Tulicia: You see the tent straight ahead?
Katie: Mm, Yeah.
Tulicia: It’s everywhere. We’re gonna go straight.
Tulicia: That car right there – homeless.
Most of my interviews with Tulicia Lee took place in a car. Come to think of it, most of my interviews with homeless people in general, took place in cars.
Cars are good as studios. They’re quiet, they don’t have an echo. They are less good as homes, but many, many people in Oakland are using them that way.
Katie: Take a right?
Tulicia: Mm-hmm. That van right there.
Tulicia is pointing out all the people sleeping in cars on just a few blocks in East Oakland. Sometimes you really can’t tell when a car has a person living in it. But often, there are signs. Blankets covering windows, suitcases strapped to rooves.
Tulicia: Them cars right there. This car right here. I know these people right here. I know these people right here. I know them people right there.
Katie: All homeless?
Tulicia: All homeless in their cars.
Oakland recorded 727 people sleeping in cars in 2019, although that’s widely considered to be an undercount especially because folks in vehicles tend to be less visible than, say, people in tents.
Tulicia’s good at spotting these cars because she knows this neighborhood. But there’s another reason too. Sometimes she and her 11-year-old son Jordan also sleep in the car.
[CAR WINDOW ROLLS SHUT, COVERS RUSTLING]
Tulicia: Yeah, I put my seat back some more. I’ll just set the recorder right here for a moment. You’ve got all the cover. Gotta wrap my feet double so my feet won’t be cold because in the middle of the night, my feet be real cold.
Tulicia is in the driver’s seat, and her son Jordan is in shotgun. She has a round face and a wide smile with a little gap between her front teeth. She wears a beanie to keep her head warm and to cover the short hair she hasn’t had the money to get done the way she likes it, with extensions.
Jordan: You know what I think about?
Tulicia: What you think about daddy?
Jordan: We need a house.
Tulicia: We need a house?
Jordan: A house car.
Tulicia: We need a house. A car. We need a house on wheels…
Jordan has his mom’s same round face plus a round belly to match. He’s gentle and shy. He likes video games and math and Tulicia says she’s thankful he isn’t trying to act all grown like some kids his age. By the way, Jordan has a disability that affects his speech and language.
Jordan: Wheels. So we could drive.
Tulicia: We could drive and pull over and go to sleep, huh?
Tulicia: Okay. That’s what you want. That’s what you thinkin’ about?
Jordan: Yep – a nice one.
Tulicia: A nice one, too, huh?
By 2019 Tulicia and Jordan had been homeless for 5 years. Sometimes they stayed with family or friends, and sometimes they ended up in the car. For five years they’d mostly just struggled through homelessness on their own, but then, something changed. And they finally started trying to get some help.
This is According to Need. Chapter 1.
I want to zero in on the time when Tulicia started asking for help so that we can see what that looks like, and start to see who the system works for and who it fails. But first, I wanna go back.
Katie: Should I get in with you or should…
Tulicia: We could get in your car.
Katie: You want to get in my car?
[CAR DOOR BEEPS OPEN AND CLOSES SHUT]
Tulicia told me about her life in a series of interviews in the car. She had never had it easy.
Tulicia: The stuff that I went through when I was little. It taught me my survival skills.
Tulicia’s family was poor growing up, both of her parents struggled with addiction, and she had her first kid at sixteen.
Tulicia: I didn’t get a chance to enjoy my teenage years because I was a mom.
There were so many obstacles and so much instability in Tulicia’s life. But somehow, by the time she was in her 30’s she’d managed to get her GED, her forklifting license, and a good union job with benefits at Berkeley Farms milk plant.
But then things started to unravel. It felt like there was one family crisis after another.
Tulicia: I just went through a lot emotionally. And then my mom, she was sick and using drugs and in and out of hospital. And it just got to the point where I was just… I was tired, Katie.
Tulicia started missing work at the plant. Eventually, she lost her job, and shortly thereafter, her apartment. In 2014, she became homeless.
