Suddenly, the continuity of passing cars, sidewalk conversations and morning romance was disrupted by pairs of leather combat boots violently smacking against the pavement. My stomach dropped as I intuited why a squad of armed men in uniforms was poised on the street directly in front of the building that we had been sleeping in for the past month. Within seconds a wooden door was forced open.
The Eureka Police Department announced their entry and kicked open doors room-by-room to determine whether or not people were inside. Once they reached the bottom of a large staircase, a man shouted, “If anyone is upstairs, come down immediately before we release the dogs.”
To prevent escalation I rolled out of my sleeping bag, consolidated my gear and slowly approached the staircase with my hands raised above my head. Before rounding a corner I alerted the cops that I was non-violent and that I would be moving down the hallway and descending the stairs in their direction. I was greeted with multiple loaded guns aimed at my head. Once I reached the second to last step I was handcuffed and held in an adjacent room until my partner and our friend were detained.
We were arrested, charged with trespassing and released later that day. The problem that had motivated us to squat an unused building remained: Where are we going to sleep tonight?
What is criminal is not that homeless people sleep in abandoned buildings to survive but that it is illegal to sleep in buildings that are allowed to remain vacant and deteriorate while people die on the streets.
In Eureka, property management companies have become a concerted monopoly that reinforces bias by using coded language and privileged financial standards to discriminate against disadvantaged groups of people. While legal tenancy may be available in Eureka, this is only an option for those who enjoy an exclusive social category. For example, a minimum wage worker may be able to pay monthly rent, but can’t prove that their monthly income is three times that amount. This proof of income requirement is designed to reject poor people who would otherwise have the money to pay rent.
These institutional practices that result in tenancy rejection have had a direct impact on me, a 21 year old queer man, probably because my income is minimum wage, I was partnered with a man and I have been unhoused while applying for housing.
As someone who has spent much time on the streets, I know that vacant buildings in Eureka outnumber people living on the streets. A community based solution to house people and challenge unaffordable housing is obvious. We can start addressing this engineered crisis by organizing to shelter people in safe sleeping spaces. We have the power to reclaim private buildings that are unused and transform them into sanctuaries.
A model could be developed to appoint a volunteer-supervisor to overlook designated sanctuaries and ensure that guests are safe and comfortable. Policies based on cooperation and mutual support could be established to deal with issues such as problematic behavior; when someone should be asked to leave and substance-use protocols. If buildings did not meet basic safety standards, then renovation projects could make these spaces habitable.