Oakland Recycling Center Shutters, Exposing Callous American Attitudes On The Homeless Crisis

Tomorrow’s closure of the Alliance Recycling Center in West Oakland, California — a 38-year-old business tucked between Fitzgerald Park and the MacArthur Freeway — is, ostensibly, “just” a closure. Sad, yes, as more than 20 people will lose their jobs and the neighborhood will lose a longtime local organization, but it’s certainly not dire; the shuttering of its rattling gates won’t fundamentally alter the fabric of the city or the people who comprise it.

But this is the trouble with the unexamined life; it’s predicated on deception.

At first glance, the Alliance Recycling Center is at best a nuisance, at worst a nexus for crime, drug use, and squalor, given that its primary users are “vagrants.” It’s noisy and it smells; it’s easy enough for those passing quickly on their bike or car — those not familiar with facility or the casual segregation of Oakland — to write it off as a blight in an otherwise charming neighborhood.

When examined more closely, however, Alliance serves as the lifeblood — the only viable source of income — for more than 400 homeless (and marginally housed) folks who bring their teeming shopping carts of glass, plastic, and metal every day to its doors. This is a community shouldering the weight of mental illness, addiction, and crushing poverty, all the while being told they’re a kind of vermin — humans reduced to thorns in our sides.

Alliance also serves as a case study for the 46 million Americans who are living below the poverty line in America, a case study of systemic oppression and state-sanctioned violence. And although this displacement is happening here and now, it represents the culmination of decades of racial erasure — its very roots were always rotten.

A historically black and prosperous city, Oakland suffered deeply in the wake of of World War II with the creation of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency (ORA).

Sociologist Chris Rhomberg’s book, No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland — which traces the evolution of Oakland’s intersecting social and infrastructural developments — explains that the ORA was actually the brainchild of another entity, the Oakland Citizen’s Committee for Urban Renewal (OCCUR), which was comprised of executives hailing from the industrial, banking, retail, homebuilding, and real estate sectors.

Through OCCUR, the ORA was given carte blanche to determine which areas of the city were in “need of redevelopment,” and consequently to snatch them up through the powers of eminent domain to build whatever-the-hell properties they deemed useful to their wallets under the auspices of “progress.” (A loose euphemism for destroying the infrastructure of the local black population for the OCCUR members’ own businesses’ advancement.)

Rhomberg argues that the Acorn Project, the first of the ORA’s “redevelopment” plans — which debuted circa 1956 — marked the beginning of the end for black West Oaklanditesopportunity for a shot at prosperity, spurring a systemic displacement that still exists today.

To make a long story short(er), the Acorn Project slated 50 blocks of West Oakland — where 80% of Oakland’s entire black population called home — for demolition, but didn’t begin rebuilding that swath of rubble until five years later, leaving the once-prosperous area in a state of utter desolation. Acorn was followed by the construction of the Cypress Freeway, completed in 1958, which destroyed more than 5,000 housing units, displacing families and an array of commercial businesses. (In addition to bifurcating the entire area from the rest of the city, a geographical-cum-economic fallout with impacts that can’t be underestimated.)

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the area yet again, collapsing the freeway, destroying 1,000 housing units, and generally plunging the area into fiscal and developmental chaos as the city struggled to rebuild.

Between 1960–1966, more “urban renewal” — like BART and freeway construction — had demolished another 7,000 housing units in Oakland, more than 5,000 of which were in West Oakland. OaklandPlanningHistory.org explains the phenomenal fallout this displacement had on the community, a rippling racial divide that Oakland is still reeling from:

“Redevelopers were unenthusiastic about the prospect of public housing potentially lowering property values, and it seems as though some residents and business interests were hoping that the poor would be priced out of Oakland. In 1966, though an estimated 20,000 people were eligible for public housing in the city, Oakland had just 1,422 permanent public housing units. The ravaging of Oakland’s primary black neighborhood and the destruction of housing stock, along with calls to end segregation, pushed black residents out of West Oakland and raised the specter of integration.”

