“We are Taking Care of Ourselves“: Federal Judge rules against self-organized solutions provided by Housing and Dignity Village

On Monday, November 26th U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam heard arguments to decide if the City of Oakland has a right to clear residents and their property from an abandoned city lot in East Oakland. At the end of October, a group of unhoused women of color and their families cleared debris from the city-owned lot and established “Housing and Dignity Village,” a curbside community housing thirteen individuals. In addition to housing these families, Housing and Dignity Village provides food, medical care, and sober community space for housed and unhoused residents in East Oakland.

The City of Oakland, represented by Deputy City Attorney Jamilah Jefferson, argued in court that Housing and Dignity Village residents were trespassing and if Housing and Dignity Village was permitted to stay, the city would be liable for anything that happened on the occupied abandoned lot. Joshua Piovia-Scott, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that clearing the lot would violate a precedent set in Martin v. Boise, which ruled that if shelters were at capacity or had restrictive requirements that prevented unhoused people from staying there, the city had no right to arrest individuals for sleeping on public property. Jefferson argued that the city’s notice to vacate doesn’t apply to Martin v. Boise because the notice to vacate referred to clearing out property, not arresting individuals. However, because individuals have no place to take their property and legally set it up in a manner that allows them to live, Piovio-Scott argued that the notice to vacate, usually delivered and enforced by Oakland Police Department, carries with it a threat of arrest.

The line through security to enter the Federal Courthouse in Oakland on Monday.

Aiyahnna Johnson, a resident of Housing and Dignity Village and a plaintiff in the case, said the residents were doing the work of sheltering and providing services for the community that the city has failed to do. She thinks Housing and Dignity Village should be allowed to stay in the location “for transitional support until they can find actual housing for the homeless. Because it’s a community, it’s not an encampment. It’s a community that helps build itself up. Something that the city was supposed to be doing in the first place. So we are taking care of ourselves, something that we appointed them to do.”

The City of Oakland also argued that some residents of Housing and Dignity Village occupied the abandoned city lot instead of setting up encampments on land chosen by the city. Piovia-Scott clarified that “those encampments are not the encampment that is at issue in this lawsuit, which is the encampment that these people actually live in… What the city has failed to do is to provide them with a location for this particular encampment of sober women and their families to enable these people to create a community, to get back on their feet, and to get housed and to get off the streets.”

Johnson and supporters chat after the hearing on Monday

Jefferson admitted that the City of Oakland has a homelessness problem, consistently redirecting the judge to consider the procedures the city has in place to manage homelessness in the city. However, she made two parallel and seemingly contradictory arguments about the relationship between an unhoused individual and the city. She frequently said that individuals were trespassing on the city lot. However, she took pains to argue that there was no clear relationship between any individual unhoused person and the responsibility of the city to find them adequate shelter. The collective group was served with a notice to vacate, but she argued that the notice itself was not a threat to cite any unhoused individual.

Piovia-Scott consistently argued that the city has failed to provide viable solutions for unhoused people; the number of unhoused people far outpaces shelter beds, and shelters don’t meet the needs of many unhoused residents’ living circumstances such as the age and gender of children they may have, hours they work, or their religious needs. Toward the end of the hearing, Jefferson said the city doesn’t have a responsibility to provide individual solutions to people based on their individual circumstances. What was not said, but was clear throughout the gap between Piovia-Scott and Jefferson’s arguments, is that despite not being able or interested in meeting the individual needs of unhoused people, the City of Oakland is not interested in accommodating the community solution enacted by Housing and Dignity Village on public land as a way to meet shelter needs given these circumstances.

When asked about her access to Section-8 or other permanent housing solutions the city does have the ability to create, Johnson said, “They don’t have section 8 and the rent is outrageous. So they’re making it impossible to be housed and then blaming us for being unhoused so it’s a conundrum for me. It doesn’t make any sense. How can you say you know that there’s a homeless problem but you’re not addressing the homeless issue, you’re just addressing the property that you want that wasn’t even being used in the first place to help. All the shelters are full. When we come with a solution, you guys deny the solution. So if you deny the solution what other solutions do you have in place of that? A day in a shelter is not a solution. So we’re looking for long-term solutions as opposed to short-term solutions.”

Piovia-Scott said the judge had the opportunity to rule in a manner that forced the city and Housing and Dignity Village to collaborate on a solution. “I would hope that pragmatically, solution-oriented activities and negotiations would come out of this lawsuit. That’s what the plaintiffs would like. They would like a chance to either stay here or stay in another location that would allow them to create this very powerful and important community they have created.”

However, on Wednesday, October 28th Judge Gilliam denied Housing and Dignity Village’s motion for an injunction, saying that the city’s claim that they would provide shelter beds to the 13 residents disqualifies residents from 8th Amendment protection established in the Martin v. Boise decision. Judge Gilliam acknowledged that the City of Oakland was in a housing crisis, but said it was not the court’s role to make a decision about whether or not the city’s policy approach is the ideal solution. Instead, his ruling was based on whether or not “the Constitution forbids the City from making difficult decisions it judges to be in the best interests of all its residents by implementing a policy it believes appropriately balances the important individual and community rights implicated by encampments on public land in Oakland.”

The judge said if the city chooses to initiate the removal of Housing and Dignity Village, it will need to initiate a new notice to vacate at least 72 hours in advance, comply with the city’s policies and procedures as submitted to the court during the hearing, and offer shelter beds to each of the 13 individuals.

Needa Bee, a plaintiff on the lawsuit, said in a video statement on the East Oakland Collective Facebook page afterward, “We are very disappointed with the Judge’s order. What we can assume is that he is taking the City’s word at face value and he’s believing that what they’re saying is how they actually handle the encampments. But as activists and advocates in the streets for homelessness, we know… that this is not how the city operates.” She noted, for example, that at 7AM that morning an encampment at Snow Park was cleared with no notice. To follow time-sensitive updates from residents, follow the Twitter and Facebook accounts of @VillageOakland and the @EOakCollective.