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Friday, March 31, 2017

West Oakland Fire Survivors Say City's Response Is Unacceptable and Victim Assistance Is Lacking

By Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 5:33 PM

Many of the West Oakland residents displaced by Monday's deadly San Pablo Avenue fire say that media outlets, the public, and city officials are down-playing, and even ignoring, the tragedy.

They're shocked, for instance, that so little money to assist victims has been raised so far. And they wonder why the city has yet to declare a state of emergency, especially since more than 80 people were displaced by the fire, in addition to the four deaths.

Daryle Allums spoke to the Express and was blunt about why he thinks the fire survivors have drawn such little support: "It's because the people we're dealing with are African-American. People don't care."

"We're begging for crumbs."

Allums has been volunteering at the West Oakland Youth Center, where many of the fire survivors are currently sleeping on cots. He said the building is too small to safely fit everyone, and that tensions are running high.

"It's like a jail," he said of the crowded conditions and spartan environment.

He did say that the Red Cross and volunteers from the neighborhood have been helpful. And he praised Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney and her staff for being present over long hours, and fighting to get more resources.

But he said the rest of the city's leaders have been missing-in-action. None have stopped by, and none have offered to open up facilities in their districts to temporarily house survivors.

Allums couldn't help but compare the West Oakland fire's response to the public outpouring that followed the Ghost Ship tragedy.

After the Ghost Ship blaze, the city blocked off International Boulevard for more than a week and set up a media-briefing stage. News stations and reporters from all over the world descended on the scene and some stayed for weeks. Every detail about the fire, its survivors, and the landlord and warehouse operator were examined under a microscope. The city also secured the Ghost Ship warehouse to conduct an investigation that took weeks.

click to enlarge Workers employed by the landlord were allowed back onto the property today and were disposing of the wreckage.
  • Workers employed by the landlord were allowed back onto the property today and were disposing of the wreckage.
In contrast, four days after the San Pablo fire, the building has already been handed back to the owner. The city already determined the fire was caused by a candle, which was knocked over. Workers employed by the landlord were already tearing down parts of the building today.

Only a few local TV news vans set up at the scene for the first several days. They're gone now.

And city officials never held a single press conference outside the burned structure, said Allums.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf's first communication about the fire was at 4:35 p.m. on the day of the incident. But her short emailed statement only came after three press releases earlier in the day, two about the Raiders football team, and the other an invitation to a media event with the Oakland Athletics on City Hall's roof.

This afternoon Schaaf and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth did announce an order to "overhaul" the city's fire safety inspection program, and "double" the size of the fire prevention bureau responsible for inspecting buildings.

But some positions in the fire prevention bureau, including the job of fire marshal and assistant fire marshal, were already funded, going on years. The city's administration simply failed to hire for the jobs.

People working to raise money for the San Pablo fire victims also report difficulties.

"I’m really shocked — well, I’m not shocked, but I’m dismayed — that my fundraiser is the only one in existence at all," said Jonah Strauss, an Oakland resident who set up an online donation site for victims of the San Pablo Fire. "Why aren’t there eight fundraisers?" he questioned.

One of the websites set up to benefit the Ghost Ship survivors managed to raise more than $250,000 in just three days after the tragedy. Donations poured in from all over the world. The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which oversaw the fund, ultimately was able to raise $923,702.

Many more victims perished in the Ghost Ship fire. But more people were displaced from housing by the San Pablo Avenue fire.

The Athletics and Raiders both donated $30,000 to the Ghost Ship fire relief effort, too, and even the Warriors chipped in $125,000.

But after the San Pablo fire, "the Raiders only stood here and gave out some food," said Bobby Bishop, a survivor. "Don't give me that shit," he complained.

Bishop, who struggles with alcoholism and was staying in the building with his wife after a bout of homelessness, said the West Oakland Youth Center is too crowded to shelter all those displaced. He was given hotel vouchers for two nights, but said others, including people with mental-health issues, shouldn't be packed in to the center.

He also said that the city hasn't offered other places for survivors to stay as social workers search for longer-term housing options.

When asked why he thinks the city's assistance effort has been lacking, Bishop said, "these are Black, African-Americans. They don't give a fuck about us."

A case in point: Strauss' fundraiser has only managed to raise $16,000, as of Friday afternoon.

"Why isn't this fully funded yet?! We need to keep re-posting and getting the money to these families," commented one donor on the YouCaring.com site.

Strauss is a member of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, which was set up after Ghost Ship. He lost close friends when the Fruitvale warehouse burned, and said it's not necessary to compare the responses to the two fires to see that the victims of the San Pablo Avenue blaze aren't getting the help they need.

Residents temporarily housed at the youth center said Keith Kim, the landlord who owned the West Oakland building that burned, hasn't shown his face. Allums said he was unaware of any financial donation, or other contribution made to the recovery effort, by Kim.

"Hopefully this evening we'll know if there's more housing available to move people into," he said.

But as of this morning, Allums was so upset with the city's response to the fire that he posted a video to Facebook, which condemned Oakland's response and called for more help from the community:

"They don't care about us," he said. "We gotta come together, or they gonna delete us."



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