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Oakland woman turns vacant land into a sanctuary for the homeless to live with dignity

37MLK is a homeless sanctuary born amidst California's housing crisis — one that has led to many black elders being pushed out of the neighborhoods they call home.

Oakland woman turns vacant land into a sanctuary for the homeless to live with dignity
Cover Image Source: Facebook/37MLK

One summer day in August last year, Stefani Echeverría-Fenn left her rent-controlled apartment in Oakland, California, and walked two houses down the street to an abandoned lot at the corner of 37th Street and Martin Luther King Jr Way. Squeezing her way through a hole in the chain-link fence, the 32-year-old spent the day clearing weeds and brambles. The tent she pitched in the middle of the lot became the start of 37MLK—a homeless sanctuary born out of desperation and frustration amidst California's housing crisis. A crisis that has led to many black elders being pushed out of the neighborhoods they call home.



According to The Guardian, in a Facebook video announcing her intentions, Echeverría-Fenn criticized the land being left vacant while countless individuals were being forced onto the streets. "You leave this land fallow during one of the greatest humanitarian crises in Oakland, pretty much ever, this mass homelessness? I will not abide by that. You can arrest me, but I’ll come back the next day, and I’ll bring more people," she promised. Speaking to the publication, she revealed that the vacant lot has irked ever since she moved to the locality over a decade ago.




"Every single day for the past decade I lived here, I walked on my way to work past this vacant lot, this eyesore, this blight that was never put to good use to the community. Meanwhile, you would see the tents grow just a half a block down there. You see people literally sleeping on the side of the street, on the side of freeways. Here, we at least have a little sanctuary," she said. Although 37MLK wasn't started with the intention of it lasting so long, today it has become home to 21 individuals with nowhere else to go.




What began as an all-women's encampment now houses multiple tents as the male partners some of the women also took up sanctuary at 37MLK. All residents are black or Latinx longtime neighborhood or Oakland residents between the ages of 30 and 60. Echeverría-Fenn, who experienced homelessness herself as a queer teenager kicked out by conservative parents, has a special attachment to her current neighborhood for giving her a home when she badly needed it. "This neighborhood, it was my stepping stone out of homelessness. When I came out here in 2009, there were still landlords willing to rent cheap apartments, no questions asked," she revealed.




"I could get an apartment for $800 with a $500 security deposit, a one-bedroom, and I still live in that apartment to this day because I have rent control. Now, identical units to mine go for over $2,000 a month. I see just the way I climbed out of homelessness, that door has closed behind me," Echeverría-Fenn added. Despite the worrying housing crisis forcing residents out into the streets, homeless encampments throughout Oakland are being shut down for violations of fire and health codes. While access to public restrooms, garbage, and vermin are serious issues in some camps, 37MLK stands apart with its efficient model.




The camp has a solar shower, camping toilets, a pump sink, a garden, a dining table, a kitchen, and a common couch area. "The number one thing is we have access to the resources that housed people have because I am housed," Echeverría-Fenn revealed. She and other housed community members take care of the camp garbage, emptying the camp toilets in their apartments and making sure the camp has clean water. "So often there are the allegations that homeless people are dirty or don’t keep the space clean," she said. "No, there’s only one reason why we’re clean and other encampments are dirty: we have actual access to trash facilities and we have access to running water that other encampments don’t."




Given that the lot belongs to a not-for-profit that was suspended following apparent financial difficulties, 37MLK faced the threat of being shut down twice. However, despite being visited by the police a couple of times at the very beginning, the homeless sanctuary is no longer disturbed. "It speaks to the severity of the crisis that the city hasn’t shut us down yet. I think they’re just putting out fires in so many arenas that we have been safe here because we don’t cause problems in the neighborhood," Echeverría-Fenn noted.




Today, Oakland city council member Nikki Fortunato Bas is one of the local lawmakers who believe 37MLK could serve as a model for self-governed or co-governed encampments in vacant lots. "We simply don’t have enough places for people to go. We don’t have enough shelter beds. We don’t have enough transitional housing. In the interim, as we’re building deeply affordable housing, we need to have transitional spaces," she said, adding that policymakers need to learn from communities like 37MLK. "The homelessness and housing affordability crisis has grown to an extent that we can no longer ignore it and we can’t call it a crisis without actually acting on it."




"You juxtapose that and the visibility of homelessness right now with stories like 37MLK being an incredibly creative and inspiring and successful story of unsheltered older black women," Bas noted. "I think it’s a moment where 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."

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