For a while, she and Jordan found places to crash. She worked temp jobs on and off. But they could only stay in one place for so long.
Tulicia: You know, some people live different from how you used to livin’. Some people are dirty. Some people are clean. Some people get high. And you don’t get high. Somebody be like you come over here for a few days, you get ‘em some money, you eat and stuff. Then after that, they act funny or feel like they want they space and put you out…
They’d stay somewhere a few months or a few weeks, and then it would be time to move on. Years passed like this. Eventually, the instability started to wear on Tulicia’s mental health.
Tulicia: Because being homeless, mentally, is trauma. Especially when your child asks you when you pick them up from school, “Mom, where are we going to go? Mom, where are we gonna eat?”
Tulicia felt like she was treading water, just barely staying afloat. Or maybe she wasn’t staying afloat at all but was actually slowly drowning. She desperately needed a life raft, but there was no one stable enough in her life to grab onto. Everyone around her was also struggling.
Tulicia: I was to the point to where I was really trying to figure out where can I place and put my son that’s… I can’t provide for him the way I want to. Like, let a family member have him for a while, you know, where he can eat, sleep, bathe, be clean, smoke-free environment. You know, stuff like that. And I couldn’t picture or figure out one person.
In 2018, after four years of bouncing around from place to place, Tulicia suffered a psychotic break. For a couple months she had delusions that she was famous and wealthy and she got aggressive when people tried to convince her otherwise.
Tulicia: When I started doing stuff I don’t usually do, that’s when I knew I needed help.
During this time, while she was driving by herself, Tulicia crashed her car, on purpose, into a wall. She didn’t want to die. It was more like a cry for help.
Tulicia: And I said to myself, if I hit that pole, Imma die. If I hit that brick wall, I can survive, but Imma be f-d up. So I said, not the pole and I just turnt the wheel.
After the crash, Tulicia went to a regular hospital and then a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed with PTSD among other things. And then, like she’s always done, she clawed her way back to some fragile semblance of sanity. And that brings us to 2019, when Tulicia and Jordan – still homeless – had exhausted every last family or friend connection. There was nowhere left to go, except for the car.
The car is sacred. Tulicia wears her keys on a lanyard around her neck. If it wasn’t for the car, she tells me, they’d be living under a bridge.
Tulicia: I’ll just put my seat back, put my little thing to cover up the front window. We’ll have our snacks and whatever else we eat, our cover, and we’ll just go to sleep.
Jordan: Ah, my neck is killing me.
Tulicia: Your neck? Why? It’s the way you layin? Oh, it’s tight. You can get in the backseat.
Jordan: Maybe I get bad dreams.
Tulicia: You not gonna have no bad dreams.
That’s how the summer rolled forward. Stiff necks and backs, sleeping in the car. Washing their faces at Mcdonald’s. But then, when the school year starts, something kind of incredible happens. Tulicia finally gets a life raft. Her name is Trish Anderson.
Trish: [on phone] Uh-huh, uh-huh. Bless you, girl. Keep it up! [LAUGHS] OK. You too. Bye-bye… One down.
Did you know – because I did not know – that every school district in the US has a person whose job is to help homeless families? Trish Anderson is that person in Oakland. Her title – the McKinney Vento Liaison – comes from the federal legislation that established the position. Trish’s office is in a little portable building behind an elementary school. She has about a dozen bracelets on each wrist that clank on the table when she talks and she lets me interview her between emails and phone calls.
Trish: Hi, Leslie. This is Trish. Hi. So Leslie, I have a situation. I have a mom and a daughter. They’re not in a car. They have no place to go, so mom moved here from…
Over the course of the 2017/2018 school year, public school data showed that some one and half million students experienced homelessness across the country. These students tend to move with their parents from one part of town to another to another, and a big part of the McKinney Vento Liason’s job is helping homeless parents enroll and re-enroll their kids in school. Trish does a lot of that, but she can also help with things like bus passes and uniforms.
