Homelessness: The Fault in "American Greatness"

Across Oakland and Berkeley, tent camps are sprouting near BART tracks and underpasses. As rents skyrocket in the Bay Area, California working class communities are disproportionately affected. 

Documenting economic inequality and homelessness in California’s Bay Area, this photo essay, by photojournalist Rucha Chitnis, gives faces and voices to the people behind the numbers. The article shines light on homelessness, the impact of poverty on people with disabilities, and the criminalization of the poor—three significant issues in the US that Trump’s proposed budget will have a devastating impact on. The essay makes it clear that low-income and disabled community members will not see their dreams unleashed by Mr. Trump’s new financial plan. The budget will “Make America Great Again” for the already rich, while devastating the rest. Read the introduction.

Click on any image to open the slideshow.

Brett Schnaper arrived in Berkeley when he was 17 years old. He became homeless at the age of 54. “I have osteoarthritis, and my nerves are dying. I couldn’t pay my rent and became homeless,” he said.  “If I don’t find adequate housing, I will probably wind up in a wheelchair. If I spend another winter out on the streets, I will probably die.”

“The city is hiring professionals with book knowledge, who have not lived a life on the streets. I have ten years on the streets—a PhD in poverty,”

Michael Zint, founder, “First They Came for the Homeless” encampment protest

Schnaper is part of “First They Came for the Homeless” encampment protest.  Most members of this encampment community have a disability.  Their agenda is clear: to become the visible faces of homelessness by setting up tents in the heart of the city to bring attention to the crisis of affordable housing. “Homeless people can solve their own problems, because this is our lived experience. The city is hiring professionals with book knowledge, who have not lived a life on the streets. I have ten years on the streets—a PhD in poverty,” said Michael Zint, the founder of the encampment protest.  

Zint says their camp has been raided over 15 times since October 2016, often before dawn when it is bitterly cold. Each time, their possessions are confiscated by the police, including tents and blankets.  The encampment protestors are demanding the city of Berkeley sanction an area for a responsibly-run tent city, where the rules would be designed by the homeless to live safely without the threat of eviction. “This is the very first step for our stability. Tents save lives. Then we are requesting the city to set up tiny homes or container homes, which are not expensive, and finally move the homeless into affordable housing, which will take years,” he said.

“Everyone deserves a home,” said a four-year-old girl at the Citywide Homeless People’s Assembly outside San Francisco’s City Hall to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  According to St. Mary’s Center “more than one quarter of all children in Oakland live in households with annual incomes under $23,000, the highest poverty rate in the Bay Area.”
Everyone deserves a home,” said a four-year-old girl at the Citywide Homeless People’s Assembly outside San Francisco’s City Hall to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. According to a 2014 report by the National Center on Family Homelessness, California is the third worst state for child homelessness, with over half a million children affected.

“This is re-segregation in the guise of gentrification”

Across Oakland and Berkeley, tent camps are sprouting near BART tracks and underpasses. As rents skyrocket in San Francisco and Oakland, working class communities are disproportionately affected. “This is re-segregation in the guise of gentrification,” said Janny Castillo, Seniors for Hope and Justice Coordinator at St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit that serves at-risk seniors and preschoolers in Oakland. “We have lost a large percentage of people of color, who can’t afford to live in a city where they have had deep roots for generations.”

In the face of a narrative of Make America Great Again and a new presidency, advocacy groups for the homeless believe that they continue to fight a system that has a long history and legacy of criminalizing the poor and the homeless.  “We have been fighting these battles for over 50 years. Whether it is Trump or Governor Brown, we are against a wall that doesn’t care for the poor.  We are still fighting for civil rights and anti-poverty programs,” said Castillo.

“Poor people didn’t create homelessness. The federal government did. And now homeless people are being sent to jail for simply existing.”

Paul Boden, Executive Director of WRAP

“What’s important to us now is that America does not forget again,” said Joe Wilson at the Citywide Homeless People’s Assembly outside San Francisco’s City Hall to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “People put their lives and livelihoods on the line for our rights. So many lives are still not considered worthy. In this struggle, every voice matters. We have to stay woke and be strong,” said Wilson, who is a program manager at Hospitality House, a community center in the Tenderloin.  Joe was homeless over 30 years ago, and found shelter at Hospitality House.  He spent the next several years as a social justice advocate and returned to Hospitality House as a program manager.  Last year, he shared his moving story in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, Homelessness Doesn’t Have to Be the End of the Journey.

