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Living on the Streets of Oakland

The Great Recession may be over, but every night people are sleeping on benches or in makeshift shelters. Here are a few of their stories.

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Pannizzo calls White's circle of friends a "tribe." "They're like a family that looks after one another," Pannizzo said. "They fight occasionally, but ultimately they love one another. If anyone is in need, the others in the tribe will not let them go without for very long."

While some people sleeping on the streets have drug problems, many have passed through addictions and come out the other side. "I kicked dope a few years ago," White explained. "But I've still been living on the street in Oakland for three or four years. Some things you can't get over. Losing a home. Losing your family. That's what puts you on the street."

Bill Davidson has a similar history. At the tail end of the hippie era, he got caught by the cops with marijuana and was given a choice between prison and Vietnam, he said. Like thousands of other veterans, he came back sick from the war and fighting a drug habit.

"About half the people on the street used to be vets," Davidson said. "Most were my age — from Vietnam. When guys came back, the world was hostile. When we needed medical attention, we didn't get any. Of the twenty guys in my unit, eight wound up in the hospital, and all of us got sick. I got strung out in the service, and I didn't get rid of my habit until 2006. The price I paid for being on drugs got to be too high. That's what made me stop."

That price included spending many years in prison and losing his family. In 1999, he began living on the street. Today, Davidson, who is white, lives with an African-American woman — Ebony, who, like many homeless people I met, didn't want to give her last name. "We get hassled every day about being a white man with a black woman," Davidson said. "People call us names and threaten us. Last week, a guy even pulled a gun on us."

Pannizzo calls downtown Oakland a unique place because of the diversity of its homeless people. "Many come from other parts of the country," he explained. "The ones in the camps along the freeways tend to be white and younger. African Americans find themselves less in the camps and more on the benches. But they tend to be Oakland natives, as opposed to people from other places."

Robert, a black man sitting in White's camp on the night I visited it, said he thinks black and white people get along okay in general. But turning to White, he warned that "some people just don't want to see you and me get along." Davidson is even more worried. "We have to get rid of the denial that there's racism on the streets here," he said.

Davidson lived beneath the freeway near Brush Street when I first met him and Ebony. They'd built an elaborate structure out of cardboard and pallets with a bed and mattress. Over the assemblage, they'd draped a big US flag and a smaller Raiders pirate banner. A few days later, I went back to talk, and found them packing belongings into shopping carts. They took me over to the chain-link fence, and showed me the Caltrans notice warning that crews would be sweeping the lot out later that day.

A few weeks later, the barren area had been turned into a parking lot for Greyhound busses. Davidson and Ebony had moved into a fleabag hotel. The population of homeless people and those living in single-room occupancy hotels has so much overlap that it's really the same community. The couple had managed to save enough money from disability checks to pay the $800 monthly rent for a room at the Grand.

"But there's no shower in our room — we have to go upstairs," Davidson said angrily. "There are roaches and mice in the room, and it's so small there's hardly any room for anything beside the bed. For me, the street is better than the dump we're in, but Ebony is sick and doesn't want to be back on the street."

To get a fuller understanding of what it's like to live on the streets of Oakland — what life is like for people like Davidson and Ebony, White and Kelly, and Mazarek, I thought it would best if they told their stories in their own words. Here's what two of them had to say.


Shawana Benson's Story

As told to David Bacon

I talked with Shawana Benson around midnight one night, after she'd finished helping Pannizzo bag up the food for his rounds. She sat on a crate in the middle of her camp near one of Oakland's freeways.

I grew up in Oakland. I've always lived around Fruitvale and High streets. Growing up, I didn't think that going to school was really a serious thing. I didn't finish my education like I should have. I went to junior high, and then I went to continuation schools, like Dewey High. I became homeless and started living outside because of losing jobs, and then living with others. Sometimes people threw me out. It was hard. Even though you're not happy living on the street, you're familiar with it. It's something that you go back to.

I stumbled on this spot about eight or nine years ago. A buddy of mine was living back here, and I used to come back here to visit him. He moved forward in life, and when I became homeless, instead of dealing with people and drugs, I came here with my blanket and my little old belongings. I didn't have a tent or anything then. I was out in the elements, with just a blanket on a pallet. But at least I didn't have to come to anybody for anything. To wash up, I'd go to McDonald's.

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