Picture the land around any given interstate exit. The massive concrete overpasses. The bowtie loopty-loops of on and off-ramps. In California the agency that maintains the land around our highways is the California Department of Transportation, or CALTRANS. In 2017, CALTRANS counted 7000 homeless encampments next to California roads.
Ok, now zoom in on one of these encampments – in Berkeley, California, off of Interstate 80, at the University exit. There are about 70 people living there, scattered around in tents and makeshift structures. For years now, CALTRANS has been posting notices for the people camped at this exit to vacate, and every couple weeks they attempt to enforce the notices by coming in with police and cleaning crews, and confiscating any belongings people can’t pack up and move in time. It’s always incredibly stressful for the people who live there.
Resident 1: We gotta break down his house. That’s important.
Resident 2: You break down the house. Ken, you move that out the way!
Resident 3: No don’t yell at him. He doesn’t need to get that out the way, he needs to get his house-
And then after the police and CALTRANS maintenance crews leave, the homeless campers take the belongings they’ve salvaged and move right back to the same spots they were in before. A couple weeks later, CALTRANS comes again. Over and over again. Rinse and repeat.
One of the people living in this encampment in Berkeley is Kate Cody, who goes by her initials, KC. I met KC last year in October when it was starting to get chilly.
KC: Your listeners don’t know, this is a very misty and… and cold day. Almost, you know…
Katie: Yeah, it’s foggy, huh?
KC has long silver hair so bright it almost looks like platinum blonde and narrow, kind of mischievous eyes. You could mistake her for a hippy but she’s surlier than most.
She wears a leather overcoat. She sometimes growls at people.
She’ll read any book she can get her hands on.
KC: I really can’t go to sleep without them. You know. And now I’ve gotten well past the point where I fall asleep with a book on my nose and break my glasses.
The last time CALTRANS came through for a sweep of the encampment, a bunch of KC’s belongings were thrown into a dump truck. But she saved some precious items.
Katie: And when you lost all your stuff from when CALTRANS… did they get books, or?
KC: Uh-uh! They were right in with the beads.
She saved her books and her beads – KC makes beaded jewelry that she sells in an ETSY store – but CALTRANS threw away her tent and her bed. For a couple weeks after that, she slept under a cast-aside boat sail. Now she has a new tent, which she’s set up on the shoulder of the off-ramp, right next to the stop sign. And she’d like to be left alone.
Katie: Do you think that the city should… like that anyone has a right to camp if they don’t have…
KC: No. All we want to know is, we don’t want to break the law. But we have to live someplace and have to sleep someplace. Just like, I need to live.
And what were KC’s options besides living in a tent next to the highway? She seemed to feel that renting her own apartment in Berkeley was completely out of reach.
KC: You know, they’re renting not apartments, they’re not bedrooms. Beds! For twelve hundred a month near the college? Twelve… That’s outrageous!
KC had about 900 dollars a month coming in through social security. And it did seem unlikely given her age – 66 – and the fact that she can only walk very slowly using a walker that she was going to be able to get a job to increase her income. She’d tried staying in shelters, but hated the lack of privacy.
KC: I just can’t, I cannot handle that at all.
Plus, most shelters don’t allow pets, and KC has a scraggly little black and white dog named Eva who rarely leaves her side. [DOG GROWLS]
But there was still another option.
KC has a son named Lonnie who lives in the mountains of Colorado. The two of them were estranged for most of their lives, for complicated reasons that I don’t fully understand. But about 5 years ago, they reunited, and they really care about each other. Lonnie doesn’t have much money either, but he told his mom, ‘Move here to my town and I’ll help you. It’s cheap here. We’ll get you a place, and you can stay at my house until you find your own.’ But so far, KC hasn’t taken Lonnie up on his offer to come live in Colorado.
KC: I’m not playing about hating the cold. I really hate the cold. If I never see a snowflake again in my life I’ll be so happy. [LAUGHS]
Katie: I think a lot of people would be surprised that you wouldn’t take…
KC: Why? Should I take advantage of it? [GROWLS] We were forced apart for a lifetime. And we’re slowly reconnecting. Ok? If I moved to a very small town in Colorado where I knew no one… We don’t know each other well enough yet.
KC told me that she thought of Lonnie as an escape hatch. But if she wouldn’t use her escape hatch to escape constant sweeps by CALTRANS, or the difficulty of living 10 feet from a busy interstate off-ramp, it was hard for me to imagine when she would use it.
