Gallo Wants City to Help Clear Debris at Fruitvale Home Depot

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Construction workers Roberto Lopez and Ron Ramirez live in the Community of Grace homeless encampment near Home Depot in the Fruitvale District. They run a kitchen at the site to feed their fellow community members. Photo by Zack Haber.

Councilmember Noel Gallo is calling for the city to remove unhoused residents living near Home Depot’s Fruitvale store.

Many residents at the encampment, however, claim they have nowhere else to go and that the city makes the location unsanitary by providing inadequate services.

Gallo is concerned Home Depot will leave Oakland, taking jobs with it, because he claims  the homeless make customers feel unsafe and are trashing the location.

“That’s not their home and that’s not their property,” said Gallo. “If we don’t provide jobs, then we’re all going to be homeless.”

Responding, Markaya S., who has lived near Home Depot for five years, said, “Home Depot wants all the trash and debris gone, but in order for that to work, the city has to work with us.”

Markaya and her fellow encampment residents, which she estimates number about 100, call their set-up The Community of Grace (COG).

Many COG residents collaborate to take care of each other and stay safe. They do research using California’s Megan’s Law website and kick out those convicted of sexual offenses, have meetings when problems arise, maintain a protected kids’ zone and run a kitchen that provides food for residents.

COG resident Uce Taylor claims that the city picks up trash about twice a month, though not consistently, and refuses to provide a dumpster. Residents usually organize waste into giant piles for pick up.

“Sometimes if it’s been too long since a (trash) pick up, we’ll gather together and rent a dumpster,”said Taylor.

When they are able to organize trash into a dumpster, the city picks it up quickly. But the rental cost is too expensive for residents to do that regularly.

Gallo does not deny the city’s inconsistent trash pick up but says he helps out personally to help clean up.

“I help pick up their stuff every week with volunteers,” Gallo said. “I’ve been doing that for six years.”

While the city has provided three portable toilets, residents feel there aren’t enough and they quickly overflow.

Their complaints are valid according to Service Sanitation, a company that rents out portable toilets and recommends providing 15 toilets for a group of 50 people if they’re changed weekly.

Home Depot has pressured Gallo to remove the encampment. A letter from the company’s regional Vice President Steve Knott, sent on March 20, cites “frequent occurrences of malicious theft.”

But COG residents claim that very few people have stolen from the store. One official told the Post there have been no thefts since February.

Knott’s letter also asks the city to “immediately remove and relocate the inhabitants to a viable location,” but residents claim the city is not providing an appropriate place for them.

The city’s Tuffsheds and RV sites for homeless people do not have enough space for everyone, and even if they did, they are not desirable or accessible places, according  to many COG residents.

Markaya, who lives in a tiny home she built, sees living in a Tuffshed as a downgrade. But even if she wanted to move into one, she has children. and the city does not allow children to live in its tuff shed sites.

Taylor lives in an RV but could not move into a city approved RV site because his RV is non-operational.

Many COG residents have jobs and see the combination of high rents and low wages as the biggest challenges  to securing housing.

Markaya works full time at a job where she makes $15 an hour, a salary that, according to reports from glassdoor.com, is similar to many worker’s wages at Home Depot.

Her income is too low for her to rent an apartment. Roberto Lopez and Ron Ramirez, who live at COG and run its kitchen, work as construction workers. Although they build buildings in Oakland, they can’t afford to live in one.

“What would fix this problem would be changing the cost of living to match wages,” said Markaya.

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