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What I Learned When I Was Homeless In The Bay Area

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Written by: Anna Jaffray

Winter is almost over. The days when the marine layer creeps in all the way to the Oakland hills are getting fewer and fewer. Oak leaves scatter across the gutters that are scattered with the debris of human habitation, blankets, syringes, old clothes and food containers The afternoon light hits sideways and it’s dark by 7 PM.  

It reminds me of when I lived among them. When the defining characteristic of my life was the fact that I couldn’t find shelter to sustain it.

It came by the way of a long fall out of the legal cannabis industry. I worked in southern Humboldt for five years for someone who owned the land, while me and my partner worked the land. I did paperwork. This all was going well for a few years, once we got electricity and internet access to the house, it became even easier. It began to feel like a home. We really dug our roots in like neither of us ever had before. We planted perennials, we put up artwork inside the house. It felt semi-permanent and it honestly had felt that we had won, we were making good money doing something we loved and working for ourselves.

But it all came crashing down…

The market failed us, the government failed us, the distribution companies failed us and ultimately our boss failed us. So I came to the Bay Area, where I was given a job and a place to stay until I could get on my feet. We were to live in a recently built out warehouse near the bay. We waited… We kept finding ourselves temporary housing for months at a time, staying on friends couches and in the guest room of a friend’s house. Our welcome was wearing thin with the other roommates. Until it all came crashing down, again.

My partner and I were both working full time and living out of our truck.

All of the trucks parked outside – none of which worked properly, and wouldn’t sell – had worn down the neighbors to the point of calling the landlord. And our alcoholic roommate took it upon himself to confront the neighbors about their overly sensitive, over privileged complaints.

This, needless to say, scared them. So we had to go…

My partner and I were both working full time and living out of our truck. This wasn’t new to us, as we’ve dealt with housing insecurity before. We knew how to survive. But the situation wasn’t where we wanted to be, and bad luck had a way of following us around.

During our search for housing, it made me understand the housing crisis in the Bay Area better, and the challenges people face when trying to provide the bare necessities for survival in a brutally expensive housing market.

Homeless people are all around us, they aren’t just the destitute on the street, but I understand the nihilism that keeps them there, the black hole that lies in front of them. A few mistakes in the past can ruin your future. 

Even the will to get off the street can be reduced to a sense of melancholic apathy. Because what’s the point of trying when you have no options? How can you get a job if you can’t take a shower? How can you get a house if you can’t get a job?

How can you think straight if all you’ve been eating is corner store and gas station food?

I recognize my own privilege in the spectrum of homelessness. I still had a job.

And if I didn’t have that, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten out. I almost made the decision to quit my job. If I didn’t have any bills, no house to go to, why should I work? I could be cut loose, free to move around and do what I wanted. Maybe that would’ve been a better option in the end. Who knows where I would’ve ended up? Maybe Florida.

I may have slipped further into hopelessness without the love and emotional support of my friends and family. Those who patiently waited on the other end of the phone while I screamed into the receiver on the sidewalk outside of my job. Crying in anger. This is not to mention the financial support that ultimately made it possible for us to get into a place to live. 

But even now, I have to pay all of that back. Wearing down the money that I am making. And I got lucky. So fuckin’ lucky.

I wasn’t only lucky to find housing. I was lucky to find comfort and community even in the worst places. 

As I write this, I am sitting on the roof of the warehouse I moved into in West Oakland near 25th and San Pablo. The streets are littered with broken glass and trash. The streets are covered with discarded blankets, couches, clothes, pillows strewn across the sidewalks and gutters. Tents line the block and then the city comes and eventually clears them out only for them to reappear a few days later.

They push the already destitute out of the RVs and vans while the Salesforce Tower – a symbol of wealth, watches from across the bay with indifference. 

Luckily for me, I have a place and I am grateful to have found it, but it is an anomaly. My story is an anomaly. Finding stable housing after a bout of housing insecurity isn’t the norm, but the exception and it shouldn’t be. 

We need to do better. 

To read more of Anna’s work, click the link HERE

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