Katie: You said he’s an escape hatch. And so I was trying to figure out the situation in which you might use your escape hatch.
KC: I don’t know, I really don’t. I just-
Katie: You just like knowing it’s there.
KC: I like knowing he’s there.
When KC and I had this conversation I didn’t think anyone would live in a tent by an interstate if they had another option. But it’s more complicated than that.
What I came to believe is that, in general, people are where they are not necessarily because they literally have no other choice – although for some that is the case – but because like any other human making a decision, they weighed out the choices, and a tent by the side of the road seemed the least bad. I think it’s why you do occasionally hear people say “I chose to be out here” which, by the way, you do hear sometimes. I believe what people mean is “I chose this off a shortlist of lousy options.” But there’s still agency in that, and agency is precious.
In any case, for KC, the encampment was the best of the lousy options for reasons I was just beginning to understand.
In fact, for KC, what the camp provided to her was so important that even when she was found to be vulnerable enough to make it to the top of the list and be offered a new way out, it would be hard for her to accept it.
This is According to Need, Chapter 5.
KC is kind of a tough guy. But it’s a toughness that covers up a lot of trauma.
KC: I get emotional. I cry about everything.
Katie: I’ve seen ya.
KC: I know. And then I feel very bad because then it’s like, you know, I blew my cover.
Katie: [LAUGHS] What’s your cover? Tough?
KC: I guess, I don’t know.
KC grew up in New Jersey and ran away from home as a teenager, leaving behind a mother that she says was abusive. I ruined my mother’s life because I was born, KC told me once. But mostly she just can’t talk about her mom at all. As a young adult, KC made her way out to California. She’s done some hard living. She was stabbed once, she spent some time in prison. She was addicted to heroin although she hasn’t used in seven years.
KC: I’m still a junkie. That doesn’t change, it’s a physical thing. It doesn’t change. All I have to do is three days in a row, and there I am. You know?
For much of her life, KC had steady housing and income as an in-home health aid. But she’s no stranger to unconventional living situations, and to some degree, she’s welcomed them. She’s lived in warehouses and school buses, and for a long time, she lived in a community of people that built little wooden shacks on top of an old landfill right next to the Bay. Don’t picture a dump, though. There were some chunks of concrete and rebar scattered around, but this landfill had mostly been covered over with crabgrass, and from its windy shores you could watch the sun setting from behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
KC was kind of a queen bee among the landfillians, as they called themselves. Her neighbors respected her, and she felt like she had a role there. I found a film from that time on YouTube. It’s less than 10 years old, but KC looks so much younger and healthier.
KC (from YouTube): Let’s just fill this big huge pot…
Her cheeks are plump and rosy and she’s moving around easily as she cooks a big meal for everyone in the outdoor kitchen.
KC (from YouTube): I’m taking chicken… chicken breast filets and I pounded them out and stuffed them with cornbread and, and sausage stuffing and I’m baking them and I’m gonna serve them with a white gravy and salad.
In this clip she was making food for a birthday party they were throwing for Chompy – one of the landfill’s many dogs.
Landfillians: [SINGING] Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Chompy, happy birthday to you… and many more…
After the city of Albany forced the landfillians to leave in 2014, the land was turned into a park that Bay Area residents now know as the Albany Bulb. And KC moved into a broken-down RV, where she stayed a few years. But eventually she had to leave there, too, which is when she moved to the encampment in Berkeley next to I-80 where I met her. Some of her old friends from the landfill were already living there, so it felt safe.
The landfill loomed so large in KC’s mind that I sometimes felt like even though she was in a considerably worse situation now, part of her was still there. Or looking for what she had there. But where that place had been quiet and peaceful, now KC lived 5 feet from a stop sign. So close to the road that the drivers could easily see inside. And the spot was prone to flooding in the rainy season. Which had arrived. [TENT ZIPS] It’s November. It’s cold and damp and raining. And KC is sick inside of her tent.
Katie: You’re feeling really bad?
Katie: I’m sorry. It suddenly got so cold and so wet.
Just outside, KC’s neighbor Sarah is trying to make sure KC’s tent doesn’t flood from all the rain. Sarah’s tent is up on wooden pallets so that the water can drain under it. But KC’s isn’t.
Sarah: Why is it draining through the tent? Ugh.
Katie: Are you trying to get the water to flow-
Sarah: To come down to the road. Last year when it was raining, this turned into a… it was a lake. I mean, literally a lake.
