by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia
“We can’t take all that shyt with us in this one hefty bag.”
“But mama, this is my favorite pair of jeans.”
“I don’t give a f**k. We have to take stuff to survive on the street now and we only have a few minutes before the sheriff gets here.”
The day of the 1989 earthquake my mama and me were in a desperate fight about what we could take with us back into homelessness and where we were going to set up our micro-business vending stall, which we did just for money to eat. Within seconds of her last words mama threw a shoe at me ‘cause I was yelling back.
And right then in mid-scream, without warning, the room, the building, and our lives shook so hard we both dropped what we were holding.
The 1989 earthquake killed folks and caused major mayhem across the Bay Area, but for us, it was just another crisis added to the crisis of our houselessness and poverty. Within seconds, my mama was wondering how the streets of San Francisco were impacted, which might interfere with that day’s vending business and if the earthquake might give us a few more days before our eviction deadline.
The sheriff did come 24 hours later, so within two days we were outside in a wet card-board box in Golden Gate Park struggling to sell our remaining T-shirts in downtown San Francisco in front of Macy’s on top of 6,000 shards of broken glass so we could raise money for a motel room. We were scrounging for batteries for our flashlights, blankets to stay warm, water to drink and torn sleeping bags to sleep in.
And as everyone spoke about the aftermath of the ‘89 earthquake and how they hadn’t done enough preparedness, we were like, What else is new? We never have enough batteries, blankets, sleeping bags, water and toiletries. We were always preparing ‘cause we were always in an emergency. This wasn’t new; it was just another day and more people were living through our everyday experience.
Fast forward 30 years and us houseless and formerly houseless folks at Homefulness struggle with what to do about earthquake, fire, flood and other emergency preparedness. We share and serve healthy organic food, tents, M95 masks, water, supplies and media channels and outlets with over 500 poor and houseless people in the Bay Area every week through our multiple education, direct action interdependence projects like #RoofLESS Radio, Sliding Scale Cafe, Homefulness, PeopleSkool, PNN-KEXU 96.1fm and Deecolonize Academy.
So as this issue of preparedness comes up, we know we are a resource for many and will need to increase that to things like passing out “life-straws” for water cleanliness and medicine for illnesses and trying to get some of the bougie wealth-hoarders supplies like solar lanterns. But as poor people in a poor people’s movement, we struggle to have the resources we share right now, before a so-called “emergency” has hit.
“I never had no PG&E, so what gives? We out here every night by firelight, flashlight or no light at all,” Xavier J, one of our RoofLESS radio reporters, said two weeks ago when the big “shut-offs” were wreaking havoc on housed people.
All across occupied Ohlone Lisjen land (the Bay Area), from Berkeley to Oakland to Frisco, unhoused people are living outside in what I call “statesOfemergency,” barely surviving with very little in a perpetual act of preparedness, and yet we are never truly prepared. And then when unhoused folks are able to get together their tents and blankets and things, they are subject to constant and incessant harassment and theft of their prepared meager belongings by police, Caltrans, DPW, politricksters, legislators, and haters stealing, taking, destroying and throwing them away.
It’s so weird really, and this poverty skola hopes for a place of empathy where housed people can truly come to understand and overstand the impossibility of unhoused people’s lives. We are always getting prepared for the emergency we are already living in, and it’s made so much harder by this ongoing criminalization and violence called “sweeps.”
So imagine, housed people, if there was a tsunami, earthquake and power shut off EVERY DAY. That’s the life of an unhoused person, made that much more impossible and difficult if the unhoused person is disabled, elderly, a child and/or medically fragile already.
And then, housed people, imagine a whole group of DPW workers, police and/or sheriffs came in to your house unannounced and took all your emergency preparedness supplies, your back-up water, canned goods, lighters, candles and flashlights and threw them in the trash? This is what happens every day across this occupied land to unhoused people in “sweeps,” causing us to constantly appear in a state of messiness, disarray and confusion, which then causes more hate of us by society.
By the same token, poor and barely housed people who are just holding on by a thread can’t buy extra batteries, extra food or extra water, ‘cause they can barely buy what they need to feed themselves and their families right now. How can you buy a flashlight if you can’t even afford a light bulb? How can you buy canned food for back-up when you can’t even afford food for tonight?
And then finally there is the PTSD. Every time a “crisis” hits, I am too busy dealing with the crisis that’s called a life in poverty. The multiple things you have to do to stay alive and fed and keep your families safe and fed, to even think about a possible “crisis” is beyond comprehension and a full-time job.
And then there is this privilege called “recovery.” Unhoused and marginally housed people are never recovering because we are always surviving, struggling and barely living. We have no renters’ insurance, homeowners’ insurance, families to live with, or money for vacations to “get away” or drive away or even live away. We are all holding on every day by a friggin’ thread and so recovery is never an option.
And emergency preparedness is also class stratified. Wealth-hoarders who are preparing for an emergency collect and purchase all kinds of “extra” state of the art “supplies,” like solar lanterns, stoves, generators and solar powered radios and flashlights that people with resources get without thinking – like the “backpacks” filled with all kinds of stuff that unhoused people could use EVERY DAY in our never-ending emergencies.
So as you all talk through the this current fire crisis in the Bay Area and the upcoming possible “big one” and complain about the smoke and shut-offs and struggle with your insurance and your batteries and your backed up water, I ask you to use this as a teachable moment of humility to realize every single thing, person and/or dollar you have is one more than thousands of unhoused and poor folks have every day in this occupied, colonized and krapitalist reality.
Maybe you can channel your emergency preparedness anxiety into a moment of empathy. The next time you look at us folks on the street and call us “dirty,” realize we are really just living through a never-ending earthquake called homelessness.
POOR Magazine, Homefulness and Deecolonize Academy are M95 mask distributors for low- and no-income and unhoused communities. To get a mask, please come by Homefulness Monday through Thursday, 10a.m. to 5 p.m., or email firstname.lastname@example.org – or meet us on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco at RoofLESS Radio. To donate to po’ people’s emergency preparedness, go to www.poormagazine.org/rev_donor.
Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, aka “povertyskola,” is a poet, teacher and the formerly houseless, incarcerated daughter of Dee and mama of Tiburcio and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America” and “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth” and co-founder of Homefulness, a homeless people’s solution to Homelessness. Reach her at www.lisatinygraygarcia.com or @povertyskola on Twitter.