Homefulness, Hot Dogs, and Care

Lex - Posted on 24 July 2013

from May 2013:

As we crossed the bridge on the way to Homefulness in East Oakland, I sat curled in the backseat, watching the San Francisco Bay flash past us. Dancing in my chest was some combination of eagerness, longing, and nervousness about the honor of visiting this corner of reclaimed land, this place that has a big piece of my heart. I’m a member of POOR’s Solidarity Family—a crew of people with race, class, and/or educational privilege who use those privileges to support the Homefulness Project. I’d been invited to come out to Homefulness for the afternoon, to be a part of the work that POOR does there every Thursday.

In the front seat, the conversation was about hot dogs. Hot dogs had been a hot topic for more than a month now. For hot dogs, family at POOR tweaked the budget, put out new fundraising calls, did market research—all because POOR refuses to feed poison-filled food to the folks at Homefulness. Healthy hot dogs are expensive. This week Tiny, Muteado, and Leo are excited: the best quality hot dogs were on sale, and so the trunk is stocked with organic meat to grill.

In East Oakland, we maneuver into the driveway and unload armfuls of food and supplies into the cool, dim kitchen. Outside, everyone snaps into action and I try to keep up. Muteado unravels a hose and starts to water the raised-bed gardens near the front of the property, showering thirsty red kale and mustard greens. Joe, Tiny, and I wrestle with a big white tent to shelter our food and our people from the sun. Before five minutes have gone by, Queennandi is deep in conversation with neighbors. Joe uses a lemon and an onion to meticulously clean the grill. I pick greens from the garden, yanking a few weeds along the way, and put together a salad. When I stop for a minute, I see this small POOR family, tight-knit, moving with precision and purpose.

Folks from the neighborhood start to gather around the card table. We all serve ourselves hot dogs striped with grill marks, bowls bursting with green salad, slices of tomato and onion. We circle informally, someone flips out a camcorder and filming starts for this week’s Deep East TV.


Homefulness stayed with me into the next week, most often surfacing when POOR’s insistent, gentle ethics about dignity and care clashed with the overwhelmingly normal violence of capitalism and racism. A few days after my van ride to East Oakland, my computer screen filled with the earnest face of a young white guy behind a steering wheel. Los Angeles surface streets zipped past as his voiceover stated firmly: “It was time to do some charity.” His name was Greg Karber, and he was responsible for the media stunt trainwreck called “Fitch the Homeless.” Karber wanted to ruin Abercrombie & Fitch’s name, and he could think of no better way to do it than by giving away Abercrombie clothes to people in poverty.

Karber’s feet hit the pavement of LA and he tossed clothes to houseless folks as he tornadoed through their neighborhood. He didn’t need to explain himself when he said that his aim was to make Abercrombie & Fitch the “Number One Brand of Homeless Apparel.” What he meant is that there could be no greater shame for a fashionable company than to be associated with folks in poverty. The people themselves—dozens of faces who are shuffled through the three-minute video, hands outstretched to confusedly take the “gifts” that Karber is offering—were props, just like the v-neck sweaters and khaki pants.

Fitch the Homeless caught its own moment of frenzied internet excitement, with a lot of people eager about the dig Karber took at a disgusting clothing company, and a lot of others infuriated by his dehumanizing treatment of poor people. The attention has mostly wandered away now. Karber was impolite enough to cross an imaginary line of decency that provoked some internet anger, but there was nothing particularly new about his project. It is so normal for people with privilege to build their projects and their lives off of poor people, on top of poor people. The notion that poor people have visions and power of their own usually doesn’t even make it into the conversation.


Driving up Macarthur Avenue, it’s like this backdrop of hatred of poor people is set in the skyline behind the sloping roof and high-reaching trees at Homefulness. Sometimes it’s hard to explain Homefulness, I think because it’s not so complicated: because the care that is at the foundation of Homefulness is so simple and also so rare and revolutionary. I think about Greb Karber, and every other media-maker and policymaker who has never managed to muster any kind of care for poor people, in spite of making whole careers off of policing, housing, un-housing, shuffling, and exploiting them.

At Homefulness, care means that people in a resource-drained, heavily-policed Black neighborhood in deep East Oakland deserve the best food we can find. That housing and food shouldn’t come at the cost of anyone’s dignity or self-determination, like it does in so many social service organizations. That scholarship generated on street corners in East Oakland deserves a camera held steady, careful attention from an editor, and airtime. That poor people do not need charity, but the breathing room and resources to bring their own solutions to life. That the soil that has slept pressed under the asphalt for decades still holds the memory of an ecosystem, the memory that will reteach us interdependence.

How many of us are hungering for the kinds of care that are happening at Homefulness? It’s not only the poverty scholars who will live at Homefulness who need it to succeed. Every careful, humble step that Homefulness takes chips away at the lies of independence, hoarding, and supremacy that my white, owning-class world have taught me. The steps themselves are living, vibrant teachers, the lessons that all of us need to get free.


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