By Anita De Asis Miralle, Program Coordinator at Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute and Co-founder of The Village in Oakland #feedthepeople
In the Fall and Winter of 2019, Housing and Dignity Village – a safe, sober, and self-organized tent village for unhoused women and children in East Oakland – filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Oakland to try and stop the City’s eviction of their encampment. A local civil rights advocacy organization, Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, then created templates from that lawsuit for other encampments to use to broaden and strengthen the fight of unsheltered communities by challenging the legality of the City’s treatment of curbside communities. To date, three more encampments have filed lawsuits – bringing the total number of lawsuits filed by curbside communities against the City to four. More are in the works.
The first encampment: E12th Street and 22nd Avenue
On March 6, 2019, the City of Oakland backed down from evicting the residents of a homeless encampment on a plot of land at the corner of E12th Street and 22nd Ave in East Oakland in response to a lawsuit one resident, Michael Bowen, filed on behalf of himself and the six other residents.
Bowen, who has been occupying the land with 6 other residents since Spring 2017, said, “No one has cared about this land for decades. So why now in the middle of a shelter crisis and homeless state of emergency?” Bowen asks. “The City never offered us services though they provided porta potties and trash pickup to the former encampment across the street – and suddenly they want to evict us?”
The second encampment: Union Point
On March 19, 2019, residents of an RV homeless encampment at the otherwise empty and unused Union Point Park parking lot were scheduled to be evicted. Instead, they decided they were going to fight the City of Oakland in court over their eviction – and for now, they have succeeded: U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer granted the Union Point residents a temporary restraining order, which will halt eviction proceedings until their case is heard. Their lawsuit, Le Van Hung et al. vs Libby Schaaf et al. is set to begin in the summer of 2019.
The plaintiffs claim that the City’s past encampment evictions have violated the 4th, 8th, and 14th amendment rights of unhoused Oaklanders all around the city. Residents assert the City’s eviction process is cruel and unusual punishment for being homeless, violates their right to have private property protected from unlawful seizures, and ignores their right for due process and equal treatment under the law.
In a signed declaration to the judge, Union Point Park plaintiff Amanda Veta states: “Every time I have been evicted I have lost my whole life. I have lost IDs, pictures of my family I can never replace, paperwork cuz the City throws my stuff away. And with this eviction, we won’t just lose our little things. We all live in vehicles. We could lose our homes too.”
Veta’s concerns are not far-fetched. In the Fall of 2018, the City and Oakland the Oakland Police Department towed at least three dozen RVs, campers and vehicles from an encampment in West Oakland. More than 40 people lost their homes on wheels and all their personal belongings. Three weeks after towing and impounding all the vehicles, the City had all the vehicles crushed.
In November 2018, when the Housing and Dignity Village encampment filed the first homeless encampment lawsuit against the City, the City Attorney assured Federal Judge Haywood Gilliam that when an encampment is evicted, personal property is stored for up to 90 days for free and all residents are offered adequate shelter. The judge took the City’s word and lifted the initial temporary restraining order protecting Housing and Dignity Village.
When the City evicted them, none of the 13 residents were offered housing that could adequately suit their needs. To this day, four truckloads of their personal property have yet to be recovered despite the plaintiffs’ and their legal team’s repeated attempts.
Since the destruction of Housing and Dignity Village in December 2018, plaintiffs from Miralle vs. the City of Oakland have been collecting statements from other encampments who were evicted, and encouraging encampments facing eviction to file lawsuits. This has resulted in dozens of signed testimonies that counter the City’s false claims and two new lawsuits. “The city has never offered me housing the four times I have been evicted from my homeless encampment,” Veta said. “When I witnessed 6 other evictions, the city does not bag and tag anyone’s property or store it. They throw away everyone’s property and offer no one housing. The city has no remorse in what they do to us.”
Plaintiff Le Van Hung has lived at Union Point for two weeks. He has faced several evictions from the City, relocating to Union Point after being evicted from the E12th and 23rd Avenue parcel in late January. “It’s terrible to be moved around,” his signed testimony states. “It takes time to pack, clean and move. It takes a lot of time to find a new place to be homeless at. Every time I move I lose property because the city throws away our property when they evict us. We don’t move fast enough and they throw away our belongings,”
The plaintiffs at Union Point Park and homeless folks across Oakland also agree the evictions cause depression, stress, lack of motivation, instability, insecurity, and other major setbacks. “I am 61 years old and I am tired of being evicted and shuffled around. These evictions cause me depression that can last weeks or months. I have high blood pressure and these evictions make my condition worse,” Hung said. “The city said they have a Shelter Crisis and a Homeless State of Emergency. They have admitted there is not enough housing in Oakland and that has caused the homeless crisis. They have admitted they don’t have a solution. So why are they evicting people left and right when we are trying to house ourselves when the city can’t? The evictions cause so much hardship. They need to stop.”