Clockwise from left: Karina, Terran Johnson, and Alisha Roe are each participating in Oakland's guaranteed income pilot program.
Clockwise from left: Karina, Terran Johnson, and Alisha Roe are each participating in Oakland's guaranteed income pilot program. Credit: Amir Aziz

A guaranteed income experiment is underway in Oakland. Modeled after a program in Stockton, 300 East Oakland families have begun receiving $500 a month. 

The Oakland Resilient Families pilot program focuses on low-income families living in Districts 6 and 7 in East Oakland. Over 18 months, the participants chosen at random will receive a monthly check—a total of $9,000 over the course of the program to use on groceries, or gas, or whatever they want, with no strings attached. 

oakland resilient families

Applications for Phase 2 of the program, open to low-income families from across Oakland, will be available soon. Sign up to be notified when the application is available.

The idea of providing basic or guaranteed income as a way to combat poverty and wealth inequality has been gaining momentum since 2019 when Stockton gave 125 residents an unconditional monthly stipend. After one year, researchers found full-time employment rose among the recipients, and overall their financial, physical, and emotional health improved. 

The first phase of Oakland’s pilot program began in June, and a second phase that will include an additional 300 residents is set to begin soon. If successful, the program in Oakland—where racial and geographic wealth gaps are severe—could provide a precedent from which to build on.

With phase one underway, The Oaklandside reached out to UpTogether, an organization working directly with the 300 families, to follow three recipients through the program. 

There’s Karina, a mother of three who moved to Oakland from Honduras more than a decade ago and rents an East Oakland home with her mother. Alisha Roe, who is raising her grandson, is considering creating a college savings account for the 7-year-old. Terran Johnson wants to use the funds to pay off bills and loans. 

The Oaklandside caught up with Karina, Roe, and Johnson to learn about their personal stories and hear about their plans for the guaranteed income. In the coming months, we’ll be checking back in with them periodically to document what impacts the pilot program is having on their lives. Here are their stories. 

Alisha Roe: Trying to pay it forward

Alisha Roe, one of the participants in the guaranteed income pilot (600 low-income families in East Oakland receiving $500/month for 18 months).
Alisha Roe. Credit: Amir Aziz

Alisha Roe comes from a family of givers. She grew up in Oakland, watching her grandmother volunteer with St. Vincent De Paul, a homeless shelter, dining room, and community center in Oakland, for more than 20 years. Her mother, who died in 2014 from leukemia, was similarly generous.

“My mother would just sit outside all the time and just look for people to bless,” Roe said. “And it just kind of became inherited.” 

That giving spirit has never left Roe, even as she fell into alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness in her young adulthood while raising her two sons. She’s always trying to pay forward the support and resources that she’s received from churches and other community organizations when she was down, and even started the Love Lois Foundation, named for her mom, to clothe and feed the homeless. 

Roe, 54, has lots of ideas for how she’d like to spend and invest the $9,000 she’ll receive over 18 months through the Oakland Resilient Families initiative. During the first two months of the program, she used some of the money to get up to date on her PG&E bill, which Roe fell behind on during the pandemic, and opened a bank account with Navy Federal Credit Union. Once she gets her credit in a good place, Roe said she’ll be thinking about how she can stretch the money to last beyond a year and a half. She hopes the other participants are thinking that way too.

“Take care of your short-term things, clear some bills, build your credit, take care of your kids, get food, but then think about some kind of long-term investment, to where you’ll see the returns,” she said. “Once the 18 months is up, what do you want to do? What do you have to show for it?”

One option she’s considering is creating a college savings account for her 7-year-old grandson, whom she legally adopted and has been caring for since he was eight months old. Each day, she drives him across the city from their East Oakland home to attend school at Emerson Elementary in the Temescal neighborhood. Beyond causing Roe to fall behind on her bills, the pandemic was also rough on her grandson, who is in the second grade. When the pandemic hit last spring, he was finishing up kindergarten. 

“Not being able to socialize and be with his peers was hard for him. Trying to figure out safe and healthy things for him to do was a struggle,” she said. The family holds a membership at the Oakland Zoo, just a few-minute drive from their home, but making a visit wasn’t an option during the pandemic. 

Roe lives off of about $2,300 a month, a combination of social security, disability payments, and a monthly stipend she receives as the adoptive guardian of her grandson. While Roe isn’t currently working because of health issues, she spends much of her time volunteering and building up her foundation, which she’s working to establish as a tax-exempt nonprofit. Right now, the foundation is funded through donations from family, friends, and neighbors. 

Every Monday, Roe visits Trader Joe’s, Grocery Outlet, Safeway, and other stores to buy groceries, and on Wednesdays, she heads to North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church to distribute food and hygiene supplies. A deep freezer in Roe’s dining room is filled with meats that she’s planning to cook to feed 100 people during a weekend in October. When Roe does her outreach, she also prays with people if they ask for it, directs them to housing support if they need that, and takes down their phone numbers to follow up with them later. 

Overall, she wants to help people who are in similar situations that she’s been in. 

“When I saw the (Oakland Resilient Families) application get approved, I was like, ‘Okay, this thing is for real,’” she said. “I’m very grateful because it came at a time when I’m trying to do the right thing as far as building up my nonprofit and helping other people because I know how it is. I’ve been homeless, I’ve been on drugs.”

