Juanita Robinson, left, chats with Vera Sloan, who brings burritos and supplies to her and other Wood Street residents. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

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“Chicken or steak?”

“I like the steak and my brother wants chicken.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Vera Sloan pulled burrito after burrito out of her white van, handing them to people who live in tents and RVs on Wood Street in West Oakland. The site was the first on the St. Mary’s Center’s food distribution route that day, and residents eagerly accepted the offer of a hot meal and bags filled with groceries and toiletries. 

Tena Harvey, who lives in an RV on Wood Street, said she looks forward to the weekly visit from “a friendly person that has a smile and is willing to help out and give information.”

“This,” Harvey said, holding up the green bag of groceries, “is a bonus.”

Harvey’s lived in three different RVs in seven years—she narrowly escaped the fires that destroyed her first two—and while she’s working to fix up the floors of her current home, she’s ready for something more permanent. “I want to be able to go take a shower or a bath at home when I want to, instead of finding a hotel room somewhere,” she said. 

While chatting, Sloan told Harvey that a health condition she has might qualify her for the county’s Roomkey hotel shelter program. “If you have it, make it work for you,” Sloan said about the condition.

When a mother and daughter pair approached Sloan a moment later, she asked them if they had any success calling the county’s 211 housing hotline number. When the mother said she hadn’t been offered any help through the hotline, Sloan said she’d nudge her contacts there. “I’ll be the nicest white lady about it, I promise,” said Sloan.

Sloan used to do advocacy work around homelessness in San Jose. When she moved to Oakland two years ago she connected with the local outreach organization Love and Justice in the Streets. She wears big red glasses and a leopard-print fanny pack, and is well-known to, and trusted by, many unhoused Oaklanders. She calls them all “babe” and some call her “Miss Cutie” back, after the little tangerines she packs into food deliveries on occasion. 

In November, Sloan took a job with St. Mary’s as the emergency food services coordinator. While St. Mary’s, which has existed in its current form as a non-profit charity since 1992, has long offered a meal program, but the emergency food distribution effort is a product of the pandemic.

The St. Mary’s Center, on San Pablo Avenue and 32nd Street, runs a preschool, a transitional housing facility, and various social services—and it typically operates an emergency winter homeless shelter for seniors. Executive Director Sharon Cornu and her staff made the tough decision to keep their shelter closed this year out of fear that “we would have been running an ICU.” But that decision not only left many seniors without a warm, dry place to sleep at night, it also stripped St. Mary’s of one of the main ways the center identifies candidates for its transitional housing program, and eventually places people into permanent housing.

Janny Castillo, director of outreach and services, spends a lot of time these days in the former gym now used to stock and pack food-distribution supplies. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

“Clearly, we needed to shift from ‘you come to us’ to ‘we come to you,’” Cornu said.

Now, the former high school gym, where 25 seniors used to sleep on a given winter night, is filled with tables piled high with boxes of pistachios and cereal, cans of chili, and bottles of water. Using CARES Act federal COVID-19 aid and other funding disbursed by the county, St. Mary’s has been able to distribute 1,000 meals and 240 bags of groceries each week since the fall, to low-income families at the preschool, transitional housing residents, and West Oakland homeless camps, or settlements, as some St. Mary’s staff and the United Nations call them, out of respect to the residents. The supplies are donated by churches and scout troops, or bought from local businesses like Maya Halal Taqueria, Wally’s Cafe, and Community Foods Market. 

St. Mary’s recently received funding from the county to expand its street outreach to include housing work, through a program called the Care-a-Van, replacing the winter shelter program. Case workers will travel to homeless camps to work intensively, on an ongoing basis, with a select group of 20 seniors. The seniors will receive supplies like clothing and food, and participate in the center’s “housing clinic” that prepares and qualifies them for a housing placement. If successful, the center will have housed as many seniors this winter as it typically was able to do through the shelter.

The food distribution is often a conduit to something much larger, too: an ongoing relationship.

“Food for human beings is love,” said Sloan. “I always make sure to have two kinds of burritos, because it sends a huge message that you’re right to have preferences and opinions. When you meet somebody and you feel like you matter to them, you’re going to open up about other parts of your life, which can be really scary for someone who’s unhoused.” 

Vera Sloan, right, jokes around with Billie Bob Walter, who considers himself a “seasoned double-OG” because of the decades he’s spent in Oakland, living on MLK Jr. Way under the freeway. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

For Sloan, the infrastructure and resources of an established institution like St. Mary’s has allowed her to do much more with her work and the prior relationships she’s fostered. 

