Homeless in Oakland's unofficial agreement with city shows compassion

A few weeks ago, KTVU's Frank Somerville was driving through Oakland when he noticed a homeless encampment beneath a freeway. A handmade sign that read, "Homeless Lives Matter" that was attached to one of the tarps, caught his eye. Curious enough, he pulled over and stopped to talk to a man who lived there.

The man mentioned what he called an unspoken agreement between members of the homeless community and the city when it came to their garbage. A couple of days later a KTVU crew returned to get the story.

Like many cities in the Bay Area, Oakland is grappling with a growing homeless population. While City Hall works on long term solutions, there's also some short-term efforts to deal with some issues facing the homeless in more humane or compassionate ways.

In West Oakland, amidst the constant rumble of BART trains, beneath the tracks is about a dozen homeless people who have pitched tents and tarps, creating covered shelters they call home.

"Homelessness is what you make of it. I love my place," said Shawn Moses.

His place, behind the tarp, is neat and well kept. He invited KTVU inside. Moses said he found every item here on the street, including the fireplace.

He sells the 'Street Spirit' newspaper and recycles to make a living.

"I had many places, but this one I love.  I built it. I decorated it and everything," said Moses.

Moses, who created the "Homeless Lives Matter" sign said it's a tribute to the homeless who've died on the streets.  

"I can count at least 25 homeless friends that have passed due to homelessness," said Moses. 

He said this  encampment is a village made up of family and friends.  He describes the city's approach in dealing with the homeless as compassionate and that things started to change last year.

It turns out that "unspoken agreement" with the city involves the homeless keeping their sidewalks tidy and leaving their garbage on a designated corner and the city in turn comes around to collect from the encampments once or twice a week.

"As long as we keep it clean and have enough space for people to walk on the sidewalk, the city is okay," said Moses.

Police do not harass them as long as they don't cause trouble or break the law.

"The police say no crimes, no 911 calls, no people calling. They don't want to exhaust city services," said Moses. 

City Councilmember Noel Gallo took KTVU to another part of Oakland, in the Fruitvale District where he's gotten to know the homeless and worked out an agreement with them to keep the neighborhood clean of trash.

"We don't have enough housing for everybody...certainly putting people in jail does not help at all," said Gallo.

Since taking office three and a half years ago, Gallo said the number of homeless has doubled in Oakland. He said moving them around or rousting them does not work and while they look for long-term solutions, he said society needs to find a way to help.

Every Saturday, the councilman joins a team of volunteers who distribute plastic bags to the homeless to pickup their garbage.

"We're all human beings all trying to accomplish the same thing," he said. "Their luck has run out more than us. We've got to work together," said Gallo.

As for Moses, he says his luck ran out 15 years ago when he lost his job as an account manager in the corporate world. But the 46-year-old says what he's never lost is his passion or his pride.

 "I have purpose in life. I'm not just living for myself. I'm happy with what I've done with my life," said Moses.

At one time, he said he had 200 relatives living in Oakland.  Now, only 10 family members remain. Moses said everyone else in his family has been forced out of Oakland by the high cost of housing.

"There is no way I'm leaving Oakland. I was born and raised here. This is where I'm supposed to be.  This is where I'm going to be," he said.

Over the years, we've learned that people end up on the streets for a variety of reasons, but these days many seem to have one thing in common: none can afford the Bay Area's high cost of housing.

As for Moses' future, he said he'd like to have a traditional home someday, but for now, he appreciates the compassion the city has shown.