Transforming a Vacant Oakland Lot into a Thriving Tent Community

Amid a housing crisis, this female-led tent community stands out.

Jan 24, 2020

(Bignai / Shutterstock.com)

What was once an abandoned vacant lot in Oakland, California has been transformed into a sanctuary for homeless women and their partners. A miniature white picket fence lines the entryway of the community where tents sit in rows and fairy lights glow overhead according to The Guardian giving it the feel of a real neighborhood.

Number 37 Martin Luther King Boulevard, at the end of the street, like many other lots of its kind, was an eyesore for local residents. Now, 37 MLK is a model encampment that boasts a garden, solar-powered lights, and a communal kitchen.

Some of the women  there are 21 people living there now  even keep chickens which supply eggs and help to maintain pest-control. Community meetings are held regularly to discuss and reinforce the importance of cleanliness, noise, and safety. Now, this tent community has become a model that even the city is planning to replicate. 

“It was like the doors of heaven” Rayetta Delores Simon told the Guardian. She heard about the camp after the city threw away all her belongings in a massive sweep. 

“They gave me a cot, they gave me a tent. They told me that if I needed anything, they were here for me… I really got a chance to take the load off myself and to be free for that moment… because I knew that I was safe.”

Stefani Echeverría-Fenn is one of the organizers of the camp. A decade-long resident of the neighborhood, Echeverría-Fenn walked past the empty lot daily on her way to work, and was appalled that there was a  vacant space on one side of the street and mass homelessness on the other side of the boulevard.

Homelessness in California surged significantly in 2019 partly due to the affordable housing crisis. Attacks on the homeless population have also increased - exacerbating an already risky situation for thousands of people. 

Frustrated by seeing her friends and neighbors sleeping outside near the freeway, 37 MLK was born one summer day in August 2019 when Echeverría-Fenn walked to the lot from her rent-controlled apartment, squeezed through a hole in the fence, and began weeding the lot. Then she pitched the very first tent.

“You leave this land fallow during one of the greatest humanitarian crises in Oakland, pretty much ever, this mass homelessness?” said Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, in a Facebook video announcing her intentions. “I will not abide by that. You can arrest me, but I’ll come back the next day, and I’ll bring more people.”

While other homeless encampments throughout the city are being shut down and the residents removed, 37 MLK is so successful that local lawmakers look at it as a prototype. In fact, Oakland’s city council has begun a $600,000 pilot project based on the camp. 

“The homelessness and housing affordability crisis [in California] has grown to an extent that we can no longer ignore it,” Nikki Fortunato Bas, one of the local lawmakers heading the project told the Guardian.

“You juxtapose that…with stories like 37MLK being an incredibly creative and inspiring and successful story of unsheltered older black women. I think we have to draw from the human resilience and creativity we’re seeing from people who are in deep crisis and respond with that same level from government, respond with that same level of creativity and urgency.”

Oakland’s 37MLK camp is a powerful story of women coming together to change the face of their community  one step at a time  by building a sanctuary. While governments are responsible for meeting the needs of their residents, 37MLK reminds us that we can be inspired  to come together as a community and help our neighbors.

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HILLA BENZAKEN, CONTRIBUTOR
Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.