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A Trump-loving real estate developer showed up to one of Oakland’s largest homeless encampments Friday morning and promised people thousands of dollars if the entire camp cleared out. Calling it a “game,” he planned to pump cash at them through a leaf-blower.
Activists say Gene Gorelik showed up to the encampment behind the Home Depot — where hundreds of homeless people live — in an elf costume and “Make Oakland Great Again” hat alongside day laborers in Minion hats. (He called them “GuateMinions” on his Facebook event page and had them blow up large eagle balloons.)
“Tomorrow morning we will play an economics game,” Gorelik wrote on his event’s Facebook page Thursday, titled “Operation Save Home Depot. “All homeless are welcome to participate. None are forced. If there is any violence, the game is canceled. The show will not begin until everyone is quiet."
Gorelik offered every resident of the camp $2,000 if they’d all agree to move to a location of his choosing by 8 p.m. local time that night. He said nobody would get the money unless the entire camp left.
Elizabeth Easton, who has lived in the encampment since April, said the incident was humiliating. Like many of the encampment’s residents, she said she can’t afford housing in the area, where rent has spiked by more than 50% since 2012. But she didn’t want to take money to be forced somewhere else, especially by someone who seemed to be making fun of her.
“I hated it, I hated it,” Easton said through tears. “How would they feel if this was happening to their mothers and sisters?”
Candice Elder, founder and executive director of the East Oakland Collective, said advocates and residents drove Gorelik away. She said residents of the camp were being scapegoated for recent crime that has occurred in the area, including theft at Home Depot.
“It’s really a sad narrative and generalization being painted that everyone there is a criminal, and everyone there is on drugs,” Elder said.
Police escorted Gorelik out of the encampment after 9 a.m. local time and walked him to the Home Depot parking lot, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“What we learned from this morning is the way the Citizens of Libbyland walked all over me is the same way they walk all over the Home Depot Customers and Employees,” Gorelik said on his Facebook page after the event, referring to Mayor Libby Schaaf.
More than 6,000 unsheltered people live in Alameda County, California, where Oakland is located. Many of them live in the encampments that dot the city. And Gorelik has accused Mayor Schaaf of neglecting the crisis. A representative from Home Depot met with Schaaf in May to discuss the encampment, according to ABC affiliate KGO.
“No one deserves the unpleasant impacts of large-scale encampments — the trash, the blight, the human waste. We need to clean these impacts up while being compassionate,” Schaaf said in a statement to a news outlet.
Gorelik requested that all members of the media and city officials meet him at a waterfront restaurant in Oakland called “Lake Chalet” at 6 p.m. Friday. But he also answered questions via email with VICE News.
"I’d like to thank all of the protestors this morning for the free publicity. It’s easier to manipulate people who think with emotion," he said.
The City of Oakland sued Gorelik in 2017 on accusations that he demolished his tenant’s apartment while an elderly man was still living there. He had attempted to evict the tenant on Christmas Day in 2016 and hung a giant pro-Trump sign in front of the apartment after serving the notice, according to the East Bay Express. The tenant refused to leave, and Gorelik bulldozed the home.
Cover image: Photo by Matt Oehrlein