Greg Dunston and Marie Mckinzie lived on Oakland’s streets for almost 10 years, pu-shing their carts around with all their belongings and sleeping in the doorway of an Alameda County building. But for the past three months, the couple have lived among the wealthy — on a nearly $4 million property in one of the Bay Area’s most exclusive neighborhoods in Piedmont. The homeowner, Terrence McGrath, did something few in his position would dare do: He opened his doors to homel-ess people in need. Poor, African-American homel-ess people — in a mostly white, rich neighborhood. Dunston and Mckinzie are more than turning heads whenever they venture out onto the sidewalk of Hampton Road — he’s 61 with a stooped walk and she’s 53 with a slight li-mp. They’re prompting phone calls to the local police.
“My officers are very familiar with who’s living in that house and what (the homeowner’s) trying to do,” Piedmont police Capt. Chris Monahan told me. “When people have called, we’ve not even responded. We’ve called them and said, ‘Oh no, those are the people that live in the house. (The homeowner’s) trying to help them.’ ”McGrath, who is white, read about the couple in a column I wrote in January. I shared their story of surv!val and hope. When I met them, they camped in a doorway at the Alameda County Probation Office on Broadway in Oakland. But peaceful nights of sleep were few, because street life — the thr-eats, the f!ghts, the retaliations — can be loud for people who want to av-oid that kind of no!se. Dunston always had to be on the lookout for th!eves looking to prey on the weak.
They packed everything they owned — their entire lives — into two uti-lity carts before the building opened in the morning. They wearily pu-shed the carts everywhere they went, spending most of their days near Jack London Square before again settling down for the night.McGrath arranged to meet the couple in a downtown cafe. It was there he saw their carts tu-cked into a nearby corner — and that’s when he knew that letting them move in was the right thing to do.He was living in a 4,500-square-foot home on an id-yllic, tree-lined street. His daughters had gone off to college. And he had an empty in-law unit with a separate entrance, kitchen and bathroom.But the couple weren’t sure moving to Piedmont was a good idea.“They were a little bit anx!ous about it right from the start, partly because of the neighborhood,” their friend John Reimann told me.
Piedmont is a city of approximately 11,000 residents that’s surrounded by Oakland. According to the 2010 census, 74percentof residents are white and 18percentare Asian. Less than 2percentof residents are African-American . The median home value is $2.3 million, according to Zillow.Reimann, who befr-iended the couple at Jack London Square two years ago — and sometimes paid to put them up in hotel rooms during bad weather — nu-dged them to move to Piedmont.It was hard for them to believe that someone they didn’t know who had more money than they could ever imagine wanted to help them. What did McGrath want in return?Nothing, McGrath told me.McGrath, 60, was raised in St. Helena in Napa County. He was one of nine children, and he told me his family was poor and on welfare for significant periods of time.
Today, McGrath is a real estate developer and investor. The UC Berkeley graduate is the founder of McGrath Properties, which focuses on the acqu!sition and development of properties in the East Bay. The company renov-ated a nine-story building on Clay Street in downtown Oakland that was the former headquarters of PG&E. And it’s one of the developers of the 24-story, 402-unit high-rise apartment building going up feet from MacArthur BART Station.I asked McGrath why he’d let people off the street live with him.“It’s helped bring me back to my roots as a young kid,” he said. “I cannot av-oid the responsibility I have to live around me. I have a personal obl!gation to take responsibility when I see inju-stices. And to me, this is a clear inju-stice.”Reimann drove Mckinzie and Dunston to McGrath’s house for a tour on Jan. 23. I watched Mckinzie rub an art-hritic wrist as we sat in McGrath’s living room that’s filled with captivating scu-lptures and paintings. Mckinzie was excited about the in-law unit’s bathroom.
“It has a shower and a tub,” Mckinzie said happily.It also has a stove and mini fridge, and McGrath moved his king-size bed into the unit before the couple moved in on Feb. 1.He also did something else: McGrath sent Piedmont Police Chief Jeremy Bowers an email about his new houseguests.“I am letting you know in case Piedmont PD gets a call about an African American couple walking in the neighborhood around Hampton or La Salle,” McGrath wrote to Bowers on Feb. 4.His neighborhood of 23 years lived up to his expectations. The first call to police came two or three days after the couple moved in. Across the street from McGrath’s house, there are steps that connect the sidewalk to the street. Mckinzie, who has sco-liosis, likes to sit on the steps to smo*e c!gare-ttes and, occasionally, she smo*es ma-rijuana. It’s also where they catch AC Transit’s No. 33 bus. According to police, neighbors complained about the smell of ma-rijuana in some of the calls.
