Just before noon on Thursday, September 13, City Council Member Abel Guillen’s office called asking if I would be able to serve as the moderator at a meeting that evening between the Council Members, Oakland Human Services Director Sarah Bedford, Assistant City Administrator Joe Devries and members of the community concerning the city’s plan to move the homeless persons living in tents around Lake Merritt to “Community Cabins” (Tuff Sheds) located on the parking lot of the old Kaiser Auditorium at the south end of the lake. The meeting was to be held at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church. It was likely to be contentious, and the pastor of the church was unable to moderate the meeting. Wishing I could honestly say “I would love to, but I have a previous commitment,” but unable to do so, I agreed to be there at 5:45 for a pre-meeting planning session.
The start of the meeting was delayed because there was a youth choir rehearsing in the sanctuary. (Imagine that, two groups scheduled in the same church space at the same time.) When the meeting eventually got started, there were brief introductions, short preliminary statements and I was introduced as the one who would manage the heart of the meeting which consisted of questions from the gathered community (the sanctuary of the church was filled to over-flowing) and responses from the city officials. I restated the purpose of the evening, a better understanding of the city’s response to a complex and heart-rending situation, invited everyone to speak in a manner that they would like to be spoken to and promised that I would give the microphone to as many questioners as time would allow before we came to the end of our allotted time in the building.
As predicted, the questioning was intense and the concern for the well-being of the unhoused on the part of their spokespersons, the residents who live around the lake and the city officials was genuine. The often repeated themes were: The number of unhoused persons in Oakland is high, approximately 3,000 on any given evening, public land must remain available to the public for the purposes to which it is dedicated, the city is committed to lifting people up rather than forcing them out, the amount of resources available to address this humanitarian crisis is increasing, but the needs remain great and there is debate about how those resources should best be allocated.
After over an hour of question and response, Council Member Guillen’s staff whispered to me that time they had promised the church the meeting would end was approaching. I allotted time for a few questions, gave the responders an opportunity to make brief closing statements and ended the meeting by saying “Thank you all for speaking your truth. Lives hang in the balance. May the promises made come to fruition. Peace be upon us all as we leave this sacred place.”
I wish I could say that I left the meeting filled with confidence that the tent cities that are so prominent in Oakland will soon be a thing of the past. I cannot. I can say that if the promises to respond humanely to the needs of those who cannot afford a home while affordable housing is being built are kept, the situation will slowly improve. Therein lies my concern. The verbiage of caring is plentiful. The resources allocated to essential human rights in our society: housing, medical care, education, food, clean air and water, remain small in proportion to the size and strength of the local, state and national economies. If the prophet Amos were to live among us he would find ample reason to proclaim as he did of old, “Let justice roll down like waters.”