Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
The eviction notice appeared on the door a few days ago, but the homeless mothers who took over the vacant, investor-owned home in Oakland, California, weeks ago say they’re not going anywhere without a fight.
Speaking on the front porch of the modest three-bedroom home she and three other mothers occupied with the help of local activists, 34-year-old Dominique Walker said Thursday that the notice was taped to the door but not addressed to the mothers specifically. Regardless, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is set to evict the four low-income women and their children on Dec. 17, Walker said, since they’re not living there legally.
Local organizers have pledged to protect the mothers, as they could face arrest.
“We’re not leaving,” Walker, mom to a 1-year-old and 4-year-old she brought to the Oakland property, said during a press conference Thursday. “We’re not leaving without a fight. This is our home.”
The Oakland home is owned by Wedgewood, a company that flips distressed properties for a profit, which Walker called a “displacement machine.” The four mothers occupying the home — who call themselves Moms 4 Housing — are furious about an area investor habit of buying properties and holding them vacant until they’re ready to sell, a practice that’s led to nearly five vacant properties for every homeless person in San Francisco. With a desperate housing crisis spurred by a shortage of affordable rentals and stagnant wages, Oakland’s homeless population has soared by 47% in the past two years, to about 4,071. Meanwhile, there are thousands of vacant properties in Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area.
Another mom living in the Oakland home, Sameerah Karim, who has an adult son, has lacked stable housing for five years “despite working for one of the most profitable companies in the world, in addition to two other jobs,” according to the Moms 4 Housing website. She’s currently trying to earn her nursing degree.
“A lot of these children on the streets, a lot of the people that’s on the streets, are black and brown children — just like me, just like my babies,” Karim, 41, said. “The first thing I notice is when we got this place, Dom’s baby wasn’t even walking. And now since we’ve been here the baby is starting to walk. I’m starting to see kids play.”
The moms are asking that Wedgewood come to the table and consider selling them the home at an affordable price.
“Wedgewood is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and is a major contributor to shelter programs, inner-city youth, and the disadvantaged,” Sam Singer, a spokesman for Wedgewood Properties, said in an emailed statement. “The company hears and respects what the individuals illegally occupying the Magnolia Street home are saying, but it does not respect nor does it condone the theft of property.”
Singer added that the company, which purchased the Oakland home in late July and gained possession in November, planned to quickly rehabilitate and upgrade the property and put it back on the marketplace. But the mothers moved in illegally shortly after Wedgewood took control officially, according to Singer said, and the company didn’t receive communication from them.
“Wedgewood is willing to listen to the individuals illegally occupying the home, but only after they voluntarily leave the property,” Singer said. “The company will have no discussion as long as they are engaged in illegal activity.”
The mothers’ actions are rooted in a deep history of protesting the role real estate investors and government officials play in homelessness. In the 1980s, homeless people overtook city-owned vacant properties in what was called the “Winter Offensive.” Fourteen houses were occupied illegally in Philadelphia, and homeless people also overtook homes in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City. Bruce Springsteen even hosted a concert that, in part, raised money for the Winter Offensive.
And, particularly in colder cities like Detroit and Wichita, “squatting” in vacant homes when there isn’t shelter available is the norm.
Cover: Getty Images