When a homeless couple in Oakland moved into a $4 million Piedmont home last year, they didn’t know if they’d be staying for a few weeks or a few months.
It’s not every day a homeowner in one of the Bay Area’s most exclusive cities opens up their home to the needy. But that’s what Piedmont resident Terrence McGrath did for Greg Dunston and Marie Mckinzie.
A year has passed, and the couple still lives in McGrath’s in-law unit. But it’s been, at times, a trying experience for both homeowner and guests. Tensions have flared over the couple’s joblessness and cleanliness. But McGrath remains committed to helping Dunston and Mckinzie.
His invitation to the homeless couple — after he read about their plight in The Chronicle — immediately caught the attention of the neighborhood. Piedmont is mostly white and wealthy. The couple is black and poor. Calls to police were made about the couple’s presence — again and again.
But that was a year ago. The calls have stopped, according to Piedmont police Capt. Chris Monohan.
Still, Dunston and Mckinzie remain anxious, afraid they’ll lose that home. The flight instinct, honed from almost a decade living on the streets, is hard to extinguish.
On the streets, Dunston and Mckinzie knew how to evade dangerous people and situations. They’re friendly and mostly kept to themselves, never flashing cash or personal items.
They’d squirrel away money to get a hotel room on wet and cold winter nights. And when they didn’t have money for food, they knew where to get a hot meal.
They know how to take care of each other. They know how to survive.
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Like news articles The Chronicle publishes, our columns aim to be thoroughly reported, using interviews, research and data to back up the writer’s observations. But unlike regular articles, columns allow writers to offer their own perspective, and tell readers what they think about an issue. Otis R. Taylor’s column on issues affecting the East Bay is produced by talking to numerous sources, attending events across the area and interviewing a spectrum of people. He focuses on issues of social justice, and gets ideas for his column from sources, reader tips and observations gleaned from his life as an East Bay resident.
When McGrath decided to provide housing to the couple, he wondered how it would change their lives. So did I. After a year, would they get housing on their own?
They remain dependent on assistance.
They’re not able to do what society expects them to do: hold down a job and house themselves.
In some ways, their story speaks to the root of homelessness. It’s not just a housing problem. Not everyone has the capacity — physical or mental — to do what it takes to support themselves.
Dunston, 61, is a former security guard who was injured on the job. He’s on permanent disability. Mckinzie, 54, a former cashier and certified nurse assistant, has scoliosis and blurry vision. In November, her disability claim was denied for the second time in two years.
Their combined federal supplemental security income was $1,465 a month, but once they changed their mailing address to McGrath’s house it dropped to $924 because they’re not paying rent, Dunston said. Their food stamp allotment was also cut.
They’ve bristled when McGrath has asked them how’d they go about looking for jobs. They say they can’t work, ticking off the reasons why.
Getting a job would put them in a deeper hole than when they were homeless, Dunston says. If he starts a job, his disability payments — his only safety net — will be cut. That’s terrifying.
“If I can’t keep up and don’t work, then I lose that job,” Dunston said. “Then I have no income coming in. That’s a permanent income till the day you go in the ground.
“You might not last on the job, and then you got nothing.”
They spend some of their days riding buses, walking around Oakland. If it’s too cold or rainy, the couple “just stay right here in the house. Stay warm,” Dunston said.
It took a while to get used to sleeping in the bed, Dunston said. He often slept on the floor, which was more like the concrete in the doorway of the Alameda County building where they slept on a pallet of sleeping bags and blankets. Dunston had to break the habit of waking up Mckinzie at 6 a.m. as if they had to pack and leave before the building opened.
Living outside during soggy winters, they’d use garbage bags to cover their few belongings in the two utility carts they tediously pushed everywhere they went. Sometimes they’d spend the day riding BART before retiring to the Alameda County Probation Office on Broadway in Oakland.
They were hesitant to move into McGrath’s house, fearing there would be rules that would restrict their independence.
When I visited the couple in Piedmont one fall weekend afternoon, Dunston was sweeping leaves in the walkway behind the in-law unit. He took his shoes off when he went inside, making a point to tell me they started taking off their shoes before walking on the carpet.
McGrath had it cleaned once not long after they moved in, but dirt and food spills stained the carpet again. McGrath talked to them about taking care of the place. They say they didn’t realize the carpet was dirty. To Dunston and Mckinzie, it felt like McGrath was putting them down.
“You’re not going to just disrespect us,” Dunston said. “We will pack our stuff.”
“And leave,” Mckinzie added.
McGrath told me, “I know they know how to take care of carpet, but when you’re in that place of a pure survival state, why would you care?”
They don’t see much of McGrath, who travels often and works long hours. Dunston told me he thought he was avoiding them. McGrath, 61, told me he wanted to give them space where they could feel safe and at home.
A real estate developer and investor, McGrath is the founder of McGrath Properties, which focuses on the acquisition and development of properties in the East Bay. He believes homelessness is solvable, but the solution is unclear.
“I know less about this issue today than I thought I did 10 months ago,” he said. “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.”
Oakland has 4,000 homeless people, a number that’s almost doubled in just two years. Without subsidized housing — and a support system after housing is provided — people will continue to shelter in parks, on sidewalks and under overpasses.
“If the private side doesn’t really start to bring the resources and manpower and money to this issue, then this is going to get forced on us,” McGrath said.
That movement began when two single mothers moved into a vacant house in West Oakland without permission in November. They were making a statement about Oakland’s historically black neighborhoods becoming unaffordable places to live for longtime residents. Once bereft of resources and opportunities, the neighborhoods are being transformed by companies that buy and flip homes for profit.
Mckinzie knows Dominique Walker, one of the leading voices for Moms 4 Housing, well. Walker is the oldest of her three daughters. Let that sink in. In Oakland, generations of black families are struggling to stay off the streets.
“I’m proud of her,” said Mckinzie of Walker, who is staying with one of Mckinzie’s other daughters in West Oakland. “A lot of people need housing.”
Cities and counties should supply housing for the homeless, and the wealthy and powerful should contribute financially. In May, tech billionaire Marc Benioff donated $30 million to start a new research institute at UC San Francisco called the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. Just think how many people could be housed with another $30 million.
Providing housing will make our cities safer and cleaner for everyone, because helping the homeless is an investment in all of our futures. And it’s the right, humane thing to do.
“If I have to move them to a different place because I end up selling my house, I’m going to do that,” McGrath said. “If I have to subsidize that, I’m going to do that. And it’s because these are two human beings that deserve to be treated with love and respect.
“That’s as simple and pure as it gets.”
This much is clear: Life for many isn’t about making plans or reaching expectations. On the street, it’s about survival, an existence that’s physically and mentally draining. Homelessness breaks down minds, bodies and hearts.
Recovering from that kind of trauma takes more than four walls. But those walls help, tremendously.
McGrath is committed to continue to provide housing for Dunston and Mckinzie. The three have talked frankly about next steps, including one conversation over white wine. They’re in this together.
“I’ll never abandon them,” McGrath told me. “I’m never going to not finish with them.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis R. Taylor Jr. appears Mondays and Thursdays. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @otisrtaylorjr