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One of the first things you see when you enter Preston Walker’s one-bedroom apartment is a series of signs taped on the wall, each asking for money.
“Homeless donations food!!!” says one. Another: “THANK you for your kind donation $.”
They’re written on glossy white photo paper in red and blue ink, complementing the modest American flag that hangs next to them. The posters are artistic reproductions of the sorts of signs that Walker used to panhandle during the three decades he was unhoused, on and off, mostly in Oakland.
“It’s a showcase of where I’ve been to where I am now,” he explained.
His new apartment, with its queen-size bed, dishwasher, and coveted in-unit washer and dryer, is a far cry from the tents, doorways, hotel rooms, and sober-living facilities where Walker spent most nights since the 1990s. But perhaps even more of an adjustment for Walker, an East Oakland native and alum of the Occupy movement who’s better known as “Pastor Preston,” is its location on a tree-lined, suburban street in Fremont.
Next to the signs and the flag hangs Walker’s favorite photo of himself. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he’s decked out in camouflage, adorned with political buttons and a bandana fastened around his neck. The picture was taken at a protest he attended outside the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, where heads of state of European nations were meeting with American officials.
Walker, who grew up among Black Panthers in Oakland, was a mainstay at demonstrations and direct actions for years. His was a unique role among activists; he provided spiritual and emotional support to those challenging the government, the police, and other powerful authorities. In more recent years, as a member of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group, he helped push for policies supporting Oakland’s unhoused community.
“I was a leader on the ground,” said Walker, who always kept a chair by his tent, where people in need could come for ministry. Even when COVID-19 struck, he’d sit inside, safely zipped up, counseling someone seated 6 feet away, almost like a Catholic confessional. Over the years, Walker lived in many different camps, recently on the tennis courts next to Lake Merritt and by the BART tracks in South Berkeley.
“Pastor Preston’s spot, wherever it was, if you had a vulnerable person who was in a bad place, you could go talk to him and say, ‘Do you have a spot for them?’” said Vera Sloan, an advocate for unhoused Oaklanders. “What a huge resource he was to folks who were living outside.”
But Walker’s beloved Oakland began to feel unsafe to him in recent months. “I got tired of hearing the gunshots in the middle of the night,” he said. “You go outside and there’s tape all over the place.” Walker recently turned 64, and exhausted from experiencing theft and witnessing violence over years of living outside in Oakland, he began daydreaming, for the first time, about settling somewhere more tranquil.
During the COVID-19 crisis, he took shelter in an Oakland hotel through the Project Roomkey program. And when he was offered the apartment in Fremont by the nonprofit Abode Services, he didn’t hesitate to take the keys. Walker became one of some 700 residents of Alameda County’s COVID-19 emergency hotels who’ve been placed in permanent housing since the pandemic began.
Walker said his new apartment gives him a sense of security and pride he hasn’t gotten to experience in years. But it hasn’t been an easy transition indoors, or away from the city that raised him.
Creating ‘sacred space’ at protests and encampments
Growing up in deep East Oakland in the 1960s and 70s— first around Eastmont Mall, then on 88th Avenue—Walker remembers himself as a “shy kid” who had a “good childhood.” His dad ran a junkyard in San Leandro, and his mom stayed home with Walker and his older sister.
As a young student, Walker struggled academically. But at St. Elizabeth High School, he discovered his passion. One day, he came upon some new filming equipment that his teachers had given up on assembling, and got to work.
“The dean walked by and said, ‘How’d you put that together?’” recalled Walker. He later studied photography at Laney College, using school cameras to shoot insects and flowers. “Oakland has so much greenery and beauty in it, it’s unreal,” he said. These days, he trains the lens on himself, leading healing prayers and sharing updates on Facebook and YouTube. His new apartment is set up like a studio, with speakers, a laptop, and a tripod taking up much of the real estate in the living room.
Walker remembers growing up in a culture of protest that surrounded him in Oakland. “My fists were up,” he said. “It’s still all power to the people, to me.”