Even if KC wasn’t sick, she’d need help getting pallets. Her mobility just isn’t good enough to do this kind of chore on her own. So she relies on people like Sarah, for help.
Sarah: I’m frustrated. I can’t feel my fingers. It’s just difficult. It’s just a difficult day.
Sarah goes inside of her tent to talk to her boyfriend Zach. ‘KC needs pallets and she’s sick and also needs water’ she tells him, ‘and you need to go get it.’ Zach is smoking something – I don’t know what – but not a cigarette, and he’s not interested in helping right now.
Zach: You didn’t ask me, you demanded-
Sarah: No, Zach, save it. Just admit that you’re just a douchebag. You have no manners. Now, you won’t help Casey get water. You want me to do it as I’m digging a ditch to save her tent.
Sarah and Zach continue to fight and then finally Sarah says that’s it – she’s had it with the whole thing. She doesn’t finish digging the ditch, doesn’t go get KC pallets or water. She just goes to another part of the encampment, to someone else’s tent to decompress.
Sarah: I’m sorry, you guys. I can’t do this. I’m about to leave.
I thought a lot about this interaction afterwards. How a normal everyday thing for most of us, like rain, can turn into a crisis in the camp. These little crises happen constantly. It means that everyone is stressed all the time and people fight. And sometimes even people with good intentions – like Sarah – just don’t have the bandwidth to do what needs to be done. Researchers have actually studied this — the way stress and scarcity erode our ability to make good decisions and solve problems. It’s a thing. Still, eventually someone will get KC water. If her tent floods, someone will help. KC depends on her neighbors in the encampment for everything. Neighbors run to the store for her and bring her food. Her friend Sid cleans her tent for her. Sometimes it’s just friends being friends. Other times, she barters with people. It’s hard for KC to get rid of her own garbage, for example.
KC: The guy who comes pick up my recycling takes my garbage with him. It’s a deal we have. It is! It’s a deal we have.
Katie: What does he get, out of the deal?
KC: He gets the recycling.
Katie: Oh. He gets, like, your cans and stuff?
Look, I don’t want to romanticize encampments. They’re hard places to live. People sometimes steal from each other and fight but they also share resources and look out for each other. Encampment definitely are communities.
A few weeks after we met, KC told me a social worker had been out to the camp to give her an assessment for the Coordinated Entry System. Or, in other words, get her on the list.
Katie: And did she tell you when you could expect to hear anything?
KC: She said she’d know where I stood on the list by Tuesday and Wednesday, so…
Katie: Wow, ok.
I didn’t know then but of course I know now, that the list isn’t a waiting list but a ranking system. It’s a list of thousands of homeless people in the county sorted according to their score on a vulnerability assessment.
There were a number of things about KC that made it likely she’d end up toward the top of the list. For the last several years, she’d been moving into increasingly dangerous and difficult living conditions, until finally she had ended up where she was now – just feet from a busy interstate off-ramp. Her body was worn down and injured from a lifetime of hard living, and a decade of homelessness. Along the way she’d accumulated many so-called vulnerabilities: a criminal record, a history of drug abuse, an injured knee that meant that she could barely walk. There were other vulnerabilities too. So many that KC did indeed become one of the handful of people at the top of the list in Alameda County.
Katie: Do you have AC in here?
Mukund: Yeah. Do you want me to turn it on?
Katie: Can we do that instead of windows? Just for the, um, sound.
I’m riding around in the car with Mukund Raguram while he runs errands. Mukund is a caseworker at KC’s doctor’s office, a place called Lifelong Medical care.
Google Maps: In 600 ft turn right onto 41st street.
Lifelong Medical Care recently decided to dip its toes into the world of housing because they realized that in many cases, they couldn’t address their homeless patients’ health concerns without first addressing their housing concerns. If a Lifelong patient needs housing, Mukund can help make sure that person gets into the Coordinated Entry System. But then he just has to hope they make it to the top of the list. They don’t always. Even people in really difficult circumstances, which is frustrating.
Mukund: I am frustrated. Because I have a patient with Parkinson’s who is sleeping outside right now and he’s not eligible for any permanent supportive housing.
KC though, she had moved so far up the list that she was eligible for that rare and coveted intervention – permanent supportive housing.
The permanent part means that KC can keep it forever. And the supportive part means that in addition to the housing subsidy, she’ll get a bunch of extra help: access to things like therapy or in-home care, and a caseworker who’s helping her navigate everything.