“There’s a big difference in the scope and longevity” of the work a well-funded non-profit can do, compared to grassroots organizations, Sloan said. But part of her job at St. Mary’s has been connecting with those scrappier volunteer and grassroots groups, learning lessons from their on-the-ground experiences, and supporting organizations that simply don’t have the staffing to manage a massive influx of CARES Act money.

And through Sloan, St. Mary’s gained access to an informed messenger who relays the needs and desires of the people the center serves.

“We hired an organizer who’s a wealth of information,” said Janny Castillo, director of outreach and services. “Vera told us about pop tops, because how do [unhoused] people come up with can openers?” The group now hands out foil-wrapped burritos because they actually stay hot, unlike takeout in clamshell containers, another example of the common street knowledge Sloan has brought to St. Mary’s.

“With Love and Justice, we talk to our folks—they’re the experts on their experiences,” Sloan said. Some organizations offer assistance to unsheltered people, but it comes with strings attached, like housing that bans visitors, or resources dependent on the recipient changing their behavior, a practice that Sloan says can be damaging and ineffective. ”That’s not a relationship. That’s about a power imbalance and them needing to perform for you,” she said

If someone says they need two bags of food, they get two bags of food. If someone seems intoxicated, that’s none of the visitors’ business, according to Sloan’s code of ethics. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was harrowing for advocates to figure out whether they should even visit encampments. 

“For all we knew, we could have been the Typhoid Marys of COVID,” Sloan said, referring to Mary Mallon, a woman who carried the bacteria that causes typhoid fever, and spread fatal cases of the disease, but showed few signs of being infected herself. “I was terrified of carrying [COVID-19] from space to space. But if we’re not taking PPE, food, and tarps, and not getting people in touch with their caseworkers—we know people die that way.” 

Many people living in Oakland’s homeless camps have come up with resourceful methods of withstanding the pandemic, and life outdoors in general.

“I’m a survivalist,” said Juanita Robinson, who lives in her motorhome on Wood Street. She used to pay someone $450 a month to park in their driveway, but when the building was sold the new owner bumped the fee up to $700, too much to afford. 

When it gets cold, Robinson orders hand warmers from EBay and puts them under her mattress to heat the bed. She boils water to steam up the place.

Robinson is happy to take a burrito from Sloan and chat about the events of her week on Wednesdays.

“We wait here looking for her, and we’ve got it timed, almost,” she said.

Brandi is another woman who lives in an RV and came by on a recent Wednesday to get a burrito. But she lives several blocks away, by the West Oakland BART station, where she and her neighbors can feel like they’re invisible. “On Wood Street they eat like kings,” she said, “but if you go off by yourself, it’s a different story.”

Sometimes well-intentioned donations dropped off at camps end up causing more problems than they solve. At another St. Mary’s distribution site, the camp on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 35th Street, several containers of food from another donor sat on a table rotting and drawing flies.

That’s why the St. Mary’s supply bags are “kitchen-free,” filled with items requested by residents and consumable without a microwave or refrigerator, Sloan said.

Brandi walks back to the RV she lives in after picking up groceries from the St. Mary’s drop-off. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The next stop was 45th Street, below the freeway, where William Robinson, who lives in his car nearby, gladly took one of the grocery bags. 

“Nobody’s obligated to do anything for you, so I appreciate everything,” he said.

But the bag of food won’t get Robinson what he’s really looking for: “I need a place to stay,” he said. 

Another resident told Sloan that an issue with one document derailed his process of getting housing. It’s a problem Cornu and her team are unfortunately well aware of. “I think it takes more paperwork for a homeless person to get housed than it does for a family to buy a house,” she told The Oaklandside.

For Cornu, housing is a goal that St. Mary’s designs many of its other programs around. Food, friendship, shelter, transitional housing—the end result is ideally getting the people who benefit from those services a place of their own.

CARES Act money ran out in December, and while the county decided to extend St. Mary’s food-distribution contract until March 31 anyway, the team worried there may be no funding available to continue the program past the spring. But this week, with the passage of the new $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package, which includes money for counties and cities that can be spent on homeless assistance, center staff are feeling encouraged.

Eventually, the pandemic will end and relief funds will disappear with it. It’s unclear how much St. Mary’s will be able to maintain of its COVID-19 era programming. 

But Sloan said the crisis has forced the center to forge connections—with unhoused people and smaller organizations—that, unlike budgets, can’t be cut. 

“We’re building better relationships,” she said. “You don’t undo that. You don’t un-relate to people.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.