Unhoused communities are not a monolith
Not every encampment fits into surface-level stereotypes of extreme mental illness and low levels of function — but we should still empathize and see the value in their existence.
Recently, I got some online criticism about the Bay Area unhoused community where I’ve lived for three and a half months — suggesting, essentially, that this group wasn’t compelling of empathy, and that stories about them aren’t impactful because it seemed, to this commenter, that the folks here were “choosing to be unhoused.”
Frankly, I’m fuming. And some things need to be said.
Here at West Oakland’s Wood Street Commons — one of the most inclusive, accepting, creative and deeply caring communities I’ve ever encountered — there is indeed an element of some people wanting to live off of the grid, and make their own rules.
To suggest that is the full story is wildly shortsighted.
Let’s start with some examples. There is man who subconsciously created an alternate personality after a traumatic life event, and who can now barely communicate. There is woman who fled domestic abuse, was raped multiple times, and goes through deep, almost comatose periods of depression. There are the folks who hear voices without relief; who are under constant attack from unseen dangers; who are broken by crippling delusion; numb due to untreated mental illness and overwhelming addiction. Those who are exhausted from the turnstile of doctors and social workers that pass them along; who are terrified, and in hiding from a world that has marginalized and betrayed and failed to understand them.
You may not always hear about these people from me, because their plights are sensitive, the subjects difficult and consent, tricky — but make no mistake: they represent a substantial portion of the Wood Street population.
Then there are the higher functioning members of this community; the ones who love and care for those less lucky, helping to organize food, shelter and other life basics for them. Maybe to outsiders they seem apt; too apt. Like they should be trying harder to achieve the way of life we’re all told to achieve.
Are these folks here on Wood Street by choice? That depends on how you ask the question.
Many here have free spirits and unorthodox ways of thinking about how to live.
There is also no one here who hasn’t been through great trauma, who hasn’t been cast out and discriminated against in some major way, who hasn’t suffered mightily from the attempts to access a society-sanctioned home and a society-sanctioned life.
Determining one’s capacity to function as we see fit is a dangerous exercise. What you view on the surface level does not always reflect what is happening underneath. With most people, it takes time and built relationships to see the deep wounds that foster the pain and extreme disfunction that isn’t visible in snapshots.
But it’s more than that. When we think about the unhoused community, we so often disregard the reality of 21st century America.
We lose sight of the systemic racism that cuts through our society like a spine. We overlook the mental health and addiction treatment systems that shut out from adequate care anyone not able to fork over big money. We neglect to consider the forces that criminalize poverty — over policing and over prosecuting those with fewer resources, funneling them into the prison system and then discriminating against those who have done time.
And this is before we address the elephant in the room: the housing market, which has grown drastically out of control with hardly a peep from those tasked with making sure people who live in this country have a roof over their head — something other nations manage to do far better with far less. The U.S. housing market is no longer tied to wages or population or anything, really, except the desires of the elite.
In this environment of governmental disfunction, many of the folks who struggle to stay afloat have somehow managed to redirect their anger toward the people who can’t rather than the powers that have allowed for a system to become so unattainable and so unattractive that some have literally taken to camping full time rather than attempt to climb the ladder.
Here’s some truth: If the baseline for a “normal, housed life” was attainable, more people would be striving harder to attain it. But when it teeters wildly out of reach, regarded as utterly insurmountable for so many — no matter what they do — there’s some degree of insanity required to try.
Instead, many correctly realize that even if they did make it to that pinnacle — and got decent, independent housing that allowed them to be autonomous and reasonably creative adults — they would barely be able to eat, to sleep, to have some work-life balance and sanity while still paying the bills.
Is this what we want? Is this the actual goal?
When we tell someone — someone beaten down and damaged and discriminated against and in a state of suffering — to go get a full-time job, do we really believe that’s always possible? Are we brainwashed enough to believe a low-wage full-time job — or two — is enough to afford housing? Do we seriously still believe the American Dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is accessible to more than the lucky few?
Jesus Christ, we know these things aren’t true. We talk about them every single day. We simply fail to put them into context regarding the unhoused, time and again.
If the argument is that our housing system is working fine and that it’s something that we should normalize, I simply don’t know what to say. If the indication is that our society is a fair one, that doesn’t push out some and embrace others, I am frankly speechless. If the belief is that everyone who experiences these deep-seeded, life-changing prejudices should still buy in without protest, well, I’d say your delusions are more powerful than any around here.
Yes, some people here on Wood Street have said “Fuck it. I’m not doing it anymore.”
Good god, can we blame them? Should we instead be surprised that more people haven’t?
Why can’t we channel that frustration into changing the system into one that works for everyone? Into something that is reasonable, or at least feasible, for those who have been dealt different cards?
I didn’t think this needed to be said, but now I’ll say it: for most people, living under a highway overpass — on top of city-recognized toxic soil (filled with mercury, arsenic and lead that we know about), without running water or power that doesn’t threaten electrocution — is not the first, second or 15th choice.
This community at Wood Street Commons has dared to thrive anyway — to embrace land that no one wanted, and to do the god-damned best they could with what they have. With that enthusiasm, they have managed to create an evolved alternative community that cares for those most excluded from mainstream society, and works to fucking smile even as their daily lives are filled with inconvenience and difficulty, their belongings are stolen and sabotaged, and the outside world views them similarly to the rats that torture them.
We should admire this group of humans that boasts more survivalist skills, more recycling-and-resusing-led pushback against materialistic waste, more outside-the-box thought, more grace and acceptance and empathy than anything I’ve seen in the housed world.
If we can’t manage that, while sitting in the comfort of our living rooms, we should at least respect them and refrain from trying to make their lives worse — as sweeps and stigmas do.
And by god, let them live — because there is more life here than any place I know.