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No, it’s not okay to squat in someone else’s house just because you’re homeless!

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The biggest local story in Oakland lately is the one about the homeless women who squatted in a house that didn’t belong to them, refused to leave when they were evicted by the rightful owner, were arrested, brought to jail, got bailed out, and, yesterday, returned to the same house, saying they’re determined to fight.

The women, all Black, insist that housing is a “right.” The house in question is owned by a Redondo Beach (Los Angeles County) corporation, Wedgewood, that buys “distressed residential real estate,” fixes it up, and flips it.

The women had been living in the house for months before the story burst into the headlines following Tuesday’s early-morning roust of them by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The women had barricaded themselves inside; deputies had to ram the front door down. The before-dawn raid was planned for 5:45 a.m. because the womens’ supporters had stated they would show up to prevent the women from being evicted.

The six women who had taken up residence in the dwelling called themselves Moms4Housing. The essence of their position is that they have “a right to housing.” Wedgewood, in turn, replied that the property they seized did not belong to them, and thus the women were illegally occupying it. A local judge agreed, which set the Sheriff’s Department into motion. At the time of my writing these words (Thursday morning), the women are said to be considering their next move. They’ve appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom to help them. But their Twitter feed hasn’t been updated since Tuesday.

The case has garnered international attention, with everyone  from CNN and the New York Times to the British Guardian taking notice. It has all the elements of a real potboiler: Race. The housing crisis. Cops and angry crowds. The potential for violence. The fact that it’s in Oakland, where Oscar Grant was killed a few years ago, helps drive its newsworthiness.

Our local nextdoor.com social media site has become a hotbed of commentary. By my reading, most people agree with Wedgewood that the women illegally occupied a house that wasn’t theirs, and that they have no legal right to “housing” and must leave. An important part of this story is that Wedgewood offered to pay the women money to resettle, but they refused, determined to remain in the house that isn’t theirs.

Some people on the nextdoor string feel that moral issues outweigh legal ones. Sure, they agree, the women don’t own the house, so technically, they’re breaking the law. But, they continue, the women do have a “moral right” to housing. And the fact that Wedgewood isn’t a person, but a corporation that flips houses, doesn’t exactly make the company sympathetic. Flipping houses, which happens all the time, isn’t the main reason for California’s homeless crisis, but it probably does contribute to the high cost of housing, and to the gentrification of impoverished neighborhoods like West Oakland, where the brouhaha is happening. West Oakland has historically been a Black neighborhood, but gentrification is bringing in people of all races and nationalities, who can afford to buy homes there, and there’s no question that people are being displaced.

My own feeling is mixed. Of course I’m sympathetic to the mothers, as I am towards all homeless people, especially now that the weather in California has turned cold and wet. I’d hate to be out there on the streets.

At the same time, it’s very hard for me to justify the moms’ actions in squatting in a privately-owned home that doesn’t belong to them. They do have other options: Oakland is currently using Tuff Sheds for some homeless people; there is shelter space (admittedly limited); private organizations like Catholic Charities have offered to help; and at least some of the homeless moms (all of whom are said to have jobs) must have family or friends, with whom they could couch-surf until they’re back on their feet.

Then there’s the slippery slope argument: if homeless people have a “right” to seize private homes and live in them, where does it stop? If I went away for a week and came home to find homeless people had broken into my place and were living there, what would I do? I’d do exactly what Wedgewood did: Call the cops.

Private property is private property; that view is sacrosanct and is embedded in our laws and values. Some of the moms’ supporters say that private property may be an anachronistic concept, in this day and age when nearly 160,000 people are homeless in California. But I don’t agree. To abolish private property would be tantamount to a Revolution, and neither California nor America needs that kind of fight at this time.

So we here in Oakland are all watching the situation over on Magnolia Street. Will the women cut through the police yellow tape and boarded-up door and re-occupy the house? Will their supporters show up by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, surround the place and not let cops through? What will the Courts do? How will the Sheriff’s deputies and Oakland Police Department react? The last thing we need in Oakland—God forbid!—is violence between Black activists and cops. That would be awful.

In the end, I blame the moms. Sorry, but they don’t have a right to seize someone else’s house and live there. I’m not even sure there is a such thing as a “right to housing,” like the Constitutionally-protected right to bear arms and the rights of the press. I’d like to live in one of the big mansions in tony Piedmont, not far from my little condo, but I can’t afford to, and I’m not about to squat and claim some kind of “right” to break the law.

I hope the moms will have the common sense, or get the good advice, to get out. But if they don’t—if they insist on making this an issue–well, then, we’re about to enter unknown territory here in the city I call home.

  1. I’m trying to figure out what the fact that the women were Black has to do with the situation. If they were from Norway, would you report that they were all White?

  2. I mentioned it in the interests of journalism. Yes, had the women been white, I would have said so, because readers want to know.

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