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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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Then I got a job and got a place. I became self-sufficient. But then I wound up back at square one. At this phase in my homelessness, I'm blessed. I've been able to find four or five people, and I can go to their home and shower. If you smell me, I don't smell bad like I haven't washed in a while. Of course I pay my way.

So I collect my [recyclables], and get preacher man [her nickname for a friend] to take me to turn them in. I can make $45 or $50. I panhandle in front of restaurants, and I'm blessed because people who have their heart give me a full meal or money so I can buy food. I can take it over to someone's house and make some catfish and broccoli and rice pilaf. Then I'll pack it away and I'll bring it back here. I can eat it for a day before it goes bad, because I can't refrigerate it. So, that's how I eat.

I've been knowing Vinny over the years, and he will come to my rescue. I like helping him because it makes me feel good to see those bags get filled. At first, he wouldn't let me help, but one night he finally said, "You really know how to do this stuff!" I'm the only estrogen on the scene.

This is my third time back in this camp. This is where I feel comfortable. What makes it comfortable is that I have fears about somebody doing something to me. If I had an apartment I'd be afraid about somebody breaking in. Or some sicko that pays attention to homeless people and comes to hurt them. They come back here and they destroy our stuff. A couple of people have been hurt already.

In the front, there's maybe four people living there. Since I'm the female, I live back here. I have another tent here, and I make money off it. I rent it out. The least is $10 per night, but some people want to come back here and do their thing, and they'll pay me $25 or $30. They know nobody's going to come back here and bother them.

Now there's someone that I'm letting stay because I have a good heart. I know what it's like to be wandering the street, tired and worn out, looking for a place to crash. You just have a few dollars and you want to rest. So it's not indoors, but you can go in there, and zip the door closed, and no one's going to bother you.

No one comes in here — unless it's Caltrans. They came less than two weeks ago. Usually they put notices up. Where there's a homeless camp, they have to give you notice, but this time they didn't. I had all my clothes here, and an ice chest with all my soap and body hygiene stuff, like shampoo and conditioner. I like to buy the best I can afford, so I can clean myself up and smell good.

They took the whole thing. Some of the guys felt bad. One of them said, "Can we just clean up around you, and then take pictures of that to show we've done our job?" But the other guys weren't happy with him — that he had a heart like that.

The next day it was raining. I was down the block and a friend came up to me and said Caltrans was back again. "Your shit's on the back of their truck," she said. I ran back and asked them not to take it all. One of them said they were going to take it to their site and keep it for thirty days. They were going to take my tent and everything. I had a mattress in my tent that made it heavy, so they were having problems with it. Finally, one of them said, "What do you want back?" I said I wanted everything. They gave me back my clothes, but all my hygiene stuff was gone.

I feel so empty, just for losing that. It was really a wake-up call. I've got to get myself together. I hate living here. I hate that I can't wake up in the middle of the night and fry me some bacon and eggs, or get in the shower in the middle of the night, or burn my candles and meditate and just be indoors. I hate the fact that I am not doing what I need to do in life.

This is not like camping out. There's nothing fun about it. When you're camping out you go home afterwards. You break your tent down, you go home, you get back to your normal life. But for me at the moment, this is normal life. This is the gritty, the real deal, what's happening in Oakland, California.

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