Mckinzie now smo*es in the backyard.On March 21, McGrath got a call from a woman representing the neighborhood association who said she was “concerned about the situation.” She told McGrath that neighbors feared for the safety of schoolkids.“If you say hello to them, they can actually say hello back to you,” McGrath recalled telling the woman.He was still f-ired up when we talked the next day.“I sleep under the same roof,” said McGrath, whose two daughters, ages 23 and 20, stay at his house when they’re home from college. “It’s my home. This just reaf-firms that this absolutely has to happen.”This week marks three months that they’ve lived in an in-law unit on McGrath’s property.“It feels good being inside for three months,” Mckinzie said on a recent day at Yia Yia’s on Alice Street. “I like it up there, but the situation…”She bowed her head before finishing the sentence. I got a lu-mp in my thr-oat.
When they lived on the streets in downtown Oakland, they were invisible — mostly. No one really saw them. Now, it’s different. Dunston and Mckinzie are usually dressed in jeans and oversize T-shirts. They both laugh a lot and have friendly faces. But they can’t ble-nd in.One of the major obstacles to solving homel-essness is how many people see the unhoused if they see them at all.Yes, there are homel-ess people with significant problems, but not all are add!cted to dr**s, ste-aling everything in sight to sus-tain a cr!ppling habit. Not all homel-ess people su-ffer from mental illness, scr-eaming incoherently at cars and people. Not all homel-ess people are beggars.Some homel-ess people I’ve met — the people you don’t see and hear — have just gotten lost. Some have college degrees and multiple jobs. Some are veterans. Some have families. They’re struggling to surv!ve in an area they can’t afford to live in. And they don’t have money to move anywhere else.
They’re stu-ck on the street. And many choose not to see them.But looking past the problem won’t make it go away. Any plan to erad!cate homel-essness won’t be ef-fective until we see the unhoused for what they really are: human.“I don’t think there’s any other !ssue that is more symbolic about who we are as a society than this issue,” McGrath said. “It’s an absolute reflection of us. There is no other way to see it. Just because it’s there doesn’t make it right or make it acceptable.”Earlier this week, I rang the doorbells of McGrath’s neighbors. I left business cards and smiled for the security cameras when nobody answered. Michele Helm, who lives across the street from McGrath on Crest Road, was the only neighbor who opened their door for me. You can see into McGrath’s living room from Helm’s front door. She knew who I was asking about, and she said she’s seen Dunston and Mckinzie more than once as she’s driven on Hampton to get to Park Boulevard, a popular route for Piedmont residents.
“I don’t really think much (about) it except that I don’t recognize them as neighbors whom I’ve met,” Helm said.After I told her what I was writing about, she said the next time she sees Dunston and Mckinzie she’ll introduce herself so they can know another friendly face in the neighborhood.“I think it’s a really great thing what (McGrath) is doing,” Helm said. “That shows a lot of compassion, and because he has the means to do it. I think more people should do something like that, actually walk the talk.”There are other neighbors of McGrath’s who have given Dunston and Mckinzie rides. Still, Dunston can’t shake feeling unwanted.“By the police coming to his door, that’s saying that there’s something wrong,” Dunston said. “It is us, because we’re there.” “(McGrath) said don’t worry about it,” Mckinzie impl-ored.But they do. They think, even, that maybe they should move back to the streets. They don’t want tro-uble for their benef-actor.
“(McGrath) didn’t have to deal with st-uff like this before,” Dunston said. “He never had this coming to his door before. We just don’t want to be a problem for him.”For now, they feel grateful to get a good night’s sleep without fear that someone will rob them. They feel lucky to sit in the backyard, where they occasionally spot deer near the pool.When I went to see them in early February, Mckinzie cooked chicken, collard greens and mac and cheese. For dessert, she served butter pecan and rocky road ice cream. They plan to watch a Golden State Warriors playoff game with McGrath soon.If they don’t see McGrath for a few days, they’ll text him.“Hey, haven’t seen you,” McGrath said of a text he received recently from Dunston. “Are you OK?”
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