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Oakland queer youth space destroyed by unexplained fire

Oakland queer youth space destroyed by unexplained fire

OAKLAND, Calif. — Officials at an Oakland queer youth space are frantically trying to find a new location after the building they had been using was destroyed by a fire.

The fire broke out in the morning hours of July 8 and displaced a gem of Oakland’s queer community known as SMAAC (Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County), a nonprofit, multi-service safe space and youth center serving primarily LGBTQ youth of color. The blaze consumed the 50,000 square foot building the organization occupied in downtown Oakland at 1608 Webster Street.

Elliot Owen, The Bay Area Reporter
The windows are boarded up on the second floor of Oakland's SMAAC center.

The building’s significant damage pales in comparison to the void left by SMAAC’s displacement, as it is the only organization of its kind in the East Bay. The agency offers HIV prevention education, case management, peer advocacy, mentoring, and a drop-in center to over 1,000 queer youth and young adults between the ages of 14-24 annually.

Two fires had previously occurred at the same address but had been deemed electrical in nature. This last fire, SMAAC Executive Director Roosevelt Mosby Jr. explained, was not only the worst but the only one that hasn’t been explained.

“This was the first fire that wasn’t obviously an electrical fire,” Mosby said. “While I’m not really sure what occurred because nobody was in the building, there is an allegation that the space was broken into.”

The building’s landlord filed a police report but no conclusion about the fire’s cause has been made. The Oakland Fire Department did not return a message about the status of the investigation.

Instead of waiting the 18 months it would take to restore the building to meet city code requirements, Mosby has started looking at other buildings in the downtown area and hopes to secure a new space for the 14-year-old organization by early August.

“I’ve got to get these kids into something as soon as possible,” Mosby said.

SMAAC operates in partnership with AIDS Project of the East Bay and receives $132,000 from that agency, Mosby said.

Sehline Ivanhoe, 35, a self-identified gender neutral person of color, knows exactly what SMAAC means to Oakland’s queer youth. Ivanhoe grew up a ward of the state, came out at age 19 and shortly after started attending SMAAC’s drag shows and dance parties.

“SMAAC was a place to find people in my age group that were struggling with similar things like depression, anxiety, PTSD,” Ivanhoe said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “You could go there knowing there wouldn’t be any judgment against you. This fire is disturbing and shouldn’t be swept under the rug.”

Oakland’s LGBTQ community is still reeling from the violent murder of Brandy Martell, a 37-year-old African American transgender woman who is now widely considered to be the victim of a hate crime. Police are still investigating that case. While the cause of SMAAC’s fire is unknown, it’s hard for some not to wonder if the latest was also a hate crime and, even if it wasn’t, why the destruction of such an integral part of Oakland’s queer community isn’t garnering more attention.

Ebony Brown, 31, an intern turned paid consultant for SMAAC from 2010-2011, is disheartened by SMAAC’s temporary setback and alarmed by the lack of conversation surrounding it.

“That something of this magnitude could happen and have this level of suspicion around it and not take up more of people’s space, time, and energy is disturbing,” said Brown, a masculine-centered queer person of color. “I don’t think that politicians or city officials understand what SMAAC represents to queer kids of color in Oakland.”

Brown attributes the minimal attention to both Martell’s murder and SMAAC’s fire to two things.

“Places like the Bay Area capitalize off being safe havens for the queer community,” Brown said. “Things like this don’t get the attention they deserve because it destroys the representation that people can come here and be safe.”

“The second reason is the devaluing of experiences of people of color,” Brown continued. “The things that are happening to us aren’t as important as the things that are happening in other places. This highlights the systemic racism that continues to proliferate in our community.”

Jason Overman, communications director for Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland’s at-large city councilwoman, said that she is aware of the situation.

“We haven’t yet received figures yet, as this happened very recently – but Councilmember Kaplan is incredibly committed to working with them to make sure they have what they need going forward,” Overman said. “She is incredibly appreciative of their work in the community to provide services for some of the most vulnerable youth in the LGBT community – and we’ll continue to collaborate with them to honor and appreciate that work.”

SMAAC is currently maintaining an outreach presence at the AIDS Project of the East Bay located at 1320 Webster Street in Oakland. Mosby and the board of directors are urging people to donate to the organization in preparation for its reopening.

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