Katie: Are you guys working with anyone else that lives in KC’s encampment?
Mukund: I’m not, personally.
Katie: Yeah. It feels like a lot of people there could potentially use one of these permanent supportive housing.
Permanent supportive housing vouchers are expensive. And there aren’t enough for everyone. Which is why only a few hundred people at the top of the list in Alameda County will get one of these every year. But to actually get the voucher, Mukund will have to submit tons of paperwork and actual proof that KC is chronically homeless – meaning she’s disabled and she’s been homeless for a long time.
Mukund: You have to provide monthly evidence of interaction with a person.
In cases where there isn’t a paper trail documenting someone’s homelessness over the years, Mukund will occasionally have to gather witness statements.
I can tell you right now, I’ve been around lousy caseworkers while doing this reporting who I would not want representing me in this laborious paperwork effort. But Mukund is not that. Mukund is young and he looks it, and yet, but I still found him intimidating to interview. He’s completely impervious to charming reporters and other needless distractions. It seemed like KC was in good hands. But even beyond all the paperwork, there would be one final hurdle — actually finding a place.
Mukund: It’s really hard to find a decent place in Berkeley with a voucher. If you do find a place in Berkeley with a voucher, they tend not to be the nicest places.
But Berkeley was the only place KC wanted to be.
KC: There we go. One bedroom. Rent includes utilities, water, electricity, gas, trash and internet. There is a washing machine and dryer.
One day shortly after she found out she had been matched with a housing voucher, I stopped by KC’s tent and found her looking at Craigslist.
KC hadn’t looked at apartments for a long time but the voucher she was matched with could be used to rent an apartment on the private market.
Katie: And does it say anything about vouchers?
KC: No, it doesn’t.
A lot of landlords don’t accept housing vouchers although it’s illegal not to, so they don’t come right and say it on Craigslist. In any case, pickings are slim in Berkeley.
KC: Lots of places in Vallejo, Benicia.
Katie: Would you ever consider that?
KC: I have no support system there. I have no friends. No… No help.
Not only did KC not want to move to Colorado, she didn’t want to move to the relatively close cities of Vallejo or Benicia. She wanted to stay in Berkeley. As close to the encampment as possible.
KC had been homeless for close to a decade, which was probably what helped her get to the top of the list. But it was also, in a way, what would make it hard for her to actually get inside. For years, she had been depending on the people around her for support, and moving into housing would mean leaving them behind.
Still, sometimes with KC I had trouble understanding if she was being prudent or obstinate or both.
Katie: [CAR DOOR SHUTS] I mean, do you ever like –
I’m back in the car with Mukund, trying to get out an awkward question.
Katie: When someone is… is unhappy like that… Do you ever feel like they’re being… they’re being too picky?
Mukund: I think it’s natural to feel that sometimes.
Katie: I think, like, potentially people that listen to this could think like, well, I can’t afford to live in Berkeley. Like, I had to leave Berkeley because I couldn’t afford it. Why should someone insist on staying in this really expensive place?
Mukund: I think the answer is you can have your preferences and KC has her preferences. And also when we’re talking about listeners who are like, I want to live in Berkeley, I mean, you too can live in Berkeley if you are homeless for five to six years. And are lucky enough to get matched up with one of these vouchers. Like yeah, be my guest.
Katie: [LAUGHS] Point taken.
Mukund: Right. Like this is not the kind of opportunity that you live a happy life and still receive.
But, it turned out, maybe KC wouldn’t have to leave Berkeley to move indoors. Mukund had another option. He’d found an apartment that he thought could work for KC, in a place called The Amistad House. It’s a building for seniors and disabled adults. And if they could get all the paperwork together, KC could get what’s called a project-based voucher. Meaning, the voucher was still permanent but it would stay with the building. So, if she decided to leave that place, she’d lose it. That was the downside. But Mukund said the building was beautiful and well-maintained. And best of all for KC, it was in Berkeley.
The next time I see KC, she’s in her tent, sitting slouched on her bed with a bunch of tarot cards spread out in front of her.
Katie: Doing some tarot?
She looks worried. And she says she has reservations about the Amistad.
Katie: So tell me what your reservations are about the…
KC: Oh, I just think my music is too loud. I’m too loud.
Katie: But you’re gonna try it?
KC: No. Yeah, no. We’ll try it. That means I’ll be back out here again.
Katie: Because you think like, you might get kicked out of there? Is that what your worry is?
