This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
In December of 2020, 99% Invisible released a special miniseries called “According to Need.” It was a riveting and revelatory exploration of the complex systems in place to help homeless people find housing in the Bay Area. Former 99PI senior producer Katie Mingle spent two years reporting the story for us, and a couple of weeks ago we learned that the series received a duPont Columbia award honoring the best in journalism. In celebration, we are replaying the first couple of stories from “According to Need.” Plus, I’ll catch up with Katie Mingle, who now works at a new podcast venture called… (papers shuffling)… I got the name right here… Serial? Serial. Never heard of it. But first I want to start with, “Congratulations, Katie, on winning the duPont Columbia Award.”
Thank you! So exciting.
It’s amazing. What does it look like?
It looks like a big, heavy baton that you could use to bludgeon a burglar. It’s silver. It’s really heavy. Yeah, it’s a solid thing to hold.
So, well in celebration of “According to Need” winning the duPont Columbia Award, we’re going to represent the “Prologue” and the first episode and then we should chat a little bit afterward to see if there’s any updates on the rest of the series?
I live in the north part of Oakland near the border of Berkeley and Emeryville. Like other gentrifying places, this one was recently given a cutesy name by real estate agents hoping to attract new people to the area: NOBE (for North Oakland Berkeley Emeryville). I’m not sure the name has stuck, but the new people certainly have. They’ve moved into the 1920s bungalows and craftsmans, painting and landscaping and refurbishing the neighborhood.
My girlfriend and I moved to this neighborhood last year. And we were thrilled to find our apartment because it was two bedrooms, with a nice big kitchen and a washer and dryer in the unit – my first ever. All this and the rent was still under three thousand dollars a month which, for the area, was actually extremely reasonable. I know – insane. But true.
As we settled into the new place and started meeting neighbors, it didn’t take long before we realized that some of them were homeless. There was a guy sleeping in an old Lexus right in front of our house, and another guy who seemed to be living in the cabin of a boat parked on the side of the road, just across the street from us.
I was already working on this series about homelessness, so of course, I went to go say hi to the boat guy.
Katie: Knock knock. [KNOCKS ON DOOR]
Katie: Hey, how’s it going? I’m your neighbor.
Michael: Oh, how you doing?
Katie: Good, how are you?
Michael: I just took a bath. So right now I’m trying to get to work.
I’m squinting up at my boat-dwelling neighbor whose name is Michael. The vessel he lives on is a 15-foot speed boat with a little sleeping cabin and is named Gruba Dupa. Or something like that.
Michael: Gruba Dubba.
Katie: Gruba Dupa is what it says.
Michael: Gruba Dupa. Yeah.
Quick but important interjection here. I found out later that Gruba Dupa means “fat ass” in polish.
Katie: Who named it that?
Michael: Yeah, my nephew. He just wanted the name out on the water. They’d be on the CB: “Gruba Dupa coming through, Gruba Dupa coming through.”
Micahel is wearing jeans and an orange fluorescent vest and holding a hard hat. I find out later he’s an electrician on a construction crew for a new highrise in San Francisco.
Katie: I… so I live right over there and I’m also a journalist.
Michael: Oh really?
Katie: I’ve been doing a bunch of reporting on people living in RV’s and cars. And I haven’t talked to anyone that’s living in a boat…
Michael: In a boat? It’s very fascinating.
What I most want to know about Michael is where he’s from – like, where he lived before he was homeless.
There’s this persistent myth about homelessness – maybe especially persistent in California – that the homeless people here aren’t really from here. Some people suggest that maybe folks came here from other areas to take advantage of better social services or better weather. But the data doesn’t support this. The last big survey done in Oakland found 78% of homeless respondents in the city of Oakland reported living in this county – Alameda County – at the time they became homeless and most of the rest of the respondents just came from some other county in California.
I suspect Michael is from Oakland, maybe even from this neighborhood.
Michael: My mother – may you rest in peace, mom – we used to stay right there.
Katie: Wait, where?
Michael: You’re in that house right there?
Katie: I’m in the like beige tall one.
Michael: Yeah, that tall one?
Michael: We used to stay there.
Katie: You used to stay where I live.
Michael: Yes. Me and my mother and my younger brother…
In case you didn’t catch that with the traffic noise, Michael is not only from this neighborhood, he used to live in my house.