More recently, according to city records, the City of Oakland spent $72,212 to close 162 homeless encampments in 2015 (in addition to disposing of the detritus and belongings of those living on the streets and in parks). The East Bay Express reports that about half of Alameda County’s homeless — 2,190 people — live in Oakland. Given that there are, at most, 410 shelter beds in the city, this means that there are about 1,384 people on the streets every night; 69% of Oakland’s homeless are black, while 28% of the city’s total population is black.

In December 2015, the city filed an ordinance declaring a “shelter crisis” in Oakland — even as they were systematically destroying the makeshift homes the homeless population had created for themselves.

While the council openly acknowledged the disproportionate demographics of Oakland’s homeless population, in addition to their suffering at the hands of “mental health difficulties, chronic physical illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse,” rendering them largely bereft of options vis a vis employment or upward mobility . . . there were no solutions offered.

This is all to say, it should come as no shock that the homeless situation in West Oakland is dire, although “dire” may, in fact, be an understatement.

The exterior of Alliance Recycling

I met Iranian-American filmmaker Amir Soltani in August 2013 — he was making a documentary called Dogtown Redemption, which delved into the lives of West Oakland’s homeless recyclers who frequented Alliance; I was writing about it for the East Bay Express.

The film — co-directed with cinematographer Chihiro Wimbush — was released this past March and is the culmination of seven years of the filmmakers embedding themselves in the neighborhood, carefully capturing the daily bread of Oakland’s most vulnerable community. Dogtown Redemption follows “Olympic titan of recycling” Jason Witt, Landon Goodwin (a former minister), and Miss Hayok (a once punk-rock singer from a prominent Korean family), deftly depicting the perils of poverty, addiction, faith, and prejudice. It is in equal parts a testament to human will and human frailty, a harrowing vignette that is of course decidedly Oakland, but emblematic of a disturbing epidemic writ large.

What began as a film has a become a movement. Soltani has stepped away from the camera and has leveraged his experience with the recyclers to bring Oakland’s homeless community to a national stage: holding protests, lobbying Oakland City Council members, meeting with Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s staff, penning petitions, and partnering with local homeless advocacy groups to try and fight the closure of Alliance. (In fact, Lee gave the filmmakers a congressional commendation for exploring the complex dynamics of racism and poverty in Oakland.)

While Soltani’s efforts, in addition to those of innumerable activists, journalists, and the recyclers themselves, have proven futile — Alliance will shutter its gates tomorrow — the story of Alliance’s three-decade existence and cessation is a poignant and illustrative model of an American city’s socioeconomic myopia and sanctioned prejudice.

Bales of recyclables within the walls of Alliance

Since the dawn of its opening in 1978 as Allied Metals, Alliance has been a hotbed of controversy, simultaneously celebrated as both a harbor for the homeless and a blight on the neighborhood.

The business was bought by Jay Anast in 1992, who grew Alliance Recycling Center to a multimillion dollar venture; Alliance buys approximately $5 million worth of recycling from local recyclers every year. In 2011, following great duress (more on that in a minute), Alliance was sold to Joe Zidak and Lance Finkel, with an understanding that the business was legally allowed to serve walk-up customers with shopping carts, which is essentially the only means of carrying such customers’ recyclables.

Rena Rickles, an attorney specializing in East Bay Zoning and Land Use, explains the systematic — and dubious — legal harassment used by the city to force Alliance to close:

“The West Oakland recycling center had all the required permits to purchase recycled materials from walk-in customers carrying recyclables in shopping carts. In fact, the permit was first granted in 1995 and reviewed in 2009, and it sets out the conditions for the center to serve walk-in customers. A 2009 agreement between the recycling center and the City of Oakland provided for the continued purchase of recycled materials brought to the center in shopping carts . . .
Beginning in 2014, the City of Oakland, this time under the authority of the City Administrator’s Office, fought on behest of the complaining neighbors to shut down the recycling facility. The city’s explanation was that even if the use is allowed by the city and city ordinances, the bringing of recycling materials in shopping carts to the recycling center can still be deemed a ‘nuisance.’ California recycling laws prohibit cities from barring the manner in which recyclables are brought to recycling centers. If the recycling center refused to accept material from walk-in customers, it would be in violation of state law.”

