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Riot police in armored vehicle roust homeless mothers from illegally occupied Oakland house

Signs are posted outside of a house that was occupied by homeless women in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday. Homeless women ordered by a judge last week to leave a vacant house they occupied illegally in Oakland for two months have been evicted by sheriff's deputies. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Squads of sheriff’s deputies in military fatigues and riot gear arrived just before dawn Tuesday outside the old three-bedroom house on Magnolia Street in West Oakland, Calif. A BearCat armored vehicle rolled down the still-sleepy residential street. Officers broke through the reinforced front door with a battering ram and sent a small, camera-equipped robot into the home to check for any potential threats.

When the deputies finally entered the home, they called out for the occupants to surrender. They did, saying they wanted the standoff to end peacefully.

But the tense, militarized raid didn’t target anti-government zealots or drug traffickers. Instead, deputies aimed to arrest a small coalition of homeless parents who were trying to live inside the long-uninhabited home without paying rent.

“They came in like an army for mothers and babies,” Dominique Walker, one of the women who moved into the rickety house with her young children in November, told local reporters shortly after the forced eviction ended Tuesday morning.

Walker was the first mother to move into the house, which activists said had been empty for a year and a half. Several other families followed, moving into the Oakland home last November. Wedgewood Properties, the development firm that bought the house to renovate and sell to a wealthy buyer, immediately tried to force them out. The standoff marked a flash point in the region’s struggle to house a rapidly growing population of displaced residents, many of whom cannot afford housing, even with full-time work.

The parents squatting in the home called themselves Moms 4 Housing and took on Wedgewood, which purchased the property for $500,000 at a foreclosure auction last July. The developer, which is hoping to flip the house for a profit, has said it plans to share some of its earnings from the eventual sale with a nonprofit for at-risk teenagers.

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The moms took Wedgewood to court in December after they received an eviction notice. They offered to buy the house from the Southern California-based development firm, but Wedgewood refused to sell. The developer offered to pay two months’ rent for the families to live elsewhere while they looked for permanent housing, but Moms 4 Housing wouldn’t budge.

The families who planted themselves in the Oakland house are part of a movement to turn seemingly abandoned homes into shelter for people who cannot find affordable housing. In the Northern California city, the number of people without a home increased by 47 percent between 2017 and 2019 and the median housing price has risen to $750,000. The crisis has hit black communities particularly hard: Black residents account for about 25 percent of Oakland’s overall population, but 70 percent of the homeless individuals counted by the city are black, the Associated Press reported.

Last week, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled the women had “no valid claim” to the home and ordered an eviction.

“The court recognizes the importance of these issues but, as raised in connection with Ms. Walker’s claim of right to possession, finds that they are outside the scope of this proceeding,” the judge wrote in his ruling, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

After the judge ordered the women and children to vacate the home and return to the streets, a spokesman for Wedgewood declared that “justice is served.”

“The court’s ruling is the correct legal, moral, and ethical judgment against the squatters that broke-in and illegally occupied the company’s house,” spokesman Sam Singer said in a statement, the Chronicle reported.

Wedgewood and Moms 4 Housing did not immediately return requests for comment late Tuesday.

Days after the judge’s ruling, sheriff’s deputies in military gear arrived at 5:15 a.m. Tuesday to pull the families out of the home.

The raid ended with four arrests. Two mothers, Tolani King, 46, and Misty Cross, 38, and another supporter Jesse Turner, 25, were arrested for resisting eviction after they refused to leave the house and asked officers to arrest them peacefully. Walter Baker, 28, was also arrested for obstructing officers outside the house, the Chronicle reported. Walker was being interviewed by reporters when the sheriff’s office arrived to enforce the eviction order.

“I’m really concerned about my sisters,” Walker told the Chronicle. “This house was a statement; it was a symbol of what needs to happen in Oakland.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) slammed the sheriff’s office for planning the raid at dawn and showing up “in military outfits with guns” to escort families out of the house. The sheriff’s office defended its actions, telling reporters at a news conference the eviction was a “tricky situation” where officers had to “think outside the box a little bit.” Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said the operation cost “tens of thousands of dollars” that could be billed to Wedgewood.

Schaaf and the Oakland City Council had also been criticized by activists who wondered why local officials didn’t intervene to help resolve the conflict without an eviction.

“What are you going to do?” the activists asked Schaaf outside city hall, tearfully pleading for her to try to help their case.

“My heart goes out to these courageous mothers [who] are standing up for a basic human need,” Schaaf said Tuesday.

A Wedgewood spokesman said Tuesday the company was pleased the eviction ended peacefully.

“The solution to Oakland’s housing crisis is not the redistribution of citizens’ homes through illegal break-ins and seizures by squatters,” the company told the Chronicle.

One Bay Area real estate agent who volunteers with groups that serve the region’s homeless population told KGO that house-flipping companies, like Wedgewood, can take otherwise affordable homes off the market for vulnerable people.

“As a corporation, they definitely have the upper hand to come into a neighborhood and more quickly make it unaffordable,” Valerie Harder told the TV station.

Protesters filled the street outside the house as deputies nailed plywood to the doors and windows to keep people out on Tuesday. A police helicopter circled above, keeping an eye on the demonstration for hours. As the sun rose, neighbors came out to see the commotion.

“I’m just praying for everybody,” Anthony Gaines, an Oakland native, told the Chronicle as he stood near his car across the street from the freshly boarded-up house. “I’ve lived here all my life. Everything is so expensive. Everything has changed."