After I went out with Vinny Pannizzo, I began to see things differently. Now, when I drive through downtown Oakland late at night and I see someone sitting in a bus shelter, I wonder if she'll be sleeping there. On park benches and in doorways, I'll look for men and women curled up in sleeping bags, using their shoes for a pillow to keep them from being stolen off their feet. Driving down a freeway off-ramp, I'll notice the tarp strung between bushes or the edge of a tent inside the trees.
It's not that I didn't see these things before. Like most people, I noticed the homeless, especially when people would come up to me on the street and ask for money. And like many of us, I also made it a point not to treat those people as though they're invisible — to acknowledge someone who's obviously been sleeping on the sidewalk or in a doorway as a fellow human being.
But Pannizzo, who is homeless himself and works with the nonprofit group Mission for the Homeless, opened my eyes a lot wider, and got me to listen and look in a way I hadn't before.
The government says we're no longer living in a recession. Housing prices are skyrocketing. But as housing gets more expensive, more people are unable to pay rent. Paul Boden, organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said that in 2012, there were 1.168 million homeless students in public schools nationwide. "Yet that same year, only 247,178 homeless households were eligible to receive services through HUD [federal] homeless assistance programs," he added.
Untold numbers of people are sleeping every night on benches or in makeshift shelters in Oakland and other communities throughout the nation. To Pannizzo, they're not numbers. They're the people he sees and talks with each night.
Every evening without fail, in a parking lot in East Oakland, Pannizzo and two or three homeless helpers unpack big boxes of bread and granola bars, cardboard flats of plastic water bottles, and bags of apples and oranges. They put together about a hundred bags of food. It all goes to people living on the street, and since few people have a stove or a can opener, there's no point in including anything that can't be eaten right out of the bag.
The bagging starts about midnight, and goes pretty quickly. Soon the back of Pannizzo's beat-up white Toyota van is filled. The helpers take their own bags and go back to their camps. Pannizzo hits the road.
For the next three or four hours, he crisscrosses the deserted streets of downtown Oakland, looking for people who need food. Most of them know he's coming, and many have a relationship with him that goes back years.
Bill Davidson heard about Pannizzo, and had eaten his food, long before he actually met him. "He doesn't know how many lives he's saved," Davidson said. "I've seen guys lay down on the cement and never wake up. The concrete sucks the life right out of you. So Vinny will show up with a blanket, water, and bread. That's life right there. We know that's how we have to live out here. Life isn't about you; it's about what you do for others, about the right thing to do. Vinny says the truth came to him, and now he's living that truth."
Joe Mazarek, one of Pannizzo's helpers, is a former woodworker who came to Oakland from Milwaukee years ago, and got strung out on methamphetamine. "My wife left, and I was living in a van," Mazarek said. "I'd sit in it, and think to myself, I'm a good man. And maybe I am. But then the van was towed, with all my tools and possessions in it. I found Vinny, who took me to his camp, gave me a blanket and a place to lie down next to others. He said, 'Just remember love.'"
Some people, like Mazarek, have been living on the streets of Oakland for years. Together they form a community, and Pannizzo is part of the glue that holds it together. "These have been some of my best years because I have a feeling of acceptance in this community, the people who live on the street in this area," Mazarek explained.
Some street communities are relatively well organized. At one point in his rounds, Pannizzo pulled off the road next to the Oakland estuary. There, under a bridge, at two in the morning, Jeremy White, his friend Kelly, and their dogs were sitting in a circle of friends. Light emanated from bulbs and a TV hooked up to solar panels salvaged from an old VW camper. "I'm an outdoor resident," White said. "I'm not homeless, because that means you're without a home, and we have one here. We take care of this place. I've been living here a year and a half, and when I got here we spent two months just cleaning trash out of the water. Everything we have here has been recycled from trash."
Dozens of bicycles were stacked up against the concrete pylons supporting the roadway above. Homeless people often have to find a place to put their bikes when the camp they're living in gets swept away by Caltrans in its periodic cleanups of freeway off-ramps, so camp residents take the bicycles down to White and Kelly, who store them. "People have to stick together if we want to survive," White said.