A new interactive piece from the New York Times' San Francisco bureau chief explores the High Street homeless encampment in East Oakland, and includes interviews with residents there who are simply trying to survive after falling on hard times.
You may think you already know a lot about homelessness in the Bay Area — or you may think you've already seen plenty of documentation of it. But this piece by SF Bureau Chief Thomas Fuller and Josh Haner, which they've reportedly been at work on for months, is a powerful audio-visual document of one particular encampment that helps to illustrate its parallels with shantytowns in some of the poorest cities on earth. In fact, Fuller and Haner drive the point home by going to Mexico City to draw a direct comparison with a makeshift village constructed near some railroad tracks in Rey Nezahualcoyotl, just east of the city. And it's arguably better living there than in the East Oakland encampment, because they claim every hovel in Rey Nezahualcoyotl has a working toilet.
In this shantytown on the outskirts of Mexico City, authorities have turned a blind eye to illegal installations of electricity and water. Residents have put in septic tanks and functioning kitchens.https://t.co/VU8IF0ExJd pic.twitter.com/olkSOMiqS3— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 17, 2019
"Before this assignment, I spent two decades as a foreign correspondent reporting on dangerous living conditions around the world," Fuller narrates. "But it's jarring to do this kind of reporting in California."
Fuller also notes that comparisons to a refugee camp are necessary — he met people in the Oakland camp who lost homes in both the 2018 Camp Fire and a 2014 wildfire in Lake County, as well as a woman who lost a home in Houston to Hurricane Harvey.
One of the dozens of residents the pair interviewed, Gilberto Gonzalez Rojas, was profiled in Tuesday's California Today column. He doesn't appear in the main interactive piece but there are photos in the column of him and his many suits. Living out of a shack, he still dresses in suits every day as a show of dignity, no matter what menial activities he may be engaged in.
The reporters also note this September 2018 report from the U.N. in which a representative, Leilani Farha, compared this same encampment to slums in Delhi, noting that neither have access to running water.
The UN has compared California’s growing homeless camps to the slums of Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico. Many have “no access to toilets or showers and a constant fear of being cleaned off the streets.”https://t.co/VU8IF0ExJd pic.twitter.com/HNQqT3QKGn— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 17, 2019
Because this is a visual piece, with photographs, audio, and video, some of this may seem gratuitous and geared toward sensationalizing California's homeless problem for those who live on the east coast. The piece does note that of the half million homeless in the U.S., one in four lives in California — but by one measure, more than one in five live in New York City alone, just less visibly. In temperate climates like the Bay Area, though, we end up with shantytowns like the High Street encampment, and the point of the piece seems to be that we aren't quite acknowledging that these semi-permanent villages are springing up all around us, and they aren't so different from similar ones housing the poor in countries that we call second- and third-world.
And the tragedies and ironies abound when you think about not only the wealth and prosperity that surrounds encampments like this one, but also how so many people in the Bay Area obsess over rescue animals and spend lavishly on their pets.
As one of the camp's residents, Markaya Spikes, tells the Times, "Homeless people are treated worse than stray animals. When someone finds a stray animal, they take it home and feed it. When someone sees a homeless person, they call the police."
City officials have vowed to clear this camp at some point, but with a sprawling homeless population and plenty of public outcry every time a camp gets uprooted, they are caught between addressing a public health problem and leaving people to exist as best as they can when adequate shelter isn't available.
In November, the city evicted a West Oakland encampment that was at least 18 months old and had grown to a similar size as the High Street camp. Some RV dwellers and others at that camp were offered the ability to park for free on nearby streets while the camp's lot is transformed into a new "triage" center for those living out of vehicles. That center will have restrooms and running water like a similar one that just opened near SF's Balboa Park BART station.
Photo: Google Streetview