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This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words.
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Amplify Oakland is supported by a grant from Akonadi Foundation.
My name is Mavin Carter Griffin and I’m a member of what’s known as the Wood Street People’s Collective in West Oakland. We’re one of the largest and best-known curbside communities in the city.
I can’t stand the phrase “homeless encampment.” Camping is when you’re on a vacation, putting on sunscreen and looking at the birds. This is dwelling, 24/7 and 365 days a year. And we’re not “homeless,” because Oakland is our home. Homeless implies that you’re fucking up and not on your feet. I’ll tell you what—when you’re what’s considered homeless, you’re on your feet a lot! Everybody I know is up and running. Everyone’s got a hustle or a job.
Instead, I consider how we live “curbsteading.” This area we’re stationed on is where Oakland’s roots began and the transcontinental railroad stopped. There’s a vivid history here—in West Oakland, and in our Wood Street community—that I find parallels the beginning of society. You spread out, you bump into people. You start laying out a plan: you poop over here, you eat over here. People stayed in tents and wagons then, too, and went on to build housing. This is our tradition, and everything old is new again. California was supposed to be the place to come and have equal rights.
What does our generation have to make for themselves, except a digital world? What does freedom look like? Not a credit card or a car loan. Everything we want for prosperity and success and real experience in community can be felt if we spend less money being indebted and enslaved to our mortgages and rents, and if we have more time to pursue happiness and self-discovery. How can you achieve the American Dream if you have no time to rest?
There’s not enough affordable housing locally, so why not consider using the urban landscape? Rethink the urban landscape. Why do we have to cram everyone indoors? We have been under the thumb of a classist society mindwarp since the feudal system. Everyone coming together to create a fresh version of our culture—maybe that’s how we continue as people. You’ve got to be vested in it, and have blood, sweat, and tears in it. You’ve got to participate.
When I first landed in Oakland, I thought, “Oh my God, these piles of garbage. Can’t you just take it to the dump?” Well, what I discovered making this curbside community is that our culture is founded in recycling. I’ve found anything from Prada bags to building materials. February is always mattress month, for some reason. (My one question is, why can you never find size 7 1/2 shoes?)
Homelessness sucks, but it’s kind of exciting, because you find things and make things. When you have everything taken away from you, sticks become Barbie dolls. Put a frame on the fence and it becomes a window. I’ve made a whole house without walls. I’ve gotten to know my community by sifting through the piles and reflecting on the lives of the people who owned these things. I see them as precious artifacts of lost Oakland.
I repurpose found and discarded objects, which take on a life of their own. It’s been therapeutic to make things into art and stay busy. We hunt and forage and gather, and we problem-solve: how do you bring a couch on a bicycle across town? I’m building things out of old dressers and beds. I started calling it aFORTable housing. Our buildings are made out of other people’s houses; I built my home out of stuff left over from evictions—objects I found on the sidewalk after people were kicked out of their homes or had to move on. My house is a museum of the effects of gentrification on this neighborhood.
On the other hand, of course I’m not suggesting that outdoor living is for everyone. We should continue to expand traditional, rooted housing options. But a lot of us prefer a curbside lifestyle—I’m somewhere in between.
We’re private people living publicly, so we have a responsibility to our neighborhood, and we have to be good neighbors. We integrate ourselves into the community that surrounds us, since we’re part of it and we’re visible. Our elders are the heart and soul of Wood Street—they’re old-school Oakland, largely Black, and they give advice to the youngsters and the lost. We all need that extended family. They’re the vanguards of their blocks, keeping an eye on things and building relationships with the businesses. This community gives meaning to senior citizen lives and the lives they touch.
More people like our elders, and more people who are unhoused, should be involved in the decision-making in this city. And the city should be aware that unhoused people aren’t participating because they have no access: no electricity, no wifi, no Zoom, no equipment.
There’s an alchemy to community, and it isn’t just in housing people. You’ve got to come together. Here, people who initially couldn’t stand each other are forming compounds, starting businesses, and planting gardens.
But we also need to start thinking about what to do about violence. I’ve had my teeth kicked out, and there are fires started all the time. I hear gunshots in the background. My trailer was stolen by someone down the block. Meanwhile developers want to develop everything.
Yes, there are big problems in the camps, but if we are able to perfect curbing, it will no longer look or feel like “homelessness.” It will be curbside living. Now picture a big celebration, say a West-O Fest-O, focused on housing and West Oakland culture. There’s a section where we have tiny houses. Over here, there’s a clutch of artists, housed and unhoused, making their mini-mall, and over there someone will tinker with your car. Maybe you’ll try some of our curbside cuisine. It’s all local business. What if a person who’s resorted to doing smash-and-grabs to make ends meet is given the support to start a business serving curbside communities, servicing RVs or delivering food? What if we could live and work parked at the curb, like restaurants have during the pandemic?
People have been living outdoors since The Depression; there’s just more of us now. There is struggle, but for me this is also so exciting, if people would just see there is greater possibility, and that after the storm, fresh things grow out of the cracks in the sidewalk.
As told to Natalie Orenstein.