Trish: But sometimes they don’t want what I offer. Like, “I don’t need transportation. I need a house.” And I mean, that’s real.
Trish can’t offer housing per se, although she can help parents fill out applications for apartments or search for affordable places on the internet. When a family in her program finally finds housing or shelter, they get a little construction paper house to put on the wall.
Trish: So this one, someone went from car to shelter. So she decorated hers. Any movement, we acknowledge.
Trish has a big, warm personality but there’s also something guarded underneath. When I ask her if she ever takes work home she says she tries not to. She has her own problems at home. She’s a caregiver for her son who is schizophrenic, and for her elderly mother who needs a lot of help with day-to-day tasks. But every now and again, someone slips past her forcefield. Tulicia was like that. Trish remembers seeing Tulicia at the beginning of the school year, when she came to pick up a bus pass for Jordan.
Trish: She was slid down in the chair, had on a hat, looked very tired. So I said, come here every day. Come here every day, have oatmeal, hang out, volunteer, help me with my closet.
Tulicia: I was like, okay. that’s what I said to her, I was like, okay. [LAUGHS] Actually I started going every day. Every day. I have oatmeal. Eat. Get on a computer, look for resources.
And while Tulicia was there, Trish encouraged her to do something else too. Something she hadn’t tried in a while. Call 211 and ask for help. 211 is a kind of hotline for homeless people who are looking for help with things like shelter or housing in Alameda county.
211 Operator: Thank you so much for holding, how can I assist you today?
Tulicia: Yes. Me and my eleven-year-old son is homeless.
211 Operator: And where have you and your son been sleeping now? Where did you stay or sleep last night?
Tulicia: In my car that don’t run.
211 Operator: OK. So tomorrow you can go at 1:00 PM at the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, to do an assessment for the CES program.
When the operator says the CES program she’s using an acronym for the Coordinated Entry System. You’re going to understand a lot more about this system by the end of this series, but for now, I’ll just say that most communities in the US have a system like this. And one thing it does is create a big master list of homeless people that all the non-profits in a particular community are working off of. This helps to ensure that two different organizations aren’t trying to assist the same person without knowing it. Anyway, the operator is telling Tulicia she needs to get into this system in order to get help with housing. And that, unfortunately, there are no shelters to stay in in the meantime.
211 Operator: There was no mom-with-child available right now.
Tulicia: I’m just trying to find something before it rains.
211 Operator: Yeah yeah. absolutely. OK.
211 Operator: Alright?
Tulicia: Thank you.
211 Operator: All right. Thank you for calling. Bye-bye.
The next day, Tulicia took the bus to the non-profit in downtown Oakland that the operator had told her about. While she waited, she eyed the other people who were also there. Everyone homeless. Everyone in need. Eventually it was Tulicia’s turn and she answered some questions with a social worker named Yolanda.
“What is your monthly income?” Yolanda asked her. “836 dollars,” Tulicia answered. Tulicia didn’t have a job at the time, but she got some money from the state because of Jordan’s disability. “Does anyone in your household suffer from depression?” Yes. “In the past 30 days have you had to do things that felt unsafe to survive?” Yes. “How often?” Daily. There were more questions, and Yolanda entered Tulicia’s answers into a computer while they talked. The fact that they wanted to know so much about her seemed like a good sign to Tulicia. She felt hopeful even though they were still sleeping in the car.
Jordan: So, mom.
Jordan: So what’s your favorite food?
Tulicia: Spaghettis, chicken and garlic bread with some salad. Fish, french fries and some salad. T-bone steak. Potatoes.
Tulicia: A roast.
Tulicia: I like zucchini.
Tulicia: Yeah. What’s your favorite dessert? You like banana pudding?
Jordan: No. I like Chocolate.
Tulicia: Chocolate cake?
Jordan: Ice cream cake.
Tulicia: Ice cream cake.
Jordan: Cupcake and some sundae…
While Tulicia waited to hear back about whether she was going to get help with housing or shelter, she kept going to see Trish.