He tells me later he hasn’t lived in that house for many years – since the 1990s. And then he moved right next door, lived there for a bunch of years, then he left the neighborhood for a while, struggled with addiction, got clean, and finally he ended up back here, on the block he most considers home and where he still has friends from the old days.
Michael: A lot of us, me and Tolfree – the one that sleeps in the Lexis.
Michael: His dad used to stay in – one, two, three, four – about five houses down. They had a trucking company called Tolfree Trucking. Nice trucks. Oh, my God…
Of course, it makes perfect sense that most of Oakland’s homeless population would be from Oakland if you have even the most cursory awareness of what has happened to the housing market here in the last decade.
Let’s take the building I live in – where Michael used to live – as an example. It’s a 2200 square foot duplex in North Oakland. In 2009, the assessment records showed it was worth a hundred and five thousand dollars. Last year, it was assessed at a million dollars, and would probably sell for quite a bit more than that.
In the last five years especially, thousands of people like me have moved to the Bay Area for jobs. And the cost of rent in places like Oakland and Berkeley has sky-rocketed.
Low-income African American residents in the area have been the hardest hit by all of this. As new people have arrived, thousands of Black people have moved away, and thousands have become homeless. My own neighborhood reflects this, Michael and I reflect this.
But far beyond my block, you can see the effects of these economic and demographic shifts. Almost as if a tidal wave of wealth has washed the poor people of the Bay Area out of their houses, and into the streets.
Like a lot of people, I probably looked past all of this for a while, but eventually, just the sheer scale of it in my city became so startling that I started wanting to understand it and report on it. I didn’t know what the story I wanted to tell was for a while, and it took me a bit to figure it out. Because there’s this whole huge world you have to try to understand first. And to start this series, I want to take you on a little tour of this world so that you can get a sense of it.
The most visible way that homeless people live in the Bay Area is the tent encampment. Most of these encampments are easily seen from the road. In fact, they’re practically in the road – tents and tarps and belongings spilling off of sidewalks and into streets. But the encampment where Elizabeth Easton lives, in a tiny little house made out of plywood and two by fours-
It was sort of hidden away, down a dirt path next to some railroad tracks. Elizabeth told me she’s always liked the idea of living in a tiny house.
Elizabeth: That’s all I used to watch.
Katie: What do you mean watch?
Elizabeth: Tiny House. On TV.
Katie: Is there a show?
Elizabeth: Yes! More than one! Tiny House Living, uh, Tiny House Nation…
She’d like to have a tiny house on some land that she’s actually allowed to live on. But that’s not what she has right now.
Elizabeth: Come on.
Katie: You’re gonna show me?
Elizabeth’s house is dark and windowless. There’s a futon that takes up most of the space and then piles of tools and clothes.
Katie: And then what’s in that room?
Elizabeth: That’s where I have my little toilet. Over there.
Elizabeth’s bathroom is maybe 2 and half square feet, with a dirt floor and one of those medical looking toilet-chairs with a bucket underneath. Every few days she empties the bucket and burns the waste. She also has a small front yard with a fence made out of pallets, where her two dogs could lounge in the sun. It’s a far cry from the places you see on Tiny House Nation. But it’s still home.
Elizabeth: I know one thing, I’m not homeless. I’ll put it that way. They can say what they wanna say. But I’m not homeless. I have a home.
Elizabeth preferred to think of herself not as homeless, but as homesteading. Homesteading is what she felt like she had done – found a little piece of land and claimed it as her own. Built her own tiny house. But in her most powerless moments, she would talk about herself as homeless. Homesteading was a good day. Homeless was the day the police came and told her she couldn’t be where she was anymore. Which had happened before and would happen again.
Of course, not everyone lives in an encampment. There are lots of people living in more hidden ways. A few miles from Elizabeth, in what people sometimes call Deep East Oakland, I met Reggie.
Reggie: Right here. See where them cars is at? Come on. Let’s slide.
He sometimes sleeps in a broken-down minivan that’s parked behind a house with a pitbull on a chain. But he can only sleep in the van when he can scrounge up ten bucks. That’s how much he has to pay to the owner of the van, per night. He gets the money by panhandling.
Katie: Could you just say where we are? For the recorder.
Reggie: Oh, we at the McDonald’s.