KC: Yeah, always. Always.
Katie: Have you gotten kicked out of other places for being the wrong kind of tenant.
KC: No, because I never lived in those kind of places. I just can’t see me doing the things I want to do.
Katie: And you don’t feel willing to kind of adjust your lifestyle to this new place?
KC: By adjust my lifestyle, you mean change who I am and what I do? I don’t think I can do that.
Katie: Well, just… Not change who you are, but maybe change the level of the volume at which you play your music or something like that.
KC: That’s not a prob… that’s neither here nor there.
KC seemed worried that her lifestyle wasn’t going to be a good fit for the Amistad, but really, 90% of the time when I stop by her tent near the underpass to see her, she’s just sitting in it alone, reading. Not partying or playing loud music or anything like that. To me, it seemed like she was scared. Coming up with reasons it wasn’t going to work. Breaking up with them before they could break up with her. But it worried me. I didn’t know if Mukund would be able to find her another apartment in Berkeley if not this one. Or if she would ever agree to leave to this hard place she thought of as home.
Katie: Hi. How you doing? Do you mind if I come in for a minute?
A couple weeks after KC first told me she wasn’t sure she wanted to move into the Amistad, I stopped by her tent to see if her feelings had changed at all. She said that Mukund had been able to calm some of her fears.
Katie: So he was reassuring?
Katie: What did he say about it?
KC: Well, they want somebody to help me get this thing running so I wouldn’t have to be stuck inside all the time.
KC has an electric wheelchair, but someone stole the battery out of it, and it hasn’t been functional for a while. I think it’s hard for KC to be as dependent as she is on other people. And she’s emotional as she talks about it.
Katie: So he said you guys would try to get your wheelchair running so that you could feel like you could come and go?
KC: And uh… [CHOKES UP] that I wouldn’t be without support. This is cold and damp and uncomfortable and all that, but at least I have friends and support.
This place is damp and cold and uncomfortable, but at least I have friends and support. This reminds me of one of my early conversations with KC. She told me solving homelessness felt complicated.
KC: I really do. I admire anybody who rolls up their sleeves and decides to take this job on. I really do.
Katie: What strikes you as being so complicated about it? Like, is it…
KC: Finding housing for people who can’t. Who just.. There are people out there who mentally cannot be alone. They can’t. They survive in our homeless communities because we make room for them and make sure they go all right.
KC went on to give me an example. She said there was a guy at the landfill named Sparky. He was reclusive and KC thought likely dealing with schizophrenia, but there were a few people in the community who looked out for him, including her. He would sometimes come into her house wet and cold, and she’d have a pair of pants for him and clean socks.
KC: You can’t, you can’t just discard people because look, if you have a set of priceless dishes and one plate has a fine hairline crack in it and you know, you don’t just give that to just anybody sitting at your table. You don’t send it to the kids’ table, you know? You take that and you always end up with that plate because you’re the one who knows not to hit it too hard with your knife, not to drop the fork on it. Because even though that plate is flawed, that plate is part of the set. Right? Okay.
Katie: And that was Sparky?
KC: That was Sparky.
That was Sparky, but these days it’s also KC. KC survives with a lot of help from the people around her. She needs a lot of care and she has to be handled somewhat delicately. Fine china with a crack in it is a pretty good metaphor for vulnerability.
The intervention that works for people who need a lot of extra care, people like Sparky and KC, is fortunately the exact one KC was matched up with. Permanent supportive housing with no sobriety tests, no barriers. It’s the approach that Sam Tsemberis developed all those years ago in New York, and that Mukund is now carrying on here in Berkeley. And it works. In Alameda County when people are lucky enough to be unlucky enough to get this type of housing, the data shows they hold on to it for a long time.
Mukind: Hi, KC.
The process of getting KC the apartment at the Amistad was a long one – lots of paperwork, lots of back and forth between KC and Mukund. And I don’t know that there was an exact moment when KC finally decided she was going to accept the place. I think it was more that Mukund inched her there little by little. And now it was finally almost time to move in.
Mukund: Dropping off the check next Wednesday. Move in the Monday after that. I don’t think I got a chance to tell you the time. It’s at 11:00 a.m. is when we’re signing the lease.
KC was still scared. But she was also excited and genuinely grateful to Mukund. She told me she knew she had not always been easy to work with. But Mukund had stuck by her, steady and patient.
