Homies Empowerment store provides food and home goods to East Oakland residents hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Martin do Nascimento

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Click the “play” button on the image above to watch a short film about the Homies Empowerment Free(dom) Store in Oakland, California.

Every Tuesday morning in East Oakland, a line of people gathers on MacArthur Blvd. stretching up the block to the corner of 77th Ave., across the intersection, and up the following block.

Most of those waiting are women. Most are Latino. All are there for the Free(dom) Store, a weekly event hosted by Homies Empowerment that provides free food and home goods to all-comers set-out on the city sidewalk.

As a result of the pandemic, 72 percent of Latino households in the United States now report facing serious financial problems, including depleted savings and trouble paying bills. This has prompted a dramatic spike in food insecurity and a dire need for essential items, such as the produce, toilet paper and diapers the Free(dom) Store offers. 

Still, to César Cruz, co-founder of Homies Empowerment, the line stretching up the street is a symbol of hope. “They lost their job, they might have lost their home, they might be living in a car, they might be impacted by COVID, but they are not giving up,” he says. “These are people we need to study and celebrate and applaud.”

Inspired by the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program begun in Oakland in the late 1960s, Cruz also sees the Free(dom) Store as a way to address fundamental issues that predated the pandemic. “It’s not just because of the pandemic that we’re in a crisis,” he says. “It’s because there’s been a pandemic before this of intergenerational poverty and neglect.”

In fact, the store was launched over a year prior to the onset of the pandemic with the idea of supporting East Oakland’s residents in meeting their basic needs from inside a humble storefront.

Since March, the size of the store has ballooned to meet the neighborhood’s growing needs. It now occupies half of the block, and the original store is now a warehouse for weekly supplies.

Still, the store’s mission remains the same.

“We call it a Free(dom) Store because it is an act of freedom to be able to have basic means,” says Cruz. “Every single human being deserves what they need to self actualize. Let us do that work and you’re going to see a beautiful society blossom.”

Top photo: César Cruz, Co-Founder of Homies Empowerment in front of the Free(dom) Store storefront on MacArthur Blvd. in East Oakland. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]