Everyone who lives in Oakland has been asked for money at some point by a panhandler. And, there’s long been an idea that giving cash to people on the street is the wrong way to support them. But I will say, after my two years in the field I basically think that’s garbage. Some people buy drugs, sure. But even the ones who do, are also buying food or water, or, like Reggie, renting themselves a place to sleep at night. Like anyone else, they have a budget.
McDonald’s Employee: Hello, welcome to Mcdonald’s. How can I help you?
Reggie has strong feelings about the dos and don’ts of asking people for money, which he was kind enough to guide me through.
Reggie: You know, see some people don’t do it right. Like c’mon, lemme show you something. Certain, certain… certain places where you shouldn’t stand.
His first piece of advice: Don’t stand between the window where people pay and the window where they get their food. This is bad etiquette.
Reggie: This is hella ghetto, this is ghettttttto. Ok.
From this spot, you can see what change people get before they even have a chance to put it back in their wallet.
Reggie: That ain’t cool, you know. That is not cool. I think that’s…
Katie: That’s, like, too aggressive…
Reggie: Yeah. That’s aggressive panhandling.
Also, don’t bother people with kids, at least not in this part of Oakland, where everybody, even people with houses, are struggling.
Reggie: You taking away from the kid’s mouth. You know? I don’t like to do that.
And finally, don’t be too hurt when people say no. That’s one that Reggie had to learn over time.
Reggie: I’m just glad it don’t hurt like I used to.
It’s hard not to get hurt when the stakes are this high. If Reggie can’t panhandle the ten bucks for the mini-van. He won’t have anywhere to sleep tonight, and he’ll end up just wandering the streets.
Reggie told me he wanted to find a stable place to live with his high school-age daughter who is also homeless and stays with a friend. But most of the time, he’s so busy trying to survive that he just can’t chart a path out of this life.
Reggie: It’s hard to get out of this (bleep) when you’re homeless. You don’t know what your life is gonna be in the next two hours. You know, it just swallows you up.
Katie: And do you feel like there is a way for you to break above that cycle?
Reggie: I can’t even answer that right now. All I know, I’m just.. as my baby says, “Day by day, Dad.”
Day-by-day was how everyone I met outside lived. It’s hard to make plans for the future and carry through with them while homeless. There’s always some new crisis to deal with. Maybe your phone gets stolen, or you lose your ID, or you have to pick up all your things and move as fast as you can because someone doesn’t want you where you are.
[INDISTINCT SOUNDS OF CHILDREN PLAYING]
Katie: So if you turn your car all the way off, it just starts honking?
Thalia: Yeah, look.
[CAR HORN HONKS]
Thalia Garcia and her husband and six kids often end up sleeping in the car when they can’t find a friend or relative to crash with. Today, she’s parked in front of her kid’s elementary school in her beat-up old Ford Explorer. And her crisis right now is that when she turns her car off, it lets out an unending honk. Which… is mortifying.
[CAR HORN HONKS]
Thalia: There’s always something happening to me.
Thalia: Yeah. I’m just like, okay. [LAUGHS] I don’t even know what to think anymore.
Thalia had just had a little bit of good news though. She found a woman who was willing to rent a room to her and her husband and their kids. It was just one room for all eight of them, and it was only for a few months. Still, it was something.
She wasn’t sure what she would do after the three months was over, but she couldn’t think too much about it at the moment. Because now, there was a new crisis. Her car battery was dead.
[CAR ENGINE PUTTERING]
Like Michael and Elizabeth and Reggie and everyone I got to know over the last two years, Thalia wanted permanent, stable housing. She just couldn’t figure out how to get it.
For a lot of homeless people the high cost of rent, coupled with the other barriers like deposit and good credit, rule out being able to get housing on their own without some kind of subsidy.
There’s Section 8 – now officially called Housing Choice – which is a voucher program for low-income folks, but the waitlists are all currently closed in the Bay Area. Besides Section 8, there’s the occasional low-income housing development that opens up. But the last one I heard about in Oakland had 28 units and they got 4,000 applications.
And so what’s left in terms of help? Basically what’s left is the homeless service system. It might surprise some of you to know that we even have a system in place to help homeless people get inside. But, we do.
