasions, staff has invariably determined that he’s neither a threat to himself or to others – the usual legal standard that has been applied in determining whether any California resident can be hospitalized against his or her will. Typically, after spending the night, he’s been released without treatment; without a shower; without a change of clothing.
Approximately five years ago, concerned neighbors convened a group of mental health professionals to advocate on his behalf, arguing that a third legal standard that was rarely cited applied in his case – namely that he was gravely disabled and incapable of adequately caring for himself. The overwhelming consensus was that this third standard clearly applied and the Alameda County Mental Health Director agreed to refer him for a 5250 when a hospital bed opened. For whatever reason, that never occurred. In 2015, Alameda County approved implementation of Laura’s Law with provisions for mandating “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” or “AOT” for individuals suffering from severe mental illness and/or addiction.
Theoretically, this newer measure should better facilitate treatment for the most severely disabled individuals. In the case of this homeless denizen, it hasn’t worked but the sad reality is that he’s no longer the “worst case” scenario. In our immediate vicinity, there are now at least two or three other homeless individuals who expose themselves and defecate in public and often on themselves. In addition, there’s a military veteran, apparently suffering from PTSD and from addictions who has been regularly creating havoc – stealing, breaking shop windows, engaging in fights, and threatening lives. In these cases, it’s critically important that we begin to utilize the legal resources available to get the mentally ill off the streets and into supportive housing – such as that provided by Bonita House in Berkeley.
WORKS IN PROGRESS AND ON THE DRAWING BOARD
- There are currently three Tuff Shed Villages in Oakland and 70% of the “graduates” are placed in permanent housing.
- Kaiser Permanente has just announced a $5.2 million donation to fund 41 units of affordable housing in the San Antonio district – an initial downpayment on a $25 million commitment to Oakland.
- The Interfaith Council of Alameda County has received a $300,000 grant to provide secure living spaces with showers and toilets for three to five vehicles in church parking lots throughout the city.
- There are a host of non-profits providing invaluable services with a special shout-out to Operation Dignity, the Henry Robinson Center, St. Vincent de Paul, Keep Oakland Housed and the Homeless Action Center.
- In the last election, California voters approved Propositions 1 and 2 which will provide billions in housing assistance to veterans and the mentally ill.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Even if you’re not inclined to do more, don’t be afraid to say “hello”.
- Lobby the City of Oakland to install portable toilets where needed.
- Support Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church’s Hunger Task Force through cash donations; by contributing to and/or participating in their annual Walk Around Lake Merritt or save your cans and bottles for the recycling container in front of their pre-school offices. Using the latter, my beer containers paid for a healthy chunk of the food bag they gave to Paschal.