Trish: It’s interesting with Tulicia because you try to have boundaries. And there’s always one or two or a few – I have a few – where the boundary is, like, it’s really hard to keep that boundary. Because there’s something else they need or they draw on you. And she demanded it. And it happened. It just happened that way. And not everybody does that.
It wasn’t that long before Tulicia started calling Trish “Big Mama” and telling her she loved her. The two of them recounted this to me in Trish’s office.
Trish: Like, people don’t come in and say, I love you. You know what I’m saying? And then I found myself saying it back because she needed it. So that was the demand. She wasn’t going to accept anything less.
Tulicia: I started saying it because I wanted her to know, you know, I really, I do love her.
Katie: You’re getting emotional.
Tulicia: Of course, I always get emotional. I’m an emotional creature! [LAUGHS]
I know this side of Tulicia, too. I’ve tried to keep a journalistic boundary with her but she’d text me out of the blue like ‘Hey Katie, what are you doing?’ or she’d say ‘I’m sad’ and I’d find myself giving her a pep talk.
Another case in point – for some reason, at this very moment in Trish’s office, she was squeezed onto the same chair as me.
Tulicia: I’m just squeezed on the chair with ya…
Katie: I know, there’s this whole other chair right there.
Tulicia: I’m sorry! See? I’m just so demanding!
Trish: You can’t… you can’t keep a boundary! [LAUGHS]
Tulicia: Hey, I’m sorry!
With Trish’s support and a place to be every day, Tulicia was finally in an emotional state where she felt like she could work again, and Trish encouraged her to apply at a temp agency. She did. And she got a temporary position washing dishes for Cirque du Soleil. In the evenings, if Tulicia had enough money she’d buy herself and Jordan something to eat for dinner and Jordan would spread his homework out on the table at KFC or McDonald’s. Sometimes she’d even have enough money to do something fun, like a movie. They were still sleeping in the car, but it felt like maybe things were turning around.
211 Operator: Alameda County 211. How can I help you?
A couple weeks after that first call, Tulicia tried 211 again.
Tulicia: Good morning. How you doing?
211 Operator: Good, thank you. How are you?
Tulicia: I’m calling to see If you guys have any rooms for rent on your listing or any transitional housing referrals.
211 Operator: OK. Just give me a second. Please don’t hang up.
211 Operator: And are you by yourself?
Tulicia: I have an eleven-year-old son with a disability.
211 Operator: OK.
The operator asked Tulicia if she’d already done an assessment for the Coordinated Entry System. She said she had. Other than referring people into that system where maybe – hopefully – they’ll get assistance with housing, 211 also maintains their own database of subsidized housing options that you don’t have to be homeless to get into – just poor. But all of those options have waiting lists.
211 Operator: And the waiting list is from one to five years. That’s the problem.
They can also give you a list of apartments on the private market that aren’t subsidized, but where the landlords might be willing to work with tenants that have less than sparkling rental histories. But there doesn’t seem to be much of anything that would be affordable for Tulicia.
211 Operator: OK. There is one… This is a room for rent in Oakland. The price is, um… 600 dollars per person. So you have to pay twelve hundred, for a room.
You can tell the operator thinks twelve hundred for a room is an absolute garbage option.
211 Operator: Too much, huh?
Tulicia: I mean, for my own room, no. I’ll try to figure it out. I mean it is a little bit expensive but all we need is our own room. That’s it.
Tulicia told me later she didn’t end up pursuing that room. It was too expensive. Before they hang up, Tulicia asks again about shelter. The operator tells her that the only thing available is for victims of domestic violence, and then asks her, in a tone that can only be described as hopeful, if she happens to be one.
211 Operator: Yeah, unfortunately, there is nothing… are you a victim of domestic violence?
Tulicia: In my past, but not recently.
211 Operator: Right now. Yeah. Unfortunately there’s nothing available right now.
Trish told me she tells all her homeless parents to call 211, but for most of them, it doesn’t lead to housing. Which she doesn’t think is 211’s fault, but it’s still frustrating.