And after exploring a lot of different corners of the world of homelessness and talking to hundreds of people, this system is what I decided this series should be about. Because this is it. Like, this is the system we have right now to solve homelessness, which is a huge issue in this country. We already have hundreds of thousands of people dealing with homelessness nationwide. And we may soon see a dramatic increase due to COVID-related job losses and evictions. And so how this system works are questions with huge stakes.
And yet, It’s the part of this world that I honestly had to work the hardest to understand. It’s confusing and opaque; some might say kafkaesque, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Everyone I met had interacted with the system. Some, like Reggie, had given up on it.
Reggie: This (bleep) is designed to keep a (bleep) down man. This is not designed for nobody to come up. These programs is not designed to really come up.
Other people, like Thalia, were still waiting to get something from it.
Thalia: What does it take to be priority for them? I don’t understand it.
Thalia isn’t alone. A lot of people don’t understand what it takes to be a priority in this system. But I can finally say that I do. It’s a system that prioritizes resources according to need. But how do you decide whether one person needs housing more than another? And who actually gets help when there are so many people who need it?
Here is According to Need “Chapter 1: Tulicia”
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.
Coming up, I continue my conversation with Katie Mingle and we get an update on Tulicia. After this.
We’re back with the award winning Katie Mingle, producer of “According to Need.” Can you give us an update on the people in this episode or any stuff that’s happened since we published the series?
Yeah, I mean, I can give you an update on Tulicia, for sure. If you listen all the way to the end of the series, you will hear that Tulicia doesn’t end up getting help from the system in the Bay Area or not like significant help that is kind of like life changing help. But she does end up getting Section 8, which is sort of luck, in a way. Like she had put her name on some Section 8waitlists years ago. Like, it had been like eight years since she put her name on these wait lists. And apparently you can put your name on wait lists wherever there’s Section 8 vouchers open. And you know, that might not even be the city you live in.
It might be some random city that you’ve never been to, which was the case for her, and she got Section 8 in Louisville, Kentucky. And then after, like a lot of really hard thinking and sort of going back and forth and a ton of just anxiety and sort of stressing out, she decided she was going to try to go for this housing in Louisville, Kentucky — a place where she had never been and didn’t know anyone. And that was… it was a really big decision. I mean, I say this in the update at the end of the show, but like I rarely met people who were thinking about leaving because people are just so dependent on their communities and their families and stuff for support. I think particularly people in poverty are just really, really, you know, leaning on the people around them for help. And so, like the idea that you would move somewhere where you didn’t know anyone is just something that most people I met wouldn’t even consider. But yeah, Tulicia just decided to like, take this big leap, move out there. It was really, really hard at first. And Section 8, the process of actually getting a house was not entirely smooth, BUT she got a place. She’s been in that place for like almost two years now. She is doing really well, like she got a job. She got a full time job at Walmart. For a little while, she was working two jobs. I think she quit her second job. She bought a car. She recently went on a cruise–
Which I know like cruises, like, I thought they were kind of over forever, but they came back. She went on a cruise like right around Christmas time. So she’s doing great, except for, you know, she has family back in Oakland that she misses and who, you know, are still struggling in some ways to just like, get by and live in the Bay Area, which was like the struggle that she was in to for a while. But now she’s kind of gotten a little relief from that. Which is not to say that life is easy because it isn’t, but it’s a lot better. It’s a lot better.
Wow, that’s so amazing to hear.
I love that. So you reported this for two years. It came out while you were reporting, at the very tail end of it, COVID happened, which had a huge impact on the homeless population.
And so, do you know what’s going on now in terms of COVID and homelessness and how that’s all shaping up since you reported the stories?
Yeah, I know a little bit, and I think the really short answer is that in the short term, things have gotten a bit better in some ways. And I think in the long term, people are worried that things may get much worse. The reason they’ve gotten better is that there’s just been like a bunch of new money that has come in from the federal government to the states to address all kinds of things. And I think states have had a fair amount of leeway in sort of like how they’ve used some of that money. But like a lot of people, and we talked about it on our show, probably heard about Project Roomkey, which like was this massive project to move homeless folks into hotel rooms during the pandemic–
To get them out of congregate shelter settings, which people were worried for good reason that they’re… you know, that COVID was going to spread really easily in those spaces.
