OAKLAND, Calif. ― Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro visited a homeless encampment Wednesday to learn more about what he called the “dire needs” for more affordable housing in the U.S.
“What we need to be doing from the federal government is to be a good partner to create more housing, not trying to summarily relocate people miles from where they are,” said Castro, who was the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, after being asked about President Donald Trump’s recent controversial statements about homelessness.
Earlier this month, Trump administration officials went to Los Angeles to learn about the city’s homelessness crisis, and proposed to clear street encampments and move homeless people into government-run facilities, according to a report in The Washington Post.
“We don’t want to treat people like they’re cattle. They should be treated with compassion and dignity,” Castro said. “And ultimately they need housing.”
Last week, among Trump’s many remarks around the nation’s homelessness crisis, the president notably complained about how people living in tents were affecting the “prestige” of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“For me, prestige is how you carry yourself and how you treat people,” said Maria Fuentes, 39, a resident of the Oakland homeless encampment Castro visited in the Fruitvale neighborhood.
She and her family, including children aged 7, 9 and 14, have been living in the encampment for about five years, after they lost their apartment in nearby Alameda.
Fuentes hadn’t heard about Trump’s remarks until HuffPost asked her about them on Wednesday, since they don’t have TV or electricity in the camp.
“It’s more than prestige or how people look to people ― you have to get to know people,” Fuentes said, standing in the hot sun outside her tiny house, the temperature hovering above 90 degrees. “If Trump ever really cared about his people, he’d get out there and get to know them.”
She gestured to the sprawling encampment with dozens of tents, cars, mobile homes, other tiny houses and makeshift shelters around her, remarking that unhoused people are “innovative” and “creative,” but some need more support, like access to mental health treatment.
Of Castro’s visit, she said, “Him coming down here is a start ― by getting to know us.”
The lack of affordable housing is a nationwide crisis, and California has one of the highest rates of homelessness. On any given day in January 2018, more than 500,000 people were homeless in the U.S., according to a federal report; nearly a quarter lived in California. In the past two years, homelessness has spiked in the Bay Area, particularly in Oakland’s Alameda County.
Oakland city councilmember Noel Gallo said Wednesday the city needs more affordable housing, noting there are more than 100 homeless encampments in the area.
“I came today to understand the need for housing. … We have reached a crisis not only here but throughout the U.S.,” Castro said, noting he had made housing a “priority” in his campaign.
The former HUD chief released a housing plan earlier this year, which includes ideas to address homelessness, such as making rent more affordable by expanding a federal housing voucher program and giving tax credits to low-income renters. He also proposed dedicating more funding to building affordable housing and implementing local zoning reforms by tying new funding to the construction of cheaper housing near public transit lines.
“Rent needs to match people’s needs,” Markaya Spikes, a 39-year-old homeless resident told Castro. She and her 8-year-old daughter have been homeless for five years.
“People need to know we are human beings,” Spikes added, saying homeless people are “constantly” harassed and arrested by law enforcement. “I think a president can do a lot more than what they’re doing.”
Last week, presidential contender Beto O’Rourke, a Texan like Castro, also visited Oakland, meeting with local marijuana industry leaders about his plan for legalization. Before his stop there, O’Rourke also visited homeless people on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, where many sleep in tents.
That same week, Trump had falsely claimed that San Francisco’s homelessness crisis was creating a “terrible situation” with needles and trash flowing into the ocean, saying he planned to order the Environmental Protection Agency to cite the city for pollution.
On Wednesday, Castro said “we need to challenge these myths” around homelessness.
“Just because folks are homeless or poor, it doesn’t mean they’re helpless or don’t know what they want or aren’t hardworking,” Castro said, noting that many are working “but can’t afford a place to live.”
“You got my vote,” interjected Claudette Smith, 55, who was listening to the presidential hopeful while holding her dog, named Little Girl, in her arms.
She’s been homeless for about six years, and has lived in the encampment since her car, which she was sleeping in, was wrecked. A lifelong Oakland resident, she suggested the next president do more by requiring vacant buildings in the area be converted into shelters or low-income housing, in exchange for a tax write-off.
Earlier Wednesday, ahead of his visit to the encampment, Castro spoke with community members in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood about his affordable housing plans.
“Will my family be able to stay here?” asked 14-year-old Omar Vasquez, a student in ninth grade at Arise High School. His family has been living in Oakland for over two decades.
“Yes, I’m gonna make sure if I’m president, families get to stay together,” Castro responded. “We’re gonna get to a time when all families can feel safer and feel rooted here.”
Asked what Vasquez thought of the presidential contenders so far, the young man quipped: “I hope they’re better than Donald Trump.”