You may recall the story of a homeless couple, Greg Dunston and Marie Mckinzie, who last year were taken in by a wealthy Piedmont homeowner who offered them his empty in-law unit to stay in for free. Coincidentally — and in a twist that is indicative of inter-generational cycles of poverty and homelessness — Mckinzie is the mother of Dominique Walker, the homeless mother at the center of the Moms 4 Housing protest that just ended last month.
"I'm proud of her," Mckinzie says in a follow-up interview with the Chronicle this weekend. "A lot of people need housing."
Mckinzie, 54, and Dunston, 61, were the subject of a January 2019 profile by the Chronicle's Oakland columnist Otis R. Taylor, Jr. Both are aging on the streets, mostly unable to work due to, in Dunston's case, an injury, and in Mckinzie's case, scoliosis and blurry vision. They were living on food stamps and Dunston's disability income, sleeping in the doorway of the Alameda County Probation Office building, and unable to find permanent housing they could afford after Mckinzie's own disability case was denied.
Businessman Terrence McGrath, who owns a $4 million home in the tony enclave of Piedmont — an independent township surrounded on all sides by Oakland — read the profile and decided to do his part to get the couple off the streets. At 61, he perhaps related to the couple, and he said at the time, "I cannot avoid the responsibility I have to life around me. I have a personal obligation to take responsibility when I see injustices. And to me, this is a clear injustice."
After a year in their donated abode, Mckinzie and Dunston remain out of work, and as they tell the Chronicle, their federal supplemental security income has actually gone down because of their living situation — and the fact that they're not paying rent. They apparently had a small conflict with McGrath over the cleanliness of the carpet in the in-law unit, but mostly they've lived there quietly and McGrath, whose children have grown up and left home, is traveling for business.
A homeless couple in Oakland moved into a $4M Piedmont home. They didn’t know if they’d be staying for a few weeks or a few months. A year has passed and tensions have flared.https://t.co/WwsaWDpXCY— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) February 8, 2020
There were, as noted last May, a few calls to police from the mostly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood about the two black people they kept seeing, but it sounds like the neighbors have calmed down and figured out that these people are living there.
McGrath says that having his guests on the property this year has taught him not to leap to any easy conclusions about homelessness. "I know less about this issue today than I thought I did 10 months ago,” he tells the Chronicle. “I’m convinced that, at the very minimum, it’s a public-private partnership, and that it actually may be a private responsibility. Because clearly, the agency services that have been provided to this population are failing." McGrath also pledges to keep Mckinzie and Dunston housed, even it means subsidizing a new apartment for them if and when he sells the Piedmont property.
But the detail about Mckinzie being Walker's mother is kind of shocking. "Let that sink in," Taylor writes. "In Oakland, generations of black families are struggling to stay off the streets."
According to Mckinzie, 34-year-old Walker and her children are now staying with Mckinzie's other daughter in West Oakland. And that vacant home on Magnolia Street may end up being inhabited by one or more of the women who were squatting there between November and January. As we learned a few weeks ago, the real estate investment firm that bought the home agreed to sell it for market value to the Oakland Community Land Trust, though the next steps for the house remain unclear.
Top photo by Nicholas Lea Bruno, courtesy of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment