A self-described performance artist, Mavin Carter- Griffin said she can perform art anywhere. Her “curb urban loft” at the Woodside homeless encampment in West Oakland is decorated with a motorcycle on top of a trailer. The three-room home is a roomy, carefully assembled wood structure that includes a living room space, bedroom, and kitchenette. Light beams through cracks from the ceiling with illusive purpose as veils of colorful fabrics blow in the wind.
Fifty-four-year-old Carter-Griffin said she has been homeless for 10 years, six of of which were spent living in West Oakland. A fifth generation San Franciscan, she has lived in the Bay Area almost all of her life.
Carter-Griffin said she once had a business making sculptures, selling them at retailers like Macy’s. Before she became homeless, Carter-Griffin also had a home in Crockette, but she lost it when her grandmother’s property was partitioned.
“I don’t have any family left,” Carter-Griffin said. “I had my mom, my aunt, my uncle, and they were the people that took my house from me.”
Carter-Griffin said there is a lot of shame and blame involved in being homeless. That is one of the reasons she prefers calling the Woodside encampment a “curbside community.” She said being homeless is stigmatizing in such a way it can leave a person socially blackballed, making it harder to get a job or go anywhere in public if there is no possibility for simple necessities like grooming products, clothing and access to showers.
Carter-Griffin equates being homeless to being a settler, “from back in the days when you came over in wagons, only these days people use RVs.”
Self-preservation is key, she explained, and it can often be an exhausting experience.
“Google homelessness, you’re going to see the typical sad images of people sleeping on the curb,” Carter-Griffin said. She wants that narrative to change. There are people who can sleep on the sidewalk and not bathe for long periods of time, but Carter-Griffin describes that type of living so hardcore that one would have to divorce their mind, spirit, and body from everything.
Carter-Griffin admits there are some who are problematic at camps, people who dump vehicles, steal and sometimes become violent. She is fine with the city’s Tuffshed programs and efforts, but she sees potential in the people of her curbside community, most of which are peaceful and have unique skills. That is why she wants to start what she calls a “random citizen pilot.”
“There are people who would act differently if they were trained,” she said. “The people who stay on-site would be the ones responsible to create a Burning Man campus for living affordably.”
Integrating homeless populations as part of society instead of treating them like outsiders that are a social illness is essential, according to Carter-Griffin. She believes in building a cooperative society.
“The only way we are going to be seen as human beings is to be treated as human beings,” she said. “Not everyone can fit into these molds they’re trying to fit us into.”
Under the Burner “playa” name Alchemy, Carter-Griffin went to Burning Man almost every year since 2000. Burning Man is a world-famous cultural event held annually in a remote desert at Black Rock City, NV., Years of attending the festival and being homeless has inspired Carter-Griffin to think outside the usual homeless solutions that tend to focus on moving nameless, faceless bodies off streets in systematic motion to quickly appease the aesthetics of a neighborhood. She wants the now often wealthy attendees of Burning Man to go back to their root principles and use those principles to improve society as a whole.
The 10 principles of Burning Man started as a guideline in 2004 by Co-Founder Larry Harvey. The principles are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy, which is to recognize the barriers that stand between a recognized inner self.
“If 85,000 people can leave no trace in a temporary city every year based on Burning Man principles, the same can be applied to curbside urban encampments,” Carter-Griffin said.
Calling it a radical housing solution, she said unhoused residents can use skill sets like gardening, carpentry, and artistry to create economic industrial potential, creating jobs while designing a culture of co-habitation with the environment. She said Burning Man runs several non-profits, and she would like to pitch the concept of a non-profit encampment co-op that works in the same way Burning Man does every year. She would call the organization “The Department of Curban Affairs,” and the co-op style “curb urbanization.”
Carter-Griffin said using the principles of Burning Man and rethinking the urban landscape is about rethinking the urban landscape to include all people, including the few people who like to live “inside out,” meaning, the few who do not want to live indoors.
“People living outdoors is nothing new, we’ve just become detached from that way of thinking,” Carter-Griffin said.
Through grants and camp residents starting their own businesses, Carter-Griffin wants a sustainable community that builds, creates, gifts and applies community self-reliance. She wants unused land to be turned into permaculture gardens, a sustainable and low-maintenance way to cultivate land. She also wants an on-site radio station. Podcasting can work as well but many unhoused people have free government provided “Obama phones” that do not provide much data for streaming podcasts. Other skill sets Carter- Griffin would like to foster at camps are writing, journalism, and talk shows.
Currently, gathering solutions for issues like obtaining water, bathrooms, and toiletries are on the top of Carter-Griffin’s list of asks when it comes to the needs of her curbside community.
Envisioning tiny homes that look like the creative art style seen at Burning Man, Carter- Griffin wants Oakland to be seen as an example to show the world how Curb Urbanization can work. Her own loft was created using wood and materials discarded in the process of home renovations in West Oakland. Carter-Griffin said she wants to re-using the materials left behind from gentrification, she has found family portraits that she plans to hang up in memory of those who have been pushed out of their neighborhoods.
When it comes to the one dream Carter-Griffin wants the most, she said, “I just want my house back,” one with an extra room for her daughter to live with her. She copes with the pain of missing her daughter by focusing on improving what she sees around her, turning trash into gold, she said, is what an Alchemist is meant to do.
Carter-Griffin wants to find a way to go to Burning Man this year to try and get Burners interested in her ideas, but she said she is too poor to obtain free tickets. There are tickets for low-income attendees, but they require showing W-2 forms and Carter-Griffin has not had a job or a bank account, making her unable to apply.
She currently makes no money. Receiving food stamps helps a lot, but those benefits have recently been cut. Despite that, Carter-Griffin said as long as she has food, water, and her loft, she is fine and will continue squatting at Woodside so she can fight for something more than being shuffled into a Tuff Shed with a potential future of low-paying, dead-end work that cannot sustain affordable living in the Bay Area, CA.