— by Ashley McBride

Karina: Saving for her children’s future

Karina Rodriguez, one of the participants in the guaranteed income pilot (600 low-income families in East Oakland receiving $500/month for 18 months).
Karina. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Karina stood at the fence outside the Mormon Temple, gazing out at the downtown skyline and East Oakland flatlands. San Francisco, ensconced in fog, was barely visible in the background. 

“For me, Oakland is beautiful,” said Karina, who moved to the city from Honduras 13 years ago, just before her third child was born. The house she rents with her mother and kids was somewhere down there below the temple, within the square mile of deep East Oakland that was eligible for the guaranteed income pilot.

Karina was skeptical when a friend told her about the program. “I apply to so many things online, and I never get anything,” she said. Her phone is inundated with scam offers. But she looked up the nonprofit running the pilot and it seemed legitimate. She applied and a couple of months later heard she’d been selected. (Unfortunately, the friend who’d told Karina about the program wasn’t so lucky.)

“My kids were like, ‘Really? Is that true, Mom?’ They can’t believe it—nobody gives out free money,” she said. 

Karina is trying to think of the $500 monthly payments as “extra money.” Her family can scrape by on her income from cleaning houses during the day and cleaning kidney dialysis centers at night, but most of her work is as-needed, so it’s difficult to plan her days or count on money. Plus, she really needs to buy a new car. The families she cleans for tell her not to take the bus during the pandemic.

Her goal is to save most of the funds for her kids’ college tuition. Her oldest is 19 and attends an online community college, but he wants to transfer to a four-year school. Her daughter is about to graduate high school, and her 13-year-old will be there before she knows it. She wants to give them all the opportunities she can. 

“It’s tough to be a single mom,” she said. “We never think about how difficult it is to raise a child.”

The $9,000 Karina will receive in total covers a fraction of a semester at most colleges. Student aid would go a long way, but the family’s immigration status bars them from applying for federal loans or grants, so anything extra helps, she said. (We’re identifying Karina by her first name only because of privacy concerns related to her immigration status.) 

Safety is another issue that worries Karina. Oakland’s high rate of violent crime and burglaries primarily impacts low-income people in flatlands neighborhoods like hers. She’s fearful of spending time outdoors near her home. “The parks in that area don’t have people playing in them—they’re full of people using drugs,” she said. And it seems like many “people aren’t happy with immigrants and people who don’t speak English.” But the money from the income pilot isn’t enough to move to a safer place.

It’s comforting each Sunday to drive up to the Mormon Temple, where the family attends church. The day she spoke with The Oaklandside, Karina was wearing a pink t-shirt that had “Faith” and a bible verse citation scrawled across it in cursive. 

The income pilot “will make a difference, absolutely—if I make a good choice with the money,” Karina said.

While she’s trying to save most of it, the funds give her family a little more daily flexibility, loosening up the tightness she’s felt around money her whole time in Oakland. At the grocery store, it’s a relief to realize, “Oh, I can get apples and I can get oranges too.”

— by Natalie Orenstein

Terran Johnson: “Individuals from all walks of life are in need”

Terron Johnson, one of the participants in the guaranteed income pilot (600 low-income families in East Oakland receiving $500/month for 18 months).
Terron Johnson. Credit: Amir Aziz

Terran Johnson has always held on to the good memories. He had a challenging childhood growing up in the foster care system off and on in East Oakland but has chosen to stay positive. “I had a tough life, had a lot of negative things happen to me,” Johnson said, “but I will always take the good out of those situations.”

Looking back, he focuses on the bright side. He remembers sneaking into the Coliseum complex as a kid to ride bikes with his friends. “We’d get the security to chase us and if they caught you, you’d get your bike taken,” he said. “I never got my bicycle taken away.” 

He remembers writing poems and winning a writing contest that earned him a scholarship to attend a Tuskegee airmen flight camp. Johnson wasn’t able to learn how to fly planes due to his status as a ward of the court but still appreciated what he was able to experience. 

He recalls feeling grateful just to be alive, during a period when he was unhoused—a result of aging out of the foster care system at 18 years old. “Just waking up each morning and being okay, being able to go somewhere and get a full meal, taking a shower,” he said. “Those were good memories for me.”

A more recent good memory for Johnson was hearing the news that he would receive $500 monthly payments through Oakland’s guaranteed income pilot program, for 18 months. “I was just overjoyed,” he said. 

Johnson said the money he’s received has already helped him put food on the table for his family, pay off bills and loans, and take care of household members he referred to as immobile. “It’s a whole lot easier now to just work and feel like things are moving forward,” Johnson said. “It’s a privilege because you definitely understand the responsibility that comes along with having something like this.” 

His commitment to seeing the good in life is still strong, and he tries to bring that attitude to his work as an aftercare specialist for East Oakland Community Project. Johnson has worked at the non-profit, which specializes in offering emergency and transitional housing, for eight months. 

In his role, Johnson works personally with families who, like himself at one point, were struggling to find housing. “When I see other people’s needs being met and seeing them be successful, it fills me with the belief that these types of good things happen every day,” he said. 

His job at East Oakland Community Project is a continuation of the outreach work Johnson has done in the past, such as hosting barbecues at Lake Merritt for unhoused people. “We’d also bring socks, t-shirts, and hygiene bags, and at the end of the barbeque we’d pass out the goods and leftover food to different campsites,” he said. 

Johnson said he’ll continue to do the work because he wants to be a part of making positive changes in his community. “Individuals from all walks of life are in need,” he said, “and although I help others daily it doesn’t mean I am not in need of help as well.” 

— by Ricky Rodas

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.