Trish: Every time you call, you’re getting the same interview over and over and over again. And it’s like they’re collecting all this data, but there’s no movement.
Katie: What’s a… what’s a case that’s really stuck with you? You know, without naming names, but like –
Trish: The mom who says, if I don’t find housing this year, I’m going to kill myself. And my kids will be better off without me because at least they’ll go into foster care and they’ll get housed. I had two attempted suicides last year. No, this year. I never saw that before. So the mental health has really been on the decline for these families.
The stories Trish hears all day from these parents are hard. She tells me – while she bangs out a few emails – how she manages to hold so many sad stories.
Trish: So my faith is what makes me have more… the most capacity to do the work.
Katie: I’m not a religious person, so I don’t know what it feels like to have faith drive you like that.
Trish: Hmmm. Well, it’s just a place to put it all so you’re not carrying it. All the things you can’t solve, all the things you can’t carry because you got to carry something else. It’s a place like, you know, your purse, you put all your things you need for the day in a purse or bag. It’s kind of like that. And so you’re able to carry more.
Still, Trish says, the purse is filling up. And she’s not sure how much more it – or she – can carry.
Trish: Yeah, you can’t do this forever. I’ve done it for a long time already.
Part of what’s hard for Trish is that she doesn’t feel like she has as much power as she used to, to make a difference in people’s lives.
A couple of years ago, Trish could help the families she worked with get into shelters. If she had a family walk in at 4pm who had nowhere to sleep that night, she’d start making calls. But then the county has shifted to a system where everyone has to go through 211, and now she can’t do that anymore.
Trish: It’s hard to know that someone’s on the street, you can’t make a phone call and get them into a shelter. You know, in this position, you have to be careful that you don’t become a complainer. Because you’re having families interact with a system that you don’t think it works or that it has challenges and the families are already feeling that. So you walk a fine line in your frustration.
Tulicia: Yes, I was calling to see if you guys have any shelter or…
This call was the last time Tulicia tried 211. It’s about three weeks from her first call, and she sounds tired. The operator tells her that the only shelters available are for single adults, not for a woman with a child.
Tulicia: You know, he’s a good kid, he just got a 3.0 on his report card. He’s doing really good and stuff. I don’t want to stop all that stuff that he’s got going on.
Just jumping in here to say that Tulicia is right to be worried about Jordan falling behind academically.
Data from public schools in 2017/2018 showed that only 29 percent of homeless students were proficient in reading, and they were similarly behind in math. But it isn’t just poverty that makes them slip, it’s instability. Homeless kids’ test scores are below even other low-income students who are stably housed.
Before they get off the phone, the operator suggests Tulicia get into the Coordinated Entry System, not seeming to realize that she was already in the system. She’d been in it for weeks now. She hadn’t gotten any help.
Tulicia: Like, nobody never called me back and checked on me. Like, I’ve been going through this now for so long.
Katie: And what do you, like, why do you think that is?
Tulicia: There’s so many people all over that’s experiencing the same thing as me. They probably just never got to me on the list. I think – I just feel like they… somebody forgot about me. They forgot about me and my son.
In other words, for Tulicia, the fact that help never came wasn’t personal, and it totally was personal.
A couple months after those 211 calls, Tulicia still hadn’t gotten any help with housing from the system. She had a new job at Napa Auto Parts where she made about 500 dollars a week, but she hadn’t been able to save much yet.
She had found a spot where she and Jordan could stay inside with some regularity. Not their own place, but somewhere to crash at least. It didn’t feel like home though, even though she had a roof over her head. She still felt homeless.
Tulicia: There’s nothing else for me to do but keep trying.
Tulicia: You know? I think about Jordan more than I think about myself. Every night. I just keep listening to that song. (singing) ‘hold on, change is coming,’ and I just keep hold on ‘everything gonna be alright. just hold on, change is coming’ I want it right now, though. Like, right, right now. [LAUGHS]
Katie: Thanks for talking to me. I always appreciate it.