Mukund: So it seems like you’re in good hands then. I just wanted to make sure that…
KC: I didn’t know it, but from the day I asked you about housing, I was in good hands. I didn’t know it then. I do now.
Mukund: Thanks, KC.
KC: You’re welcome.
Mukund: Call me anytime.
KC: I’ve been getting less anxious and more happy all the time…
Mukund: That’s very good!
Mukund told me that if KC had turned down the Amistad, there might not have been anywhere for her to live in Berkeley, and then they would have had to talk about what was more important to her – housing or staying close to her community. And maybe KC would have actually chosen to stay homeless in the encampment.
I don’t think everyone would make that choice, but I think there’s a good chance KC would have. And Mukund said he would have had to let go of his own feelings about what she should or shouldn’t do. Which makes me think about something Sam Tsemberis always says when he talks about the work he was doing with Housing First in New York. It was never about the housing, it was always about the choice.
The only other person I heard who had made it to the top of the list for housing while I was reporting on KC’s encampment was a woman who went by the nickname Mama Bear. Like KC, she also had very limited mobility. And so, as KC heads to her housing, there are at least 70 people still living at her encampment.
Katie: What do you think about KC getting housing?
Sarah: I’m glad.
I’m talking with Sarah. This is a different Sarah who was trying to get KC pallets in the rain. This Sarah also lives here in KC’s encampment. And she’s an old friend who lived at the landfill. She’s mostly happy to see KC getting some help.
Sarah: She’s, you know, limited, handicapped – whatever you want to call it. She needs housing. So does Mama Bear. She finally got in. Um, I want housing but I don’t need it like they do. But I think it would, I think living on the street at my age, 53, it’s going to shorten my life.
Katie: And does it, like, when you see somebody that you know get housing, do you feel just happy or do you feel any jealousy or-
Sarah: I’m 99.9% just happy for ‘em. But there’s a little tiny sliver of, of – it’s modest humble jealousy but more wistfulness, I guess, so… I’m not really a jealous person but, um, every now and then, there’s somebody who is really a challenge as a human being who gets housing and then I’m like, why the hell did someone like that get housing? But yeah, I know it’s irrational.
Many of the people in this encampment have had a vulnerability assessment at some point. Many of them are dealing with challenges like mental or physical illness. Some are struggling with addiction. But the bar is just so high now in Alameda County. You have to be able to check so many boxes to get any help.
For the people like Sarah who remain in the encampment, their hope is just to be able to stay here in peace. Without the constant threat of being swept out by CALTRANS and having their belongings confiscated.
Katie: It’s this place, right?
Mukund: Actually, there’s a spot right here.
On the day of the lease signing, KC and Mukund and I drive to the Amistad house together. It’s a 60 unit building with the dark wooden shingles that are typical in Berkeley, on a quiet tree-lined street. KC is wearing her best dress – a black lacy one that is both old lady classy and a little goth.
Katie: [CAR DOOR OPENS] How’re ya feeling?
Katie: What a nice looking building!
KC hasn’t actually seen the apartment she’s going to be moving into yet, although she’s seen a similar one in the same building.
Mukund: Let’s hang out in the lobby until she’s ready.
We wait in the lobby where there’s a couch and a fireplace and a sleepy security guard looking at his phone. KC seems incredibly nervous.
KC: I’m a fainter.
Katie: You’re a fainter? Are you feeling faint?
KC: Yeah. Or I wouldn’t have brought it up. It’s just lightheadedness.
Katie: Put your head between – down a little bit…
Eventually KC is called into the management office where she signs the lease and a bunch of other papers. And then finally she gets to see her place. We ride the elevator to the third floor and then make our way down a hallway.
Building Manager: It’s just the first door on the right. Soon as you go through that second door… OK, so… [DOOR OPENS]
The apartment is one bedroom and certainly not fancy but it’s really nice. Well-maintained. And it has a balcony that looks into a courtyard full of trees.
Building Manager: Fully painted fresh paint in the unit, I put brand new granite countertops, appliances, you do have like a garbage disposal…
While the building manager lists the amenities, KC is taking deep breaths and talking to her dog Eva. When she sees the kitchen she says, remember when I used to cook?
KC: Remember when I used to cook? And I got a tree outside out my window.
Building Manager: Your patio does overlook the garden area too.
KC: I got a tree outside my window…
Before we leave, the building manager hands KC a set of keys for her place. And, that’s it. KC tries the keys out in the door, they work. And then we take her back to her tent, and drop her off. She has a lease now. The place is really hers. But she’s not going to stay in it tonight.
