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Building trust, one person at a time (Pt. 3)

Community Intervention Specialist JJ Barral shows off MACRO's "go bag"
Wren Farrell
Community Intervention Specialist JJ Barral shows off MACRO's "go bag"

This is the final story in our series looking at MACRO, Oakland's community response team which stands for Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland. The program was created to address some of the toughest problems facing Oakland, from addiction and mental health issues to homelessness. But they haven’t been able to fix those problems overnight.

This story was made for audio broadcast. Click the play button above to listen.

This morning’s ride along with MACRO has been slow, so we’ve mostly been doing “wellness checks.” That’s when the team goes to check up on someone they already know. Today, Community Intervention Specialist JJ Barral is visiting a regular named Jacqui.

"I met Jackie on a dog walk at the lake off-duty with my girlfriend like almost a year ago."

We pull into the driveaway of a house, and a woman opens the door to come greet us.

"My name is Jacqui."

This is Jacqui Bennett. She and her husband moved to California from Detroit a couple years ago for work. But things didn’t work out as planned and they ended up living with their dog in a tent at Lake Merritt. That’s when they met JJ for the first time.

"JJ used to come and see me every chance he got."

He introduced Jacqui to everyone else at MACRO.

"And I love them all. I love them all. They have been so good to me. They have been. They've actually kept me from checking out of here a couple of times."

Jacqui suffers from PTSD and manic depression, but she’s not just dealing with the stress of being unhoused. A little while after JJ and Jacqui met, her husband left her.

"I thought me and my husband will be together forever. I really did, and it still hurts even now."

She was alone with her dog, heartbroken and struggling to survive. JJ and the rest of the MACRO crew started checking on Jacqui almost every day, trying to connect her to different services that she needed.

It took time, but eventually they landed her a spot in one of the co-ed ‘Tuff Sheds’ that was being run by a transitional housing service.

"We drove her over to the sheds. She started crying. She's like, ‘I... I feel like I should be thankful that I'm getting off the street, but I don't know. Something about this shed, scares me,’ and I was like, ‘I get it, we're not putting you in that shed, if you say no, we're gonna find another way.’ Like, if it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you, it's not about me."

This isn’t an uncommon story. Lots of people experiencing homelessness have had bad experiences with shelters and other supportive services. These bad experiences leave scars and build mistrust, and sometimes they mean that the person would rather live on the street than go back into a system that has let them down.

This was a chance for MACRO to flex what they say is one of their greatest strengths. They didn’t need to rush Jacqui into an uncomfortable housing situation just so they could check her off a list. They were working for her. So they waited until something better came along.

"We ended up waiting a few months for a woman's shed. It opened up. She went there. You know, things were good for a little bit. And then her dog died. And she was heartbroken. Like, she wanted to give up."

"She kept me going. She gave me a purpose. And then when she died in the sheds, that just kind of broke me down," Jacqui remembers.

But MACRO didn’t give up on Jacqui. They kept checking in on her and connecting her with long-term housing options, and eventually she got permanent housing: A one-bedroom house with a kitchen and a living room and a few pieces of furniture. That’s where we’re visiting her today. The MACRO team is bringing her some food.

"Chicken, avocado, bacon. Here’s Dolo’s wet food."

"Oh cool!" Jacqui exclaims.

That’s her new dog, Dolo, barking in the background. He’s really excited to see everyone, and so is Jackie.

"I’m so grateful, I really am. I gotta say that, I’m really grateful. And I love JJ. If he didn't have a girlfriend. I'm his, uh, what they call it? His work wife. I'm his work wife."

Having permanent stable housing has been life changing for her. Back in the van, JJ says that didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of small steps, building trust along the way.

"She needed eye care. And then eye care would lead to her getting her license. And then it would help her get off the street. So we ended up coordinating a lot of these things because we wanted to see her succeed. Get her off the street. Make her feel safe."

Helping Jackie hasn’t been JJ’s or MACRO’s only success. According to their data: Since April 2022 they’ve made over 15,000 visits to people in Oakland. They’ve deferred arrests, reversed overdoses, distributed clothing, blankets, food and water. And they’ve made thousands of referrals to shelters, community health clinics, and other service providers.

Community Intervention Specialist Raul Cedeno III & EMT Cora Schutz hand off blankets and water bottles to Lee M.
Wren Farrell
Community Intervention Specialist Raul Cedeno III & EMT Cora Schutz hand off blankets and water bottles to Lee M.

But they say they’re less focused on numbers and more focused on building meaningful relationships that lead to actual change, like they did with Jackie. And while some people might not agree with their approach, many people in Oakland want MACRO to be successful.

Here’s Cat Brooks, she’s the executive director of the Anti-Police Terror Project:

"They are connected to community. They listen to community. They're in partnership with community. Are they perfect? No. But police have been allowed to fail for 450 years. And then we introduce alternatives to policing, we're expected to get it right all at once. And that's trash. We need time to be able to implement these programs, cull the data, shift them, tweak them, and make them better."

Supplies in the back of a MACRO rig.
Wren Farrell
Supplies in the back of a MACRO rig.

What happened for Jackie is obviously not the norm. But it illustrates what MACRO can do and the potential they have to change Oakland.

Here’s JJ again:

"Wherever she goes from now on, I feel like we helped her journey tremendously. So if I never do anything at MACRO again, I got that win."

There were high expectations for the program when it was formed. People wanted them to replace the police, address the needs of homeowners and the unhoused, respond to mental health crises. Could any one program do all that?

MACRO’S been focusing on what it can do, one person at a time.

This story aired in the December 7, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Crosscurrents Law & JusticeOaklandUrban PlanningCrosscurrents
Wren Farrell (he/him) is a writer, producer and journalist living in San Francisco.