Oakland Woman Powers through to Fight Homelessness and Help Make Something Out of Nothing

If you sat down just once with Diane, you’d quickly discover her passion is helping others. The desire to do for those who cannot always afford to do for themselves is such a big part of Diane’s life that it’s even rubbed off on her seven-year-old niece, Aria, who regularly tags along with her Auntie Diane to distribute food to people living at encampments in Oakland, Calif.

Diane recently learned that many times when her niece was out with her mom and they’d see someone unhoused, she’d eagerly ask, “Can we get them some food?” It’s a sweet question from a sweet girl, but it’s also a big question for an even bigger challenge around Diane’s community.

Her parents moved from Texas to California in 1942, and Diane is proud to be born and raised in Oakland—she and her family don’t plan on leaving.

“I attended school here, worked here, and I’m fighting homelessness here,” she said.

Diane hails from a lineage of educators. Both her mother and sister were devoted to the profession. However, once she started her own journey in education, Diane found herself yearning for something more. 

"By nature, I’m a care provider," Diane reflected. 

It was this realization that took her towards a career in homecare, where she dedicated 17 years to providing support in the comfort of people's homes. She provided care until 2017 when she was injured by a fallen patient.

Around the time of Diane’s injury, her mother suffered a stroke, her sister was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and her brother dealt with serious health challenges of his own. That series of events shifted Diane’s focus to helping her family survive.

“I was able to sustain them so they didn’t have to go into a home,” she said. 

In the process of trying to provide for her family during this time, Diane did some illegal things which landed her in jail facing a 13-year sentence. She replays the emotions from her first court appearance, and then being sent home with a newfound sense of purpose. 

“From that experience, I wanted to give back to people that looked like me. Homeless, incarcerated, had some demons to fight,” Diane said.

There’s an eight-block radius of West Grand to 27th Street in West Oakland where some of the largely populated homeless encampments are located. At least three or four times each month, Diane can be seen there bringing food, clothes and household items to as many as she can reach.

“When they see my car they know me. Whatever they eat, I eat it too. I’ve cooked gumbo, soups, chili beans, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and sandwiches. I’m a very good cook, they look forward to my meals,” Diane said. 

The good meals aren’t Diane’s best recipe. She and nine other women she calls sisters created a nonprofit organization named SON – Something out of Nothing. 

“I have to call them my sisters because they’ve been in my life for 50+ years. They’re my friends, but they’re my sisters. And we all have a common goal. A purpose,” Diane said. 

The food and items that Diane receives to take to the homeless encampments are based on donations received from outreach by the women in this impactful group.

“One person does water. One gets the sweets. One gives money. We all go through our closets and clean out for blankets and coats,” Diane said. “We’re able to sustain with no funding but ourselves. We take nothing and make something out of it.”

Diane says the community and “word of mouth from individuals who know people,” led to major connections to support their efforts. Together, they’ve been able to get discount codes from Amazon to cut costs on toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotion, and hand sanitizer. They’ve received donated bags and backpacks from Whole Foods. 

Diane crossed paths with UpTogether in 2021 as a participant in the Oakland Resilient Families Guaranteed Income Pilot—at the time one of the largest pilots in the country. With her monthly cash investments, Diane was able to put more gas in her car and travel further to pick up donations from people who wanted to donate.

“Before I wasn’t able to pick those things up because I couldn’t afford the gas,” Diane said. “People don’t want to hold onto stuff like that, when they want to give it they want to give it. I was able to keep my car full and at any time I could go to Brentwood or Stockton [to collect donated items].”

Diane shared that she didn’t use the funds to save more money, admitting that “it’s not about that sometimes, it’s about what you give.“ 

She also took a little extra time for self-care, treating herself for the first time in years to a pedicure, food at Denny’s restaurant, and even trips to the movies.

“I was able to do the little things for myself when I was getting the UpTogether funds. To the average person it wouldn’t mean a lot but to me, it meant so much,” Diane said.

Freedom to choose how she spent the funds gave Diane a sense of relief.

“Not having to think about is somebody watching me? Do I have to write down what I’m buying? Nobody wants to feel that way. We want to be respected enough to know what we need,” said Diane. “If you want to stop crime, hunger, and homelessness, then people have to feel responsible and respected. Give them some dignity.”

The next goal for Diane includes getting a vacant building or storefront with a commercial refrigerator and stove so she can store food and cook meals and be a true resource to her Oakland community.

“I want to have a location so it can be where people can come to get resources – how to get your record expunged, support with housing and other paperwork,” said Diane. 

The challenge so far has been finding the right price to make that dream a reality. One of her sisters in SON has apparently been trying to negotiate a reasonable price for several months on a potential home for their efforts.

“The City of Oakland has so many vacant places in my community but they don’t want to lock in an amount, and I don’t want to deal with an increase,” Diane said. 

When asked what she would want an elected official or lawmaker to understand about her experience with the Oakland Resilient Families Guaranteed Income Pilot, Diane didn’t hesitate with her answer.

“Majority of people want and need to be able to take care of themselves. It helps build those gaps of hopelessness, insecurity, and senselessness if you allow a person to be able to take care of themselves,” she said.

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