On Friday afternoon several dozen people gathered outside the unassuming Palms Motel in Oakland, CA with signs reading “Housing is a Human Right” and “Hotels Not Graves.” Inside, Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, an adjunct classics lecturer who herself was formerly homeless and has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, has chained herself in the bathroom of a small room. She has been demanding that the City of Oakland offer hotel rooms where she has helped set up for her unhoused neighbors at the intentional encampment at 37th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
The 37MLK camp, as the encampment is familiarly known, has been hit hard by the outbreak of coronavirus. Before the pandemic hit, the community had organized dozens of housed people who were coming by to drop off food, help with building, and keep the camp going. But now that people are sheltering in place, those without shelter have found themselves without support.
Echeverría-Fenn says she was pushed to take action after a woman at the 37MLK camp was exposed to a close relative who had tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, and the City of Oakland failed to offer safe housing to campers. Undeterred by the inaction, she says she took all of her savings out and paid to move all the residents into hotel rooms, which they have continued paying for using crowdfunded resources. But, she says, today all of that money ran out.
“It’s not realistic to keep continuing to fundraise among our networks who are basically all just equally broke people when the City and the County has the resources, has the legal authority to put us in hotels now, if they wanted to,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “I’m here putting my body on the line because I feel like even as a disabled person with multiple chronic conditions that make me more susceptible to COVID, that it is still safer for me to be in jail fighting for our people than it is for our people to be out on the street.”
Mayor Libby Schaff has emergency powers that allow her to open up empty hotel rooms, but she has failed to move the thousands of homeless Oaklanders off the streets. Homeless people qualify for the state program “Project Roomkey” only if they can prove they have severe disabilities or underlying health conditions, or if they are over 65. But qualifying doesn’t actually get you a room key; hotel staff keep the guests’ room keys and have strict rules allowing guests to leave their rooms only three times a day for 20 minutes or less. Guests are also forced to abandon their pets if they want to move into safety.
As reported by the Street Spirit, the East Bay’s street newspaper, there are currently three hotels in Oakland being used to shelter about 300 people. An additional 130 unsheltered people have been housed in state-donated FEMA trailers. Most of those who have been moved into the hotel rooms were previously living in shelters, while the city’s 3,000 plus unsheltered homeless people, who are not already in the county’s coordinated entry system, have largely been unable to access the rooms.
Two days prior to the occupation, Oakland had declared a local health emergency for African-Americans, citing the disparate impacts Black Oaklanders have suffered. But Echeverría-Fenn says that the City’s refusal to open hotel rooms to the homeless community underscores the disregard local leaders have for Black lives. One resident of the Black-led 37MLK encampment tried to access a hotel room through the City because they suffer from sickle cell anemia, and was told that their underlying health condition, one that mainly impacts Black people, was not on the list of disabilities that could provide them access to a room.
“It’s impossible to quarantine in place when you don’t have a place,” Echeverría-Fenn said. “So there needs to stop being this quibbling over the minutiae of ‘Are you 64 or 65?’, ‘Is your disability moderate or severe?’ Because the fact of the matter is everyone living on the street is just facing profound health consequences of living on the street whether or not that is seen or validated by the City. Everyone at our camp is at profound risk.”
When asked by the Street Spirit for a comment about the action outside the Palms Motel, Karen Boyd, the City of Oakland’s spokesperson, replied with the following:
Oakland is supporting the County in the acquisition of two additional hotels in Oakland for COVID response and for eventual permanent homeless use. Two weeks ago, we opened our Operation HomeBase site with 67 FEMA trailers, and have been bringing vulnerable, unsheltered East Oaklanders inside to respond to the virus. We continue to support the County in making referrals into their hotel programs. Moreover, our emergency COVID-19 budget proposed additional support for motel vouchers and for funding to help people exit homelessness into permanent housing. And Mayor Schaaf is pushing our partners at the State hard for money in the next budget that would support not just buying additional hotels and buildings, but also operating them and ensuring they have adequate services. We are taking every step to address this crisis—and are doing so in a thoughtful way that positions us for long-term success.
Rachel Clemente and her husband Martin were among those gathered outside the occupation. They have been homeless on and off over the last three years and had found a place to move shortly before the pandemic hit. Now their move-in date has been pushed back and so they have been trying their best to stay safe on the streets after leaving the shelter system, which they say was failing to follow health guidelines around social distancing.
“My husband and I wanted to join the protest because we have not been able to get any help from none of the programs. Not 211, nobody, the hospital, we haven’t been able to get any hotel vouchers,” she said. “They should help the homeless and support us in any way they can and put us up in hotels.”
At the time that this article is being published, the occupation at the Palms Motel continues, but hotel staff have escalated the confrontation, physically threatening Echeverría-Fenn and locking her alone in the room. She is asking for supporters to show up to the motel to help keep her safe through the night and onward.
Stefani Echeverría-Fenn says she is not going anywhere. Looking around, it is clear that this is not a place of luxury. The furniture is dilapidated, the bathroom coated with a thin layer of grime. But it beats trying to stay safe outside.
“If you look even at the condition of this room for example, this is what we are begging for, not like a palace,” Echeverría-Fenn says. “But this would be a palace for us. So the immediate demand we are agitating for right now is getting our people inside for the duration of the pandemic, but our longer term kind of goal is to find a material situation where we can be stable and continue our work together as a community, because we have become a family.”
To support the residents of 37MLK please show up TONIGHT to 829 West MacArthur Blvd. to help keep the occupant safe! If you can’t physically show up, you can donate funds through Venmo to @ars_hoetica or call Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff at (510)238-3141. Visit this website for more information on how to plug in!