And maybe by this point I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was. I mean, ok yeah, the furniture Mukund ordered hasn’t arrived yet. But, KC could bring over the bed she has in her tent and just make it work until the furniture gets there. The apartment has electricity and hot water and a door that locks – the camp doesn’t have any of that.
But KC says, ‘No, no, no, she doesn’t want her old crummy bed in the new apartment.’ She wants to start fresh with a new bed. In retrospect, this makes sense. Not just that she doesn’t want her old bed, but that she’s going to do even this final step on her terms.
For the next few weeks, KC takes small loads of stuff over to the Amistad. Finally, nearly a month after signing the lease, she sleeps in her new apartment for the first time. But a few days later, when I call to check in to see how it’s going, KC is in tears. She wants to go home to the encampment, she tells me.
Katie: So your place doesn’t feel like home yet?
KC: Nope. Just a bunch of empty cardboard boxes.
But then, things get better. The other people in the building are friendly to her. They don’t seem to find her strange, like she feared. She starts therapy, taking advantage of the supportive part of her permanent supportive housing voucher. She finds she loves the luxury of a hot bath whenever she wants it. And, probably more important than all of that, friends come from the camp, which is just a couple miles away, to help her set up her place and make it feel like home.
After the break, some final thoughts and updates about people you met in this series.
Hey, it’s Katie. I thought you all might appreciate a few updates about some of the people you met in this series.
It’s been 9 months since KC moved into her apartment and she’s doing great. Her son Lonnie came from Colorado to visit for her birthday. It was her first time ever being able to host him.
Katie: You guys are here and your mom has a house.
Lonnie: Yes, housed! She has a roof over her head. Yay! And it’s a pretty place!
Katie: Isn’t it nice? That balcony!
Everyone: Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear KC. Happy birthday to you. And many more…
Lonnie: And many more.
A lot has happened back at KC’s old encampment, too. The people living there decided next time the CALTRANS crews asked them to move, they weren’t going to comply.
Instead of grabbing all their stuff and moving like they always did, the plan was to stay put in their tents.
I have some tape of the day they did this. CALTRANS workers had arrived at the encampment in a procession of dump trucks accompanied by the highway patrol, and the residents of the encampment were in a kind of standoff with them.
Katie: Hey, Osha. What’s going on over here right now?
Osha: Uh, I don’t know.
I was standing with Osha Neumann, an 80-year-old lawyer who has advocated for the rights of homeless people in Berkeley for decades. He’s known KC since her days living at the landfill. Back when everyone was forced to leave that community, Osha was there helping them fight to stay. Over the years he’s watched these encampment sweeps and evictions countless times.
Katie: Are there always this many of them? Of the CALTRANS people and the highway patrol people?
Osha: There are always this many CALTRANS people, yeah. I am thinking… they’re leaving. They are leaving. They’re leaving! I’ll be damned. They’re leaving.
Katie: They, they aren’t going to move people –
Osha: They’re leaving. This is bigger than they expected. This is kind of incredible. They’re leaving. They’re leaving! Oh, my God.
Katie: Has this never happened before?
Osha: Oh my god, never! Never before! There’s never been resistance. Never. They’re leaving! Oh my god.
Katie: Tell me why this feels so big to you?
Osha: Oh, it’s incredible! It never has happened before. The people have resisted! The people on the street resisted. And won! It just has never happened. They’ve always moved. Every time they’ve been pushed around and moved, they’ve moved. And this time they won.
Katie: But aren’t they just going to come back next week?
Osha: Who knows?! Of course! You never have one victory that’s a final… The war is never over completely.
The war, in fact, lasted several months. There were meetings and negotiations and ultimately a City Council vote, but in the end, encampment residents basically won. They got CALTRANS to stop the sweeps and they got the city of Berkeley to commit to establishing a sanctioned encampment for them, meaning people would be legally allowed to pitch tents, and trash service and restrooms would be provided. So far, the sweeps have stopped but the plans for a sanctioned encampment seem to have stalled out since the start of the pandemic.
Who else? Michael, my neighbor who lived on the boat – he actually left the boat and moved into a program that he’s hoping will eventually get him connected to housing. If you heard the Housing First story, you probably remember me talking about what all housing programs used to look like – the staircase model – where you have to be clean and sober to graduate to each next step. That’s the type of program Michael is doing now. They still exist, and they’re generally led by faith-based organizations and don’t receive funding from HUD. Michael is hoping he can stick with it and make it into housing.