So there was, yeah, this massive effort to move people into hotel rooms. You know, there’s definitely been criticisms of that program. But like, you know, it moved thousands of people really fast into hotel rooms. Not everybody by any stretch, but like a lot of people. It was sort of like, oh wow, like when there’s a will – and money – like, there is a way to kind of quickly move people off of the streets. And now, you know, some of those programs are kind of winding down. I think, like actually finding more permanent solutions for people has been like a much bigger challenge in some ways and getting people to sort of make another transition after the hotel. There’s been all kinds of obstacles from what I understand. But it is happening. And then, like cities, both Oakland and San Francisco are basically trying to buy some of these hotels that they have used to house people and just make them like permanent housing for people, essentially.
So that’s happening. And then there’s like, money available for kind of smaller interventions like there’s this idea of like what people call a shallow subsidy. So like, imagine you, your rent is $2000 and you pretty consistently can come up with like $1700. There’s never really been an intervention for people who just need that, like 300 extra dollars every month. And so now, like they’re looking at stuff like that, I feel like there’s a lot of experimentation going on where there’s just like all this money in there, like, let’s try doing this, let’s try just like giving people cash, let’s try this. And so I think that’s really great. And hopefully, some longer programs will come out of some of this more like experimental stuff that’s happening from all this new money. I think that the hard thing is that like, we all have probably watched as the housing market has gone just absolutely bananas—
— during the pandemic and like, you know, like if you thought it was hard to buy a house in Oakland in 2019, it’s like, whoa, it’s like so much harder now and that, you know, has now started to sort of translate into the rental market, becoming like much tighter also. And that’s bad. Like, we were in the situation we were in pre-COVID with homelessness because of a rental market that was just like completely unrealistic and unaffordable for so many people, and we’re basically heading into a worse one.
So that’s really bad. It’s really bad. I don’t know if you remember, but there was this really brief moment in the beginning of the pandemic where rents kind of went down, especially in more urban areas.
And that is over. And this graph that was put out by Harvard — they do this big kind of report on housing every year — really sort of shows like what’s happening now. I just texted it to you.
Wow. Okay, so the graph you sent is like it has the normal sort of noise at the bottom and then it hits 2021 and it shoots up like a hockey stick type growth. It’s crazy.
Katie Mingle: Yeah, just straight up and like yeah, that’s really bad. I don’t know. One thing that hasn’t happened in a couple of years is like every year they do this big — it’s called a point in time count — where they essentially send out like teams of volunteers to count the number of homeless people that they encounter on the street, in cars. It’s like this big count and it happens on one single morning and they didn’t do it in 2020. I don’t think they do it in 2021, and it’s about to happen now in 2022.
So we don’t really know where the numbers are right now, and I think everybody is really anxious to see what’s happening. But it could still be another year or two before we really see, like, what kind of effect the pandemic and the sort of like skyrocketing housing prices and rent prices have really done to a crisis that was already like, really bad.
Well, it’s good to touch base with you about this. I’m glad that we’re rebroadcasting the two episodes and I hope people listen to the rest of them and congratulations again on the achievement of the whole series. I just loved it. It was a real watershed moment for 99% Invisible, and I’m just happy it exists in the world.
Yeah, me too. Thank you so much. And like, it was just, I don’t know. I think about what a privilege it was to get that time on that story. And it just means so much to me. So I hope anyone who hasn’t heard it yet, will check it out.
Yeah, it’s really good.
“According to Need” was produced by Katie Mingle with Lasha Madan and managing editor Whitney Henry-Lester. Executive produced by me, Roman Mars. Editing by Lisa Pollak, Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, Christopher Johnson and Joe Rosenberg. Additional support from Sofia Klatzker, Vivian Le and Chris Berube. Music by Swan Real. Kurt Kohlstedt is digital director. Original Sound Engineering on these two episodes by Kevin Ramsay. Fact checking by Amy Gaines. Branding and design by MUCHMORE. Special thanks to everyone who Katie interviewed for this series as well as Marisol Medina-Cadena, Alison DeJung, and Chelsea Miller. Mix and tech production on this rebroadcast by Martín Gonzalez.
We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.
You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can listen to all the other episodes of “According to Need” at 99pi.org/need. It also has its own podcast feed… just do a search in your favorite podcast app for “According to Need” and you will find it. And leave a review for it while you’re there so other people will be encouraged to listen. And if you get lost, just stay still and meet me near the checkout at 99pi.org.