The city found itself between a rock and a hard place. Legally they couldn’t force Alliance to close unless they were openly violating their Conditional Use Permit, so they got creative.

This past June, the City decided that because the recyclers often walked their shopping carts down the center of the street due to the width of their loads, this constituted a “blocking of the right of way” nuisance, and began fining Alliance. When I spoke with the new owner Joe Zidak, he said he’s received around $17,000 worth of fines — just within April and June of last year — as tension between the neighbors and recyclers escalated. The city’s Nuisance Abatement Administrator stated unequivocally “that the nuisance allegations would continue until the center refused to serve walk-in customers,” then stated that the nuisance allegations would continue — at $1,000 a day in fines — until the center refused to serve walk-in customers, essentially rendering the center unable to operate. Between the lawyer fees — which Zidak says hovered around $23,000 — and the city’s relentless fines, they decided they would settle with the city and forgo the fines by agreeing to close this summer.

Jason Witt, the “Olympic Titan of Recycling”

Zidak admits that when he first bought Alliance, it was a “business decision” — Alliance was lucrative — but as he bore witness to the surrounding plight of those who frequented its services, it became much more.

“Before I met Amir, before I saw this film, it was just a business,” he told me on the phone. “I thought, ‘If we close, it won’t change my life’ . . . but now, for them, I want to fight. I’ve seen the poverty. And the compassion. The center is their livelihood.”

He is incredulous that the city is this shortsighted, and finds their decision to close Alliance a surreal combination of blatant prejudice and delusion. The neighbors — who took to taking “incriminating” photographs of the “squalor and crime” induced by the homeless population frequenting Alliance and submitted them to the City Council — seem to believe that if the center closes, the homeless will vanish as well. It’s the kind of alchemy only the wealthy — and white — could conjure.

“What do they think will happen when the center closes?” Zidak muses.

That’s the question we ask the city and the neighbors. It will be worse! Right now we buy from the neighborhood between 4 and 5 million a year in recyclables — can you imagine the neighborhood without this money?
We do everything according to the book. But the neighbors keep filing. Taking pictures. Sending them to the city. The new neighbors are more white neighbors and they don’t like the black and poor people. And no, it’s not pleasant, it’s people pushing carts with garbage bags — but that’s how they survive. They don’t have other avenues. It’s simple.
Once we leave, what will they do? Steal and rob just to make a living! I think the city is answering to the rich.”

There are two sides to every coin, however, and a narrow strip of complicated context in between.

On one end of the spectrum you have those like Amir Soltani, who believe the closure of Alliance is “a hateful and harmful prejudice masquerading as law. By any definition, the systematic discrimination, incrimination, and elimination of a vulnerable population of poor and homeless people is a form of state-sanctioned violence.” According to these folks, Alliance should remain open as one of the only viable sources of income for a population otherwise considered unemployable.

On the other hand, you have those who believe they have a right not to be surrounded by noxious smells, sounds, drug use, defecation, sleeping bodies, and a host of ever-rattling shopping carts.

They believe Alliance should close.

Then you have the slice in the middle, perhaps best represented by Nancy Nadel, a former Oakland City Council member, who believes that in order to truly help the West Oakland homeless community, we’ve got to examine the story a little more closely.

Pastor and recycler Landon Goodwin

Nancy Nadel held a seat on the Oakland City Council from 1996–2012, but explains that prior to taking that position, she worked for the EPA in the environmental justice section, a position which readily revealed the kind of sanctioned prejudice the Oakland community was up against.

“We were looking at a map of California, studying the overlays where the most toxic industries were and where the people of color lived. When the City of Oakland made a presentation to the industry committee and showed them that overlay — mostly white businessmen — they wouldn’t even look at it. Their body language was unbelievable. That was what I was dealing with.”

