Social Issues

The people under the highway: Oakland homeless building their own future

By Marc Arcas

Oakland, California, Jun 3 (EFE).- Tired of living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, a group of homeless people in Oakland, California, have built their own village, creating for themselves under a local highway a vibrant community with shower, kitchen, vegetable gardens, a store and even a medical clinic.

“Feels like a safe place to be. It’s like a neutral zone around here. I look at this place as an esteem builder. I come here to eat, to help, to connect with other folks,” EFE learned from Kathy, a middle-aged women with long brown hair who has been homeless for six years and is a victim of domestic violence.

With tears in her eyes, unable to contain her emotions when she speaks of all the effort and dedication that the volunteers have put into building the village, Kathy acted as a guide for EFE in this “neighborhood” built with recycled materials and dubbed “Cob on Wood,” since some of its buildings are made of unburned clay and straw – known as “cob” – near Wood Street.

Made up of little structures that remind one of adobe houses and that are decorated with floral motifs, Cob on Wood – in addition to the above-mentioned services – also has an oven for pizzas, a stage and a cabin in which to spend the night, all of which Kathy pointed out.

The most recent estimates are that more than half a million people are homeless in the United States, a national problem that is especially cute in affluent zones like the San Francisco Bay Area, which has one of the highest per capita income rates in the country.

However, San Francisco and nearby communities like Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose have been unable to provide a response to a situation that in recent years has been getting worse and which has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic with the unprecedented increase in people living on the street and in precarious campsites next to the highway.

Right in the heart of one of these campsites, located literally right under the highway lanes leading to the bridge connecting Oakland with San Francisco, is where early this year three local organizations – Essential Food and Medicine, Artists Building Communities and Living Earth Structures – pushed forward with building Cob on Wood.

“So, addiction or lack of nutrition or illness is like violence in some way, because there’s an extremely rich economy with all the resources to stop it,” Ashel Seasunz Eldridge, the cofounder of Essential Food and Medicine, told EFE.

Although it’s difficult to get an exact figure, dozens and perhaps hundreds of people pass through Cob on Wood each day, coming from nearby campsites to eat, shower, pick up clothing or sanitary products from the store (all of it provided free of charge), use the services of the clinic – which is operated by volunteer healthcare personnel – and to chat and connect with others.

All this is paid for via donations, and the sponsoring organizations operate to funnel those resources as well as helping to manage and administer the community.

“We did this because we don’t want to lean on the city’s resources so much. We want to show we can be independent within our own community,” Leajay Harper, an African American woman who works as a volunteer in charge of the kitchen in Cob on Wood, said in front of the motor home in which she spends the night.

Besides offering nutritious meals with fresh vegetables – something that’s usually difficult for homeless people to get – each Sunday the community organizes a group dinner with pizzas cooked on the wood stove and shows put on by the residents themselves in which each person can display their artistic talents.

Despite the vibrancy of this community, which aims to become an example for other cities and countries and which has received requests from neighboring states like Oregon and some on the US East Coast, the residents live under the threat of being evicted from the site since they have erected their structures without official permission on land owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

“Caltrans says that our structures are safe for now, but that doesn’t mean anything if we have structures but the community that they serve has been displaced,” Xochitl Bernadette Moreno, one of the driving forces behind Cob on Wood, told EFE.

She interrupted her explanation to greet “Major,” a rotund man wearing the local football team’s cap – the Oakland Raiders – who joined the conversation and explained that since it was created the village he spends about 80 percent of his time there each day.

“It’s more than just a community. This is my world. Before all of this I was in the street and I made it a responsibility of my own to keep going. Now I have one thing to aim for,” he said.

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