Later in life when he joined the Air Force and was stationed at the Travis base near Fairfield, he was struck by the discrimination he experienced from his commanding officers. But a chaplain there noticed Walker’s knack for talking to and comforting others, and took him under his wing, training him. From then on, “sergeants had to salute when they saw me, and keep their hands up until I saluted back,” said Walker, laughing.
The years after he was in the service were busy, complex, sometimes rewarding and often tough ones for Walker, before he hit his stride sermonizing and soothing. Those years took him to classes at UC Berkeley, through addiction treatment programs in Fresno, through a marriage and two children and ordination, and in and out of homelessness.
He trained with boona cheema, a legendary advocate for unhoused people in Berkeley, who instilled in him a drive to achieve social justice. Walker’s first “conquest,” or protest, was in South Berkeley, where he joined the burgeoning Occupy movement, which criticized the concentration of wealth and power among the few. The movement took off in Oakland in 2011, just as the city’s housing stock was being bought up by wealthy investors during the foreclosure crisis, and the city’s homeless population was beginning to swell by unprecedented numbers.
“When I saw busloads of people going to the port, I said, ‘I’m not going back to Berkeley!’” said Walker. In Frank Ogawa Plaza, where protesters set up camp outside City Hall, Walker found his place in the interfaith tent. He became “keeper of the tent,” counseling protesters and honing his signature fusion of religion and justice work.
“Something that was uniquely beautiful about Pastor Preston’s work with folks living outdoors,” said Sloan, “is that he was vulnerable with people about his own challenges. That created a space for people to be vulnerable about theirs, and to set down their shame. That’s a kind of ministry you don’t have to be religious to respect or replicate.”
Sloan said she misses Walker but has grown to understand his move to Fremont as an extension of that work: “He’s modeling that you’re allowed to care for yourself, that you deserve safety and stability.”
At the Occupy tent, “I learned what sacred space meant,” said Walker on a recent afternoon, his 6’4” lanky body taking up half his new couch. At times, the new apartment has served as one of those sacred spaces for him—he dropped to his knees and prayed when he first saw its washing machine—but sometimes it feels constricting, and even burdensome.
“Not everyone can adapt to this,” said Walker, meaning living inside, in a permanent place. “This wasn’t easy for me.”
Alameda County subsidizes the rent at private apartments
After years of eternal waitlists and broken promises, Walker’s move to Fremont happened dizzyingly fast.
He’d been living at the Days Inn, one of the hotels leased by Alameda County for homeless people who’d contracted COVID-19, or were at high risk of getting the virus. Walker himself tested positive for the disease in February although he was asymptomatic, and was transferred temporarily to one of the hotels that was on full quarantine. In May, Abode Services, a non-profit contracted with the county, held a housing fair to match hotel residents like Walker up with permanent units.
“We ask, ‘Where do you want to live?’” said Karen Corpuz, who manages Abode’s Roomkey housing program. “But we try to have a transparent conversation about what the barriers might be—credit scores or recent evictions that could impact where we can match them.”
Abode often works with private landlords, who agree to house their clients, and negotiates a price around what the federal government deems the “fair market rent” for the county. In Alameda, that’s $1,934 for a one-bedroom. The tenant pays 30% of their income each month, and Abode covers the rest, indefinitely.
At the start of the pandemic, property owners jumped at the chance to participate, as many renters moved back with their families or to cheaper cities. “A vacancy to them is lost money,” Corpuz said, “but here’s somebody with a subsidy that pays 70% of their rent.”
Even though staff from Abode keep in close contact with the landlords who take part in the program, mediating issues that arise and guaranteeing monthly checks, some landlords hang up the phone when they hear it’s a non-profit calling about a tenant who has a spotty housing or employment record. “They profile our clients,” Corpuz said.