She explains much of her time on the council was trying to undo the mess of “patchwork zoning” in a fair way, trying to keep jobs intact — but also make it safer for the residential areas.

“[The location of Alliance] wasn’t a location that we kept up as industrial — we did the zoning, but most of the industrial businesses are on the other side of Mandela [a major thoroughfare running through West Oakland], so we had a buffer.
The planning commission tended to listen to the businessmen instead of the community — which isn’t a surprise — and they pushed for [Alliance] to be there. And they pushed for very weak conditions of approval.”

Nadel believes that due to greedy planning that kept a keen eye on business development instead of the community — a community which was predominantly African American at the time 30 years ago — Alliance was allowed to open in a primarily residential area and bring with it an incredible morass of problems to the surrounding neighbors.

“Amir’s documentary doesn’t give the depth of what the real picture is,” she insists.

“I’ve suggested that the owner of Alliance is like a benevolent slave owner — he’s made millions of dollars off these workers, whom he wouldn’t hire, so he wouldn’t have to pay healthcare for them. He’s giving them pennies to essentially steal recycling materials from the contract recyclers . . . everyone says ‘garbage is garbage what difference does it make who takes it?’ I would certainly love to see these folks with appropriate healthcare and jobs and a real contract, but he didn’t want any of that kind of responsibility.”

When I asked Nadel if she thought it was irresponsible of the Council to close Alliance without providing infrastructure in the wake of its closure — services, counseling, a source of income, even just a bathroom (Alliance is one of the only places in West Oakland where the homeless can openly use a toilet) — she agrees that the Council “has done very little for affordable housing,” but that Alliance is decidedly “not the solution; it did a lot more to help itself, to help the owner.”

A West Oaklandite resident for more than 30 years, she believes “the homeless problem is so much bigger than Alliance,” citing mental health issues, addiction problems, and a loss of housing and jobs due to “insane increases in rents.” Nadel laughs darkly that these issues won’t be solved by “a couple pennies from Jay.”

She says: “We need to do this with more structure and compassion and encourage people to find a real solution to help our unhoused neighbors. We need to focus on that, not saving an institution that is taking resources and not giving back.”

Amir Soltani echoes my own confusion as to what this “real solution” looks like if the City of Oakland isn’t actively fostering partnerships with homeless advocacy programs, offering alternative income solutions, or soliciting any opinions from the very people they’re stripping of their livelihood — however meager, however fraught.

“At least Jay bought a $500,000 bailer and kept 20 people employed, plus serving hundreds of poor folks,” Soltani fires back. “He didn’t force them to go there. If they did go there, it’s because it was the only option available to them. And that’s the frightening thing — the utter desolation and total lack of opportunity and respect. You can’t blame Jay for that, or Nancy. It is bigger than any single person. The tragedy is that instead of working together we wage a war on each other — it all amounts to a massive waste of resources and energy.”

He also believes the dominant narrative — which depicts the recyclers as criminals and junkies — enables the Council to justify the closure of Alliance with little to no remorse.

“It’s a total lack of imagination,” says Soltani. “The relationship is now so polarized the new owners have been accused of encouraging thefts. If you label people as thieves and addicts, how could you ever negotiate with them? Once you label people that way, the only solution is jail.”

Soltani likens the “neighborhood watch” to a kind of glorified witch hunt.

“There are these group dynamics at play,” he says. “We think of witchcraft trials belonging to Salem, but it’s not the case. Everyone reinforces everyone’s beliefs. I take a picture, you take a picture, we label it in a certain way, we start circulating it and it becomes the truth for hundreds of people; ‘Everything that is lost in Oakland is being stolen by recyclers and brought to Alliance metals.’ And then we subject these people to a collective punishment for the way they make their living.”

Joe Zidak — Alliance’s new owner — echoes Soltani’s frustration that a handful of individuals who spend their recycling income on drugs are used as the narrative for the population of recyclers, the majority of whom are simply trying to feed themselves and maintain a semblance of dignity.

