Two women and a man stand with serious expressions outside, next to a poster with text.
E 12th Street residents and supporters discussed the recent death of their unhoused "sister" at a press conference Thursday. From left: Tracylee, Needa Bee, Mr. Lee. Credit: Amir Aziz

Reeling from a recent death at their encampment, residents of the E. 12th Street homeless camp and supporters held a press conference Thursday to push the city to address violence and threats against unhoused communities. 

“My concern is about the killing and murder that’s going on now,” said resident Tracylee. “It feels like the encampment is a shooting range.”

The E. 12th median camp, where dozens of people live in vehicles, makeshift sheds, and tents, stretches for several blocks, roughly between 15th and 18th avenues. 

Over the past several years, the city has attempted to close and clean portions of the camp multiple times, and residents have shifted around to different parts of the street. This week, the city conducted a deep-cleaning operation during which some residents’ vehicle homes were towed, according to speakers at the press conference.

During these closures, the city typically offers spots in temporary shelters or transitional housing facilities. In 2022, the city entered into a $1 million contract with Lao Family Community Development, which required the organization to prioritize residents of the E. 12th camp for 43 six-month spots at their “CARE campus,” a motel by the Coliseum that was converted into transitional housing.

On Thursday, E. 12th residents said nobody from the encampment had yet been moved to the site, despite one of them getting hired by Lao Family as a liaison. The city told The Oaklandside that half of the people served through the contract were, in fact, from the camp. 

[Update, Sept. 29: Lao Family Services CEO Kathy Chao Rotherberg contacted The Oaklandside after publication and said the organization has already moved 37 people from the E. 12th encampment through its CARE campus program and into permanent housing, providing rental assistance and services. The grant money “went directly to the customers,” she said, showing this reporter around the facility.]

City spokesperson Jean Walsh also said Oakland this week did not tow any vehicles registered to unhoused people and “never tows any vehicles people reside in.” According to the city, the towing at E. 12th focused on stolen and stripped vehicles associated with an “ongoing illegal chop shop.”

Residents, some in tears, said Thursday that the lack of long-term housing options has made them vulnerable to rape, violence, and even killings.

“Housing is violence prevention,” said Needa Bee, an unhoused activist with the organization The Village.

In August, a woman was found dead at the encampment, having suffered trauma to her head, the East Bay Times reported. Oakland police, who said the woman was associated with the camp but didn’t live there, said they were investigating the incident as a homicide at the time. The Oaklandside has reached out to OPD to confirm the identity of the woman who died, and we’ll update this story if we receive that information.

A memorial sign says "In loving memory, for the ones that were murdered while waiting for housing," with plastic flowers on it.
Residents set up an altar to unhoused people who died recently from violence and other causes. Credit: Amir Aziz

At the press conference, speakers said a woman named Melinda who was a resident at the camp died within the past few weeks. It is unclear if this is the same incident as the August death.

“She’s one of the people that watch the area to make sure everything’s OK,” Tracylee said about Melinda, calling her a “sister.” 

“When you need a cup of sugar, you’re going to Melinda. She’s always there to help and she has a big heart,” Tracylee said. But Melinda had been attacked previously, and had her “guard up,” she said.

“Melinda did not want to die, and now she’s left a boyfriend and four kids,” Tracylee said. “She’s gone and never going to come back and we could have prevented it.”

An altar set up at the encampment featured numerous names of E 12th residents who speakers said had died through violence, either at the camp or elsewhere, and others who’ve died from other causes. 

Colorful plastic flowers were taped next to each name. “In loving memory…for the ones that were murdered while waiting for housing,” said one sign.

A county report on homeless mortality found that 800 unhoused people died between 2018-2020, at a rate four times greater than the general population’s. While drug overdoses were the leading cause of death, homeless people are more vulnerable to virtually every cause of death, including violence and suicide, as well as medical conditions.

A makeshift shed with wood and a tarp has a spray-painted tag saying "RIP Melinda."
Someone tagged “RIP Melinda” on their shed, in honor of the E. 12th resident who died recently. Credit: Amir Aziz

Corey Penn, an E. 12th resident, arrived at the press conference partway through, having just been released from the hospital for food poisoning. Still wearing his hospital bracelet, he explained that he had had to use a bucket to go to the bathroom while sick.

“It’s real miserable having to do that,” Penn said. 

“We all want housing, safety, cameras,” he said. “For a long time, the street lights were off and it was very dangerous.” But short of housing, some “basic things” like a portable toilet would help a lot, he said.

“Just to be very clear, what the residents of East 12th are asking the city is, instead of evicting us, instead of throwing away our property, instead of towing our vehicles, can you please provide us with clean drinking water?” said Needa Bee. “Can you please provide us with Porta Potties? Can you provide hand-washing stations? Can you help us stop the violence here?”

This story was updated after publication with additional comments sent by the city of Oakland.

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.