Grassroots Groups Distributed About 11 Thousands Masks to Unhoused Residents Last Weekend

Last weekend, as smoke continued to blow into Oakland from wildfires throughout California and Oregon, Mask Oakland, a queer and trans led community relief project that has responded to smoke crises in the Bay Area since 2017, collaborated with seven grassroots groups to distribute over 11,000 K95 and N95 masks, mostly to people experiencing homelessness in Oakland. The United Front Against Displacement (UFAD), a housing justice organization, and SMC Tenants Council, a tenant union, distributed around 1,200 of those masks.

“I definitely feel a sense of urgency when I see folks and know that they’re out there for an unlimited amount of time,” said Jazmine Lopez, who works with The UFAD. “It’s heartbreaking because I want to do more.”

The UFAD started their work on Friday, when a small group of volunteers distributed masks at 37MLK, a small unhoused community at 37th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard where mostly elders live. Then the group distributed masks to people living under several highway underpasses along MLK Boulevard and Telegraph Avenue. They ended the day’s work by distributing masks along and just west of Wood Street and between 18th and 26th streets in West Oakland.

On Saturday, about 20 people working with The UFAD distributed masks again in the Wood street area. The Saturday distribution was part of the organization’s weekly workdays, which alternate between Saturdays and Sundays each week. In the past, they’ve built hand washing stations, fresh water storage facilities, a shower, and done basic clean up work on their work days. In total the group handed out about 800 masks.

Lopez said that while handing out masks she was able to direct people to services that The UFAD had already set up for unhoused residents.

“Folks were talking about how they needed to shower and we were able to point them to where we have a shower built,” said Lopez.

While face masks are widely available throughout Oakland, most are useless to protect against smoke. K95 and N95 masks, which specifically protect against smoke have been entirely sold out in Oakland stores. So The UFAD has received help from Mask Oakland.

“We support groups led by and in direct solidarity with unhoused people,” said Quinn Jasmine Redwoods of Mask Oakland. “The UFAD is great at that, and we’ve given them hundreds of masks several times this year.”

Mask Oakland also gave masks to SMC Tenants Council, who handed them out on Sunday. The tenant union gave most of their 400 masks out along the Wood street area and worked with a crew of about 20 people.

“The reason that we were out there is the same reason why we’re organizing as tenants,” said Emily Stone of SMC Tenants Council. “Our leaders aren’t doing nearly enough to solve our problems and meet our very basic needs.”

Stone said SMC Tenants Council is fighting for more protections for tenants that are not yet available, like rent cancelation during the COVID pandemic and added that “our unhoused neighbors are dealing with lack of action from [our local leaders] more severely.”

Stone pointed out that resources are available to shelter people in hotel rooms through emergency powers available to Governor Gavin Newsom, The Alameda Board of Supervisors and Mayor Libby Schaaf due to the declared state of emergency under COVID but that hotel rooms still sit empty while people live on the street and are forced to inhale wildfire smoke.

While the state and Alameda have set aside about a thousand hotel rooms for unhoused people through Project Roomkey, their own data shows about 25% of those rooms currently sit empty.

The City and the County have handed out masks to unhoused people, but far less than grassroots groups with no government funding.

Oakland Public Information Officer L. Autumn King said the city has worked with the county and “provided over 6,500 masks within the last month.” Redwoods said Mask Oakland has handed our over 30,000 in the last month and is set to hand out about 54,000 after this upcoming weekend.

A Wood Street resident on Sunday who asked not to be named claimed all the masks he has gotten have been from grassroots groups.

“Grassroots groups actually show up, whereas the city has not shown up,” he said.

Note: A slightly different version of this story will appear soon in print in The Oakland Post and online on The Post News Group website.



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