Just after 10 a.m. Monday, a large moving truck pulled to a stop in front of a vacant, corporate-owned property on West Oakland’s Magnolia Street and more than a dozen volunteers hustled to unload the belongings of the homeless mothers who announced earlier in the morning they were “reclaiming” the home as their own.
The three-bedroom home is owned by Wedgewood Inc., which purchases and flips distressed residential and commercial properties, according to the company’s website. The group of mothers, who moved into the home without the company’s consent, say they plan on staying and have contingency plans if police come or the utilities are shut off.
The move is part of a broader week of action among East Bay housing activists. The women, part of a group called Moms for Housing, say their goals are multi-faceted: To break the stigma of homelessness, to bring attention to real estate speculators they say are driving poor and working-class residents out of the city or onto the streets, and to bust the myth that people can make ends meet if they just work hard enough.
And they hope others follow their lead.
“We plan to take and occupy vacant houses from speculators that are just sitting vacant,” said Dominique Walker, 34, who moved into the home with her two young children. “We believe that families sleeping on the street deserve to be there and that’s what we plan to do as Moms for Housing.”
Walker, born and raised in Oakland, moved to Mississippi after high school where she earned a degree in Sociology. Walker said she moved back to Oakland in April after living through a domestic violence situation in Mississippi but can’t find affordable housing despite her full-time job as a community organizer. Since then, Walker said she’s been staying with family in Antioch or shuffling from hotel to hotel with her kids.
“What I came back to wasn’t what I left,” Walker said. “I’m not able to live here, can’t afford to live here. I work full time, I have a degree, and I still cannot afford to live here where I’m from.”
Sameerah Karim, who works three jobs and still finds an affordable apartment elusive, is joining Walker in the vacant home. Karim, 41, has been homeless for the past five years, despite working 20 hours a week as an administrative assistant, another 20 hours at a major U.S. company’s distribution warehouse, and weekends for a company that does inventory for auto dealerships.
“You’d think that busting my butt with all that I would be able to afford a nice apartment somewhere that is not in a bad neighborhood, somewhere I don’t have to feel leery at night being a single female,” Karim said.
Karim, like Walker, said she stays with friends and family when she can. When she can’t, she sleeps in her car. After work, she spends hours scrolling through real estate websites looking for an apartment.
“Because my situation is so desperate, I’m staying up until 1 or 2 a.m., eyes glossy, already tired, knowing I have to get back up and go to work in the morning.”
Karim said she lost her Section 8 housing voucher back in 2014 when her son graduated from high school and moved out of their two-bedroom apartment. She had to downsize to a one-bedroom but couldn’t find one her voucher would cover. She’s been homeless since.
Karim and Walker acknowledge the risk they’re taking by moving into the home owned Wedgewood, which county property records show bought the property earlier this year under the name “Catamount Properties 2018, LLC.”
But Walker said being homeless was far scarier than anything the property owners or police might do.
The mothers say they’ll be supported by a network of housing activists who will have volunteers at the property around the clock. They also set up a text alert system to mobilize activists at a moment’s notice if police come or other problems arise.
“I don’t have any worries about how the police will respond,” Walker said. “I will say that we have gone through these things and are prepared for whatever can happen, and I am willing to take that risk.”
It’s unclear how Wedgewood will respond or if they’ll refer the matter to police. Representatives for the company were not immediately available Monday morning.
The moms and the activists supporting them say they hope to purchase the home from Wedgewood and place it in a community land trust where it can be kept as affordable housing. In the meantime, they plan to keep living their lives – cooking meals, going to work, and taking the kids to school. They’re even hosting a “housewarming party” Monday night.
Two other homeless mothers, who also both work full time, will also use the home as a refuge. They intend to move into another corporate or bank-owned vacant home in the future.
One of them, a mother of four who did not want to be identified by name, has been living in a shelter with her children since August. She’s been homeless for about four years, initially staying with friends and family, then her car, then the shelter.
“You can only stay [with friends or family] for so long,” she said. “Then it irritates them because everybody wants their space. After a while, you just have to get up and go.”
Instead of leaving the city in search of cheaper living as thousands before them have, the mothers say they’re taking a stand against displacement and hope others will follow their lead.
“I have the right to be housed in my city,” Karim said.