Castillo concurs. “Homelessness is a condition. It doesn’t define who you are,” she said. Castillo has emerged as a powerful community organizer and an advocate for homeless seniors and attributes her lived experience as a driver for her activism.  “I was a single mother of three and was homeless for nine years. Boona Cheema of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency took me in, and I was able to get back on my feet,” she said.

Benny Whitfield, a 73-year-old senior, has been in recovery for eight years with support and services at St. Mary’s Center. “The Center is my family and community. I am here three times a week for my recovery meetings,” he said

Benny Whitfield, a 73-year-old senior, has been in recovery for eight years with support and services at St. Mary’s Center. “The Center is my family and community. I am here three times a week for my recovery meetings,” he said.

“ Poor people are being criminalized simply for sleeping, sitting, or standing still.”

Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of social justice groups on the West Coast that works to expose and eliminate the root causes of homelessness and poverty, is spearheading a California Statewide Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign to decriminalize homelessness. Paul Boden, Executive Director of WRAP, contends that the US has a long history of criminalizing the poor, minority, and immigrant communities—from the Jim Crow segregation laws to Operation Wetback in California and Arizona in the 1950s to remove undocumented Mexican immigrants to Sundown Towns that did not allow minorities to remain in the town after sunset.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 10 percent of the adult homeless population is veterans. “Politicians need to be accountable to the poor. They need to educate themselves by spending time on the streets—see how people survive and are treated. Spend a year on the concrete,” said Arthur, a homeless veteran in downtown Berkeley.
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 10 percent of the adult homeless population is veterans. “Politicians need to be accountable to the poor. They need to educate themselves by spending time on the streets—see how people survive and are treated. Spend a year on the concrete,” said Arthur, a homeless veteran in downtown Berkeley.

In 2010, WRAP surveyed 721 homeless people in California on their interactions with the police, private guards, and the criminal legal system. Their data indicated that 79 percent of the illegal offenses targeting homeless people were for sleeping in a public space, with 56 percent of these people cited and 31 percent arrested. “Poor people are being criminalized simply for sleeping, sitting, or standing still. Because of this, we wrote the Right to Rest Act,” he said.

Boden, who was homeless as a youth, credits Reaganomics for worsening homelessness, when dramatic cuts were made to federal spending for subsidized housing. Reagan also discarded Jimmy Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act, which cut federal spending on services for the mentally ill, and thousands of beds in state-run mental hospitals were shut down. “Poor people didn’t create homelessness. The federal government did. And now homeless people are being sent to jail for simply existing,” said Boden.

“People didn’t create homelessness, but are blamed for it,” said Bilal Ali, organizer at the Coalition for the Homelessness, at the homeless people’s assembly. “We are not afraid of Donald Trump. We have to organize or die. People bring change.”
“People didn’t create homelessness, but are blamed for it,” said Bilal Ali, organizer at the Coalition for the Homelessness, at the homeless people’s assembly. “We are not afraid of Donald Trump. We have to organize or die. People bring change.”

“Homelessness is caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing.”

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s survey of 187 cities in 2014, 53 percent of cities prohibit sitting or lying down in particular public places. “Homelessness is caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing. Over 12.8 percent of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001, resulting in large part, from a decrease in funding for federally subsidized housing since the 1970s. The shortage of affordable housing is particularly difficult for extremely low-income renters who, in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, are competing for fewer and fewer affordable units,” the report observed.

“We are homeless but not helpless,” said Mike Lee, member of the First They Came for the Homeless Encampment. “We are the public face of a protest to demand change, so that people can talk to us and find out who we are.”
“We are homeless but not helpless,” said Mike Lee, member of the First They Came for the Homeless Encampment. “We are the public face of a protest to demand change, so that people can talk to us and find out who we are.”

“We need to step up our responsibility. People need to realize that people on the sidewalk or tents are human beings with real values, who need to be recognized, not just tolerated,” said J.C. Orten, founder of Night on the Streets Catholic Worker.

Seniors at St. Mary’s Center in West Oakland agree. Twenty of them gathered in December last year to share their vision for unconditional prosperity in Oakland as part of Alameda County’s listening session for “All In: The New War on Poverty.” On top of their list: affordable housing and dignity. “We need safe and secure housing,” said Benny Whitfield, a 73-year-old senior, who was once homeless and lived by the railroad tracks in Oakland. “Seniors need a community and space to gather to support each other emotionally and spiritually,” he said.