And lastly, there’s Tulicia and Jordan.
Jordan: Hi, Katie. I am… Ok, you talk.
Tulicia: Say something.
Jordan: Nah, I can’t.
Tulicia: You could just talk…
There’s actually been a pretty big development in Tulicia and Jordan’s story. Tulicia never got help from the system here in Oakland, but something else happened.
So, 8 years ago, before Tulicia was even homeless, she put her name on a bunch of waitlists for Section 8.
Section 8, or Housing Choice as it’s now called, is a government-subsidized voucher that you can use to rent an apartment on the private market. You don’t have to be homeless to get Section 8, just low income. And last December, Tulicia found out her name had finally come up on one of those waitlists.
Tulicia: So now, since he knows and I know this is what we have to do, in order to stop being homeless and sleeping in a car and go from house to house to family members and different people. This is what we have to do.
But here is the wild part: the Section 8 voucher that Tulicia got was for Louisville, Kentucky. A place she had no connection to. She had only put her name on the waitlist there because it was one of the few that was open in the whole country.
Tulicia felt she was completely out of options in Oakland though, so she decided to leave. I don’t know if I can possibly convey how unique and difficult this decision was. Despite the Bay being so expensive, I almost never met homeless people who were thinking about leaving. People in poverty depend intensely on their communities for support. Leaving rarely seems to feel in the realm of possibility. But Tulicia decided she had to try.
Tulicia: We’ve just been talking and thinking about all the stuff we about to go through. And travel and stuff.
Jordan: Yup. We can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it! Cause people just gonna put us out!
Tulicia: Tired of people putting us out?
And so, in March of this year, as the Coronavirus descended on all of us, Tulicia and Jordan started a whole new journey. This recording was made just a couple days before they left.
Tulicia: And… that’s it for now. Katie.
Jordan: See you later, peace!
Tulicia: Say ninety-nine…
Tulicia: Here we come.
Jordan: Here we come.
Tulicia: Kentucky, Louisville.
Jordan: Kentucky, Louisville.
Tulicia: Forty-eight hours.
Jordan: Forty, eight hours.
Tulicia: Our journey starts.
Jordan: Our journey starts.
Tulicia: God protect us.
Jordan: No, mom. Not again!
Tulicia: Not again? Okay. He don’t want to say, ‘God protect us from COVID 19.’
Tulicia and Jordan’s journey into housing was a harrowing one, and maybe someday I’ll tell the whole story in more detail. But I will say that they have their own place now, and they’re doing really well.
It’s incredible the way housing changes people’s lives. For me, this new chapter of Tulicia and Jordan’s story is both happy and sad. Oakland has lost a very wonderful pair of people. Tulicia had to leave the place where she grew up, where her whole family still lives. And she was only able to do this because she’d been on a Section 8 waiting list for 8 years. 8 years!
Tulicia and Jordan’s success in Louisville, Kentucky is far from guaranteed. It’ll be hard to start a life in this new place without any real support network.
Which is why for me, the takeaway from KC and Tulicia’s stories is the same. We need housing opportunities in the communities where people live. How we get there is, honestly, a whole different podcast.
But one place we can all start – and Bay Area people, I am looking at you – is to be opened and welcoming to low-income housing development in our neighborhoods.
Okay, that’s it from me. People have been asking what organizations they can give to support homeless folks in the Bay and we’ve put together a list that you can find at 99pi.org/need. You can also find all of the chapters of this series there.
Be safe everyone, thank you so much for listening.
This chapter of According to Need was produced by me, Katie Mingle, with associate producer Abby Madan and managing editor Whitney Henry-Lester.
Roman Mars is the Executive Producer of According to Need. Invaluable editing from Lisa Pollak, Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, Christopher Johnson, Joe Rosenberg and Roman Mars. Bryson Barnes 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. Huge thanks to Osha Nuemman and Andrea Hensen who introduced me to KC, and to Andy Wellspring who made the film about the landfill called Where Do You Go When It Rains, which I excerpted. Thanks also to Talya Husbands-Henkin, Marisol Medina-Cadena, Johanna Zorn and Chelsea Miller
This chapter of According to Need is dedicated to the memory of Sanna Dearheart.
According to Need is a project of 99% Invisible, which is a founding, proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a network of independent, listener-supported, artist-owned podcasts.