11:00am

Wed January 18, 2012
Economy/Labor/Biz

Rethinking poverty in Alameda Point

Driving to Alameda Point in the East Bay may leave a first timer a little lost. It’s out towards the waterfront, past the Victorian neighborhoods of downtown Alameda. Close to the point, the land becomes vast, open, and quiet. There are WWII-era ships across the Bay, which let visitors know that this place was once something different. It used to be the Alameda Air Station until it was closed down in the mid 90s. That was when the government re-purposed the housing and designated Alameda Point for the displaced and homeless.

There aren’t many people out on the streets and many structures around the area are abandoned. That’s what makes the land seem so desolate. Still, there are some trees on the streets lined with generic-looking bungalows and apartment buildings. The buildings are part of the Alameda Point Collaborative (A.P.C.). 

Doug Biggs is the executive director of A.P.C. “We're an entire community out here. It's not just like other housing programs. Other homeless programs are a facility, but we're a real neighborhood,” said Biggs.

A.P.C. serves about 500 homeless people, more than half of which are children. The adults – often single mothers – work in job training programs for at least six months. After they graduate, A.P.C. helps them find new jobs outside the community.

Biggs says it’s true that many residents of Alameda Point live in poverty. “Poverty kind of denotes a long number of social conditions – not just a lack of income, but lack of services, lack of community, lack of safety, lack of amenities, lack of joy in many cases. I don't think that’s really the case out here.” He also says they’re lucky because they’re in a place where they can live well on very little cash.

Tabitha Johnson is an A.P.C. resident. She works in the A.P.C.  kitchen five days a week. “You learn a lot about the kitchen,” she says. “You learn a lot about how to serve food, how to deal with meat, how to deal with vegetables, how to deal with difficult people.”

Johnson was homeless when she came to A.P.C. in 2010. She had plans to move to Fremont, but Alameda Point grew on her – and so did the other people who live there. “We've always got the kids that come to the door an they be talking about ‘I’m hungry’, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ma do it today but tomorrow I’m not gonna do it.”

Johnson recalls having to ask children who were reluctant to go to school to leave the kitchen after breakfast. “So, I mean, it’s challenging at times, but you just have to be firm and you have to mean what you say and once people see that they respect you,” she explains.

Johnson also shares a story of two men who lived in the same building, but had never met each other until breakfast just a few days before. While they may not all know each other, Johnson feels connected to the people she serves. “You don’t just feed these kids, you’re parenting them you're looking out for them. You begin to love them, you know. They're not yours, but you love them. It’s like the neighborhood Auntie.”

Johnson appears to be flourishing, as are other staples of Alameda Point, like the community farm.

The farm sits on an old basketball court. The sole remnant of the court, a basketball net stands tall in the middle of the nursery. It looks planted there, like the rest of the crops. The farm hosts animals, insects, more than 100 fruit trees, and seasonal produce. Biggs says residents asked for the farm because food can be hard to come by. The nearest grocery store is a bus ride away and only about one third of Alameda’s residents have cars.

The farm is powered by solar panels and also boasts its own Aquaponics system, which, as Doug Biggs explains, is “a tank of water at the bottom level that eventually is going to contain perch or catfish and then we have two levels of plants. The water cycles up from the bottom level to the plant levels and the nutrients in the water feeds the plants and the nutrients in the plants to feed the fish.  So it’s almost a self containing system.”

The same might be said for Alameda Point. Ploughshares Nursery helps earn the organization about $300,000 a year, on top of government subsidies. That money helps them keep operating, even in the face of state budget cuts.

The Changing Gears Bicycle shop is another A.P.C. business venture.  Twenty-two-year-old Ebony Smith works at the bike shop beside volunteers who appear to be as young as she is. “I'd rather be growing up here,” Smith confides, “rather than Oakland and Richmond where I was born.” She continues, “If I didn’t grow up in Alameda, I don’t know where I would be at. Like, if I would've graduated from high school, probably had kids, or whatever the case may be.”

Most of the other residents say they are happy to be living there too – in a community, instead of a shelter or a temporary homeless facility. Doug Biggs says he thinks that comes from feeling like they have control over their lives – something poverty can take away. “Our job isn't to really do things for people,” Biggs explains. “Our job is to allow them to do it themselves and that’s a different approach. Here, when our community said we wanted a playground and we put it up, the playground stays. When they said they wanted a farm, the farm thrives. When they say they want a community garden, it keeps getting improved. They wanted a homework room, so that’s going gung ho.”

Alameda Point doesn’t feel like a place of desperation. People don’t appear to be struggling for food, shelter, or community – and that’s a big step towards alleviating the symptoms of poverty.

[Audio available after 5pm P.S.T.]

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