By Quiver Watts and Alastair Boone and TJ Johnston
On Tuesday, December 6, community members from around the Bay Area converged on the California Department of Transportation’s (CalTrans) District 4 office in Oakland, chanting “CalTrans: stop sweeping us up!” The action, led by POOR Magazine, was convened in order to deliver a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to District Director Tony Tavares, demanding all the internal communications and budget items relating to encampment sweeps in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Organizers said CalTrans had illegally ignored their requests for these public records for 14 days—not even sending a boilerplate reply acknowledging their receipt of the documents—creating the imperative to come in person.
The FOIA requests were written by participants of the revolutionary journalism class at POOR Magazine, a grassroots arts and advocacy organization based in Oakland. The class focuses on how to use journalism as a tool to fight oppression, and includes a training on how to write FOIA requests—which require public agencies to release certain documents to the public upon request. As a part of this training, the multi-generational class chose to write a FOIA request to Caltrans after struggling to find information online about the resources they allocate for encampment sweeps. Their goal is to raise awareness about the impact of sweeps on unhoused people all over the Bay Area, many of which are conducted by Caltrans.
Upon arriving at the office, the group of about 20 was directed to the Public Information department. While the department’s office hours were listed as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a sign on the door said “please come in,” the door was locked and the group was told that no one was inside. Additionally, an employee told the group that the public information officer has been working remotely because of the pandemic. So instead, organizers brought copies of the FOIA request to the mailroom and addressed copies of the request to CalTrans officials.
The incredibly wide age range of attendees and speakers made for a striking impression against the lobby’s holiday-themed backdrop. Over the cheery Christmas music piped from lobby speakers and the cozy holiday decor, young children and elders alike spoke of the trauma they had experienced and witnessed in encampment sweeps, operations carried out by numerous government agencies, including CalTrans, that displace homeless communities and confiscate gear that’s necessary for survival, as well as the residents’ precious personal belongings.
“Agencies like CalTrans perpetrate sweeps on houseless people, even though they know it never solves homelessness,” said Ziair Hughes, a youth scholar and a reporter with POOR Magazine. “We are launching this investigation which includes our testimony as formerly houseless youth, and delivering these FOIAs to CalTrans to get the numbers on money wasted on throwing our belongings away, harassing us and taking away our tents which often leads to our death, instead of supporting our own solution, like Homefulness.”
Most recently, CalTrans has been in the headlines for conducting an inhumane and devastating sweep of Wood Street in West Oakland, where over 100 unhoused people were forcibly evicted from their longtime encampments, with nowhere else to go. CalTrans has been subject to multiple lawsuits over their handling of encampments, including a 2016 case where $2 million was awarded in a settlement to reimburse discarded possessions to unhoused East Bay residents.
John Janosko is a leader at the homeless encampment known as the Wood Street Commons. After 10 years on the streets, he says he has seen the same people come back repeatedly, sweeping people from one block to the next, and then back again. He says it is clear to everyone involved that the sweeps are a failed strategy.
“Are the sweeps doing any good?” Janosko asked. “Are they housing people? Are the feeding people? Are they clothing people? Are they giving people medical attention? I’m trying to understand why we continue on doing something that’s not working. Why not invest the time, the energy, the money in something that will work? Housing people. Housing people!”
Some people who worked in the building gathered in the lobby, filming the action and listening to the speakers share their stories. Several speakers implored them to bring their grievances to their bosses and push for change within the organization, but most did not respond and simply continued filming.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the wealthiest places on Earth, most cities contain more vacant housing units than homeless people. In 2019, San Francisco had nearly five vacant homes per unhoused person, while in Oakland there were just about four vacant homes per houseless resident. Speakers from POOR Magazine, Wood Street Commons, Stolen Belonging and Coalition on Homelessness repeatedly asserted that money currently wasted on encampment sweeps would be better spent housing people.
“Communities all across the Bay have launched this effort because millions, sometimes billions, of dollars are being spent to sweep our bodies. Swept, like we are trash. How do you sweep humans?” asked Tiny Gray-Garcia, a formerly unhoused, incarcerated poverty scholar and the co–founder of POOR Magazine. Her organization also erected a house called Homefulness and founded the DeeColonize Academy, a school for unhoused and precariously housed youth. “Institutions like these, working for the state, have spent billions sweeping us, instead of spending money housing us, or giving us stolen indigenous territory—we’re on Ohlone Lisjan land in this whole Bay Area—so that we can build or own housing.”
As the gathering exited the CalTrans office, a chant echoed off the high ceilings: “Human abuse is not OK, we gotta stop sweeping our people away.”
POOR Magazine’s FOIA request has yet to be acknowledged by Caltrans officials. The authors are Ziair Hughes (14), Amir Cornish (19), Akil Carrillo (19), Nija Grant (14), Israel Munoz, Dee Allen, Juju Angeles, Angel Heart, Kai, Avery, Anniyah, AmunRa, and others. They ask the public to contact Tony Tavares and ask him to respond by writing to P.O. Box 23660
Oakland, CA 94623; calling the public affairs/media line at (916) 657-5060; or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.