East Oakland Collective Founder and Director Candice Elder poses in front of boxes of supplies meant for building kits for the Collective's Homeless Services and Solutions programs. Photo: Pete Rosos

In a few short years, the East Oakland Collective has established itself as one of the most effective grassroots organizations serving the flatland neighborhoods east of High Street. Candice Elder, who grew up in the community, founded the nonprofit in 2016 as a response to what she saw as gentrification’s economic and cultural threat to many longtime residents. The organization relies heavily on volunteers, many of them young, and its programs focus on economic empowerment, civic engagement and homelessness services. 

Prior to the pandemic, two of EOC’s most popular programs were its weekly hot meal distributions and a bimonthly mobilization called Feed The Hood. That event regularly drew between 250 and 500 volunteers to prepare and distribute hygiene kits, bagged lunches and seasonal clothing to people across Oakland and Berkeley.

When COVID-19 hit, EOC was forced to adjust. Feed the Hood was suspended in March due to restrictions on large gatherings and shortages of critical hygiene products. Hot meal distributions stopped when the catering company EOC worked with had to close its doors. The tech companies who had been the caterer’s main sources of revenue no longer needed onsite meals for staff.

It didn’t take long, however, for EOC to find its footing. Elder started sourcing food from local restaurants and grew local partnerships to increase the organization’s capacity. Soon enough, EOC was able to expand its service base to include seniors, disabled residents, and low-income families in addition to the neediest homeless residents. The hot meals program, driven almost entirely by volunteers, ramped up its frequency from a couple of days a week to almost daily. 

By April, EOC had more than doubled the number of meals it was distributing weekly to residents prior to the pandemic — from about 400 meals each week to over a thousand meals. Each day, volunteers now spend five hours receiving and picking up food donations, packaging sanitation kits, and planning routes for an evening distribution run. Later in the evening, the office is cleaned and sanitized, ready to repeat the cycle.

I recently spoke with Elder to learn more about what the organizer is seeing in East Oakland during the pandemic, how her organization is responding, and what keeps her going every day. The following is an excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

In this time of pandemic, where do you see the greatest need in East Oakland? 

An increased need for funding for our small businesses, particularly our minority-owned businesses. We have an increase in deep food insecurity in our unhoused population, our seniors, and our low-income families who were already financially struggling and did not have access to fresh and healthy food options. We’ve just seen that need widen and deepen for the most vulnerable and impacted groups.  

“We went from giving out 400 meals a week to now over 1,000 meals.”

Also, with our unhoused population, an increased need for sanitation: hand-washing stations, trash pickup, and a need for emergency shelter. If you are living in the streets — whether it’s in your car, an encampment, or your RV that may not be fully functional or operating — how can you properly shelter-in-place and keep social distancing, if you are in close quarters and lack access to the proper safety gear?

As for the people you are helping to get sheltered, what is that process looking like now?   

East Oakland Collective and the No Vacancy California coalition, which is a statewide advocacy group for the unhoused in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco, have been pushing for the expansion of the hotel room program. There has been a huge effort to fill those hotel rooms, but there are still non-contracted hotels sitting vacant that can increase the capacity to house people.

The process is long and unclear as to how to get in, where to go, and which agency can refer. If people are referred to a room, then there are barriers to getting the rooms. The rules and guidelines don’t meet their unique needs, and folks have been declining the rooms. One of the elders who was offered a room declined it because she said the rules felt like prison. So we are pushing for dignified and humane treatment while people are in the hotel rooms. There should be no rules or guidelines that would not be applied to any housed person during this time.

How is the pandemic changing the scope of EOC’s work? 

EOC’s work has increased, expanded, and has been reimagined. Our normal food and supply distribution programs — Feed the Hood and our hot meal distribution — had to be suspended for the time being, and we actually don’t know about the future of those programs.

“While we wait on affordable housing, and while we wait on a lot of the policies and measures, people are still dying on the streets from hunger.”

But we’ve been resilient, and we’re now resourcing food from restaurants. We’re up to like six to eight different partnerships with restaurants a week. We went from giving out 400 meals a week to now over a thousand meals.

That is incredible. What do you think has made your mobilization and outreach efforts so successful?

EOC has always had a track record of serving the people, serving Oakland’s most impacted and vulnerable people. We have good experience with mobilizing volunteers — they always have a good experience. We have trained leaders, and get guidance directly from the unhoused population and the community that we serve. We have them at the forefront, guiding our best practices and involved in the process so that people get a real experience.

We also have a very straightforward and simple way to get involved. It doesn’t take a lot to have a big impact. Not everyone knows what to do to help our unhoused brothers and sisters, and we give them something very simple: feed people, give them provisions, help with resources, help advocate, organize, and defend their rights. We are also giving people a way to volunteer virtually, whether it’s simply donating or giving people the option to buy meal kits that we can deliver to families.

Also, just sharing stories on social media. We are a millennial-based and vast group, so being able to share the testimonies and share the work with people online has been really huge. A lot of people say, “Hey, I follow you on Instagram, on your Facebook, and I see the work.”  If people don’t see what you are doing, how will they know?

I hope you are finding time to eat and rest during all of this. 

I’m probably overeating, because I’m around food all day and I never give anyone food that I would not eat myself. I’m often taste-testing. When EOC is out in the field, it always cracks me up because people are like, “EOC has the good food!” They call me “the lady with the good food.” One senior broke my heart when she said that she only eats from the EOC because she doesn’t trust anyone else who prepares and handles her food. So she waits for me. 

“More of us are talking to each other. More of use are rallying together and uniting in this.”

All of our stuff is made in commercial kitchens and foodservice facilities. It’s not to discredit anyone cooking from home — it’s just that we pride ourselves in quality. People typically like to mass-produce meals or produce them at a really low cost, so that means a lot of sandwiches. But it’s another thing to give someone a full, nutritious meal. Some donations we will deny because it’s not a complete meal or it’s just bread. If you are going to hand somebody a loaf of bread, at least give them some peanut butter and jelly or sandwich meat. 

What keeps you going? What makes this work fulfilling?

The people. It’s working with the people who have become friends and family. It is hearing their stories and being able to provide them some comfort. While we wait on affordable housing, and while we wait on a lot of the policies and measures, people are still dying on the streets from hunger, the elements, getting sick. So it’s about how we can make their lives better and upgrade their circumstances now, while still fighting the good fight of housing justice. We also don’t wait on the government to do things. We mobilize the community to be able to take care of ourselves.  

Do you see any silver linings?

I have to be honest, we are seeing an increase in the racial and economic disparities that have been going on in Oakland for a while. When you have a pandemic such as this, you see the widening of the gap. You see the access issues with testing and healthcare, especially in our Black, Latino, and unhoused communities; with our seniors and disabled. 

But what Oaklanders are doing is, more of us are talking to each other. More of use are rallying together and uniting in this. How can we come back from these disparities, particularly now, and after COVID-19? EOC is talking to organizations that it has never talked to before. We are talking to community members that maybe didn’t know about us or maybe never thought about giving back to our unhoused population or to East Oakland. We are seeing people from all walks of life and situations come together. You can see folks in philanthropy shifting their priorities, and slowly but surely the government, particularly on a local and statewide level. We are seeing increased resiliency despite all the disparity. We are hoping that things will change and that we finally will have the necessary and hard conversations.

Iris M. Crawford, is a poet, social justice advocate, and independent journalist. Hailing from New York City, her journey has allowed her to empower communities through health care advocacy, education, and environmental justice. Currently, she is a Literary Arts Resident with the Shuffle Collective, where she will be working to strengthen her creative work, build community, and further enjoy all things Bay Area.