Tulicia: Yeah. I feel better too.
Katie: Oh, good. I feel like I wore you out, but, I’m glad
Tulicia: No, I was already wore out before you got here.
Katie: All right. Well, I hope you get some good sleep tonight.
Tulicia: I hope so too…
The place where Jordan and Tulicia were staying was a one-bedroom basement apartment where a bunch of other people also lived. One guy slept on the couch, another person slept in a recliner. Tulicia and Jordan slept on a bare mattress.
Sometimes there were tensions in the house though, people mad at each other over bills, or food, or what to watch on TV. And then Tulicia and Jordan would end up back in the one place they’d always been able to count on: the car.
Jordan: I see stars!
Tulicia: You see stars?
Tulicia: Why don’t you look at ’em and count ’em and make a wish.
Jordan: is it one hundred stars?
Tulicia: Yeah, it’s a big dipper, the little dipper, small dipper.
Jordan: And mini dipper?
Tulicia: Yeah mini dipper.
Jordan: Uhhh, mom?
Jordan: I feel so sorry about the dinosaurs.
Tulicia: You feel sorry for the dinosaurs?
Jordan: Yeah. They’re extinct. All of them!
Tulicia: All the dinosaurs gone.
Jordan: The pterodactyl, the t-rex…
Jordan: I think some of them not gone.
Tulicia: Some of them not gone?
Tulicia: They in a cage and hibernating?
Jordan: Maybe, yep.
[SNORING, DOGS BARKING IN BACKGROUND, CARS DRIVING BY]
I wanted to understand why Tulicia had never gotten any help with housing. Who was this system helping, if not her? One thing I did know was that when homeless people wanted help, they were almost always advised to call 211. That seemed to be the starting place for everyone. If I wanted to understand how this all worked, maybe I should pay them a visit. That’s next time, on According to Need. When we come back from the break, a preview.
Next time, on According to Need.
Hada: My name is Hada. I’m calling from Alameda County 211, just checking on shelter space.
Hada: OK. Thank you very much.
Katie: What’d they say?
Hada: They don’t have anything available.
Rashana: She’s like so, huh? What do I gotta do? It’s nothing. It’s nowhere. She’s like, so me and my child literally be about to be on the streets tonight.
Rashana: Good morning thank you for calling Alameda County 211, how can I help you?
Caller: I’m homeless in Alameda County with a two-year-old son. But I’m willing to move anywhere that I can get help.
Caller 2: I would like to know do y’all know anybody that give a washing machine. I’m 93 years old.
Caller 3: There’s no one here. No one here to help me. I’m stuck.
Rashana: You need to get over to EOCP by 6 p.m.
Caller 3: Ok, I’m coming out! I’m coming out right now.
Rashana: Ok, you may want to hurry.
Gurpreet: She wants to say she’s literally homeless but I think she’s actually been staying at a friend’s house. Or she’s gonna end up saying that.
Rashana: People really get frustrated when you tell them they’re not literally homeless. I’m sleeping in my f-ing car and I just got let in last night.
Why some homeless people never even make it into the system. And what it’s like to answer their calls. That’s coming up, on According to Need.
This series was produced by me, Katie Mingle, with associate producer Abby Madan and managing editor Whitney Henry-Lester. Roman Mars was the executive producer. Invaluable editing from Lisa Pollak, Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, Christopher Johnson, and Joe Rosenberg. Kevin Ramsay was our sound engineer. Fact-checking by Amy Gaines. Beautiful music by the beautiful Sean Real. Branding and design by MUCHMORE.io. Kurt Kohlstedt was our digital director. Additional support from Sofia Klatzker, Vivian Le, and Chris Berube.
Special thanks to all the people who spoke to me for this series as well as Marisol Medina-Cadena, Alison DeJung, and Chelsea Miller.
According to Need is a project of 99% Invisible which is distributed by PRX.