But with some landlords, like Essex, which manages Walker’s Fremont complex, Abode has built a good relationship. Corpuz said the Essex manager “understands the population we work with and is willing to help and support.” She recently called Abode when a new tenant was distressed over leaving his insulin in the fridge at the hotel he’d left.
While it’s easier to secure apartments in North County, like in Oakland, “our team has grinded really hard” to try and garner interest from landlords in cities like Fremont and Dublin, she said. According to county data, the largest portion of Roomkey guests connected to housing through this sort of program—39%—ended up in Oakland.
Once tenants settle into their units, “I’ve seen lives completely transform,” Corpuz said. “Our belief is everyone needs a home to stabilize them. They need that anchor—a place to sleep, shower, and plug in their phone.”
But it doesn’t always work out. “I’ve seen people fall out of housing over and over again. I look at it like recovery, where it needs to get worse before it gets better, and you need to want to make a change in your life.”
Walker was holding the keys to his apartment—and to the complex’s pool—in just a matter of days after he got the offer at that May housing fair, where his application was screened on site.
Within a few days of moving in, Walker had plastered his Facebook profile with pictures of mouthwatering dishes he’d cooked on his new stove and grill: fried chicken, barbecued ribs, and collard greens, accompanied by Sriracha sauce and his well-worn Bible.
“I’m thankful that Mom made us sit down in the kitchen and watch her cook, then help her as we got older,” Walker said. “I know how to clean up and keep house. When people get their own place, they can’t just keep it like they keep an encampment. There can’t be bikes everywhere and it can’t be junky.” His caseworker from Bay Area Community Services helped him pick out furniture for his so-far spotless place.
But anyone who’s on social media knows that envy-inspiring photos never tell the whole story. After eating the consistent, bland meals provided at the hotel, “now what I eat is so rich, it’s tearing my stomach up—that, along with the stress of moving,” Walker said. Plus, he heard that his food stamp benefits would be cut shortly after he moved in. Then his new bike, which he’d bought at Walmart with donations from the East Oakland Collective, was stolen outside Safeway while he was shopping.
Walker can come across as an eternally optimistic person. “For me it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile,” he said. “Don’t let circumstance steal your joy.” But while he’s a professional at giving advice to others, “there’s an old saying that a plumber can’t work on his own house,” he said. The recent financial setbacks and newfound boredom of living alone have given him “the blues.”
Walker views the nine months he spent in Roomkey hotel shelters as a critical transition period that helped him “get used to being inside.” Corpuz thinks it’s a model that should continue post-pandemic, since moving directly from an encampment to a permanent apartment can be a shock to the system. At the hotel, Walker gradually stopped rationing his own showers, and grew comfortable leaving without fear of returning to his things missing.
“That’s the big thing,” he said. While unhoused, “I’ve had stuff taken from me in the middle of the night when I’m asleep. There’s no sense of security.”
Vulnerability to theft is debilitating for unsheltered people, Walker said, much more so than most housed people realize. You can’t go to a job interview, or a City Council meeting to make your voice heard, if it means giving up all your possessions.
Over decades of being homeless in Oakland, Walker said he never witnessed significant improvement in conditions or opportunities for his community. A “direct action” guy through and through, he also gets fed up with the slow pace and bureaucracy of policy work.
“I grieve for Oakland the loss of Pastor Preston,” said Sloan, “but I don’t grieve for Pastor Preston if Oakland was not going to make itself deserving of him. This needs to be a wake-up call. Sometimes Oakland is coming in a little too late for people.”
Walker, who’s already started up a car-detailing and washing business on his block, noted that Fremont, despite its relative affluence compared to Oakland, also has a sizeable population of homeless residents. By last estimate in 2019, 608 unhoused people lived there, compared to 4,071 in Oakland. They can benefit from Walker’s support, too, he said.
But for now, he’s spending his time settling in and walking the hushed, wide streets. “I’m learning the community, learning the neighborhood,” he said.
“I still love Oakland,” he added. “I just can’t live in Oakland anymore.”