A miniature white picket fence lines the entryway into the homeless encampment of 37MLK in Oakland, where tents sit in neat rows, fairy lights glow overhead and chickens cluck around the grounds.
At least four homeless encampments sit along the mile of boulevard leading up to 37MLK from the city’s downtown, but where the other camps are shrouded in darkness after sunset, lawn lanterns provide light along paths at 37MLK. Whorls of decorative fake ivy dangle over the chain-link fence, mixing in with potted plants and splashes of art, adding beauty to the ugliest of situations. “Welcome to our home,” read a small paper heart near the entrance, before the winter rains washed it away.
With California’s housing crisis culminating in a surge in homelessness unseen in recent history, the question of home has been increasingly met with answers of desperation. Wait lists for temporary shelter beds total in the thousands in some jurisdictions. Overpacked vehicles and RVs, out of which a growing number now live, line certain streets in cities across the state. In Oakland, where rapid gentrification has led to the widespread displacement of black residents, there are more encampments within city limits than there are square miles in the city – 90 sites versus about 78 sq miles – according to the most conservative estimates.