“Most of them are buying groceries, they buy some clothes,” he says. “Some buy drugs — maybe 5% — what about the other 95%? The center is their livelihood.”

Alliance Recyclers protesting at Oakland City Hall on July 12

On July 12, Soltani wrote to City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, enumerating the city’s failings, and the undeniable fallout this closure will have on an already deeply vulnerable community:

“[There are] two principles that cut against the grain of American legal tradition. The first is the principle of collective punishment, all recyclers are tarred with the same brush as thieves and addicts as if recycling equals criminality. And the second is the principle of guilt by association. An entire profession and a business is targeted simply on the force of accusations, with no evidence or proof other than the statements of some neighbors, and the Attorney’s Office belief that the quality of life of some neighbors justifies the outcome: bankrupting the recycling industry one business at a time.
To make matters worse, the City Council, and other officials, are depriving hundreds of low income residents, many with physical disabilities and mental health disorders, as well as the elderly, and former criminals, of their only source of legitimate income without remorse, let alone, compensation. There has been no attempt to offer this community an alternative to the $1–3 million in recycling income provided by Alliance. And there has been no survey as to how the City’s closure of Alliance will impact people for whom the loss of a marginal income from recycling trash makes the difference between housing and homelessness, health and sickness, employment and crime, dignity and humiliation.
Serving only one economic group in a city as vibrant and diverse as Oakland is unethical, unjust, and quite frankly, unAmerican. It is racial and economic profiling, no more and no less. The shopping cart is code.”

The ACLU of Northern California followed up with their own letter just six days later insisting that: “Closing a facility that is relied on by so many vulnerable community members — without providing any alternative resources — will only serve to increase homelessness, panhandling, hunger, and desperation.”

The racial and socioeconomic tension can’t be underestimated. The polarization Soltani describes between the neighbors and the homeless has grown keenly acrimonious; the recyclers deeply resent being photographed and maligned when they believe they’re simply trying to make a living, a living made nearly impossible by many of the same forces who demand their removal.

There is a fear of retaliation in the wake of Alliance’s closure, as well as a further erosion of trust, and any pretense of true community — all wounds, no healing.

When I asked Alliance’s long-time security guard, Maurice Williams, if he thought the homeless community was going to protest the closure, he smiled sadly and said, “They’ll ‘protest’ alright. They’ll ‘protest’ on people’s houses and cars. They know who’s been taking the photos.”

amir soltani
Filmmaker Amir Soltani with Miss Hayok

The City’s inability to empathize with this community is perhaps the most troubling element of all — and this chasm of misunderstanding will grow even wider tomorrow.

Empathy is often portrayed as antithetical to capitalism, an argument difficult to deny. The great gaping mouth of money is without eyes, ears, or fingertips; it is without those sensations which make us pause — in sympathy, in compassion, even in incredulous rage — and help someone who’s suffering. Capitalism is fueled by little else than the desire to grow larger; its success is predicated on serving those with money and power — two terms dangerously synonymous. And perhaps there is no one less powerful than the homeless and thus, no one less important to capitalism, no one less important to the supposed success of a city, of a state, of a nation.

How do we begin to more closely align these seemingly disparate notions? How do we shift a paradigm that posits progress as the opposition to empathy?

“These communities did not simply ‘evolve,’” Boston Globe reporters David Harris and Johanna Wald explain. “They exist in their current state because of very deliberate educational, transportation, housing, and economic policy choices . . . Each choice closes off one more exit out of the maze, and keeps residents stumbling into dead ends.”

What does redemption actually look like?

It looks like shedding the narrative that these socioeconomic conditions just happened — surely these individuals, these communities, made their bed and must sleep in it — and instead closely examining the systems that have excluded and denigrated them since the dawn of our nationhood.

All images courtesy of filmmakers Amir Soltani | Chihiro Wimbush and “Dogtown Redemption.”

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