A Poverty Skolaz journey through COVID, cancer and healing in ComeUnity
by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia
“Only rich white people get corona. Do you know anyone who has got it?” Rico, one of the currently houseless poverty skolaz who works in the Homefulness village, chuckled as he refused another one of my attempts to hand him a mask. It went on like this for weeks with Rico and others who worked on building the Mamahouses for houseless families at Homefulness through the shelter in place lockdown imposed state and county-wide in California starting March 2020.
But, like the usual way it goes, what “the rest of the world” – aka, middle class, housed, non-frontline, mostly white people – imposes, enacts and legislates always means something else in our hoods, barrios, towns and street corners.
The sad irony, as all of us poor people know too well, is this evil virus ended up killing more poor Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples due to so many factors – not the least of which is poverty, medical racism, dangerous work conditions and poor people healthcare access.
“Masks are for pussies”; “I don’t wear a mask”; “Corona virus is a hoax, it won’t kill me”; “I’m already dead”; “I’m having my damn birthday party no matter what”; “I don’t trust these doctors no-how; we have been lied to before”; “I can’t quarantine when we live in one room”; “My boss isn’t giving any PPE, expects us to buy our own”; “I have to work no matter what; we get no sick leave, our sick leave means we are fired.”
From cracker-class to Indigenous border resistor, from b-boy to pastor, so many of our come-unities in poverty, Indigenous peoples, poor folks, since the beginning of this global terror have actively been discriminated against, forced to work or passed misinformation and confusion rooted in 528 years of medical apartheid, medical racism, removal, incarceration, colonial terror and the lies of the privileged class to us poor peoples back and forth among our communities.
All the while, there have been amazing acts of liberation, from grassroots revolutionaries like Community Ready Corp, Oakland Brown Berets, Self-Help Hunger Program, Mask Oakland, Homies Empowerment Sacramento Homeless Union, Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign in Philadelphia to us at POOR Magazine and Homefulness drastically increasing the radical redistribution of healthy meals, tents and blankets we have already been distributing for eight years on the streets. We now include supplies, groceries, money, diapers, masks, hand sanitizers and medicine, available for over 1,200 very poor housed and unhoused communities across the Bay.
Alongside all this, there have been insane acts of genocide in the Amerikkklan carceral nation by COVID, like the cultural genocide of indefinite sentencing and false border “detention” of families in this stolen land. So we are lifting up the teaching of KAGE Universal, Prison Focus, the SF Bay View, Free Aztlan on Po Peoples Radio and more.
It doesn’t help that so many of us folks scattered across this stolen land have been “ruled” over by a rapist, criminally negligent wealth-hoarder whose “leadership” has helped the United Snakes have the highest COVID numbers in the world. And please believe – poverty and racism have everything to do with so much about staying healthy.
And, before I go any further, please let the record show that I am open to all theories of this evil shit being caused by 5G, Bill Gates’ subsidized lab, white science or Amonstrazon trying to kill all of us poor people and force us into a post-apocalyptic nightmare of big pharma vaccines, chips and more. I am not “pro-mask,” pro-vaccine or pro-white medicine. I am one of these confused peoples, notwithstanding my light-skinned privilege.
I got this shit, and it almost killed me. So, I am writing this story for the sole purpose of helping fellow poor and Indigenous peoples figure out how to survive and think through this nightmare we have collectively found ourselves in.
I am the daughter of a traumatized, disabled, angry Indigenous Afro-Taino woman, who was tortured and experimented on as a child, whose thyroid gland, ovaries and heart were poisoned by those experiments and who passed way too young because of the damage of all of that to her poor body.
Since 18 I was on poor people hellthcare plan – no healthcare – and my idea of care was an 18-26 hour wait in an emergency room for everything from an inhaler to a cast, watching my fierce mama take on the racist, classist doctor class when they tried to say she wasn’t “entitled” to cardio-rehab programs cause she was on state poor people insurance, aka Medi-Cal, and offered her a nine-pill cocktail of Big Pharma as her only solution.
What I do know is: I got this shit, and it almost killed me. So, if anyone cares to read on, I am writing this story for the sole purpose of helping fellow poor and Indigenous peoples figure out how to survive and think through this nightmare we have collectively found ourselves in. I also know that masks, social distancing and hand washing isn’t everything, but it’s something, and right now, in addition to taking extra care of our immune systems, it’s all we have. Frankly anything to avoid this killer illness is worth doing, ‘cause it is not something you ever want to get if you can avoid it.
How do you shelter in place if you have no place?
The day the shelter in place order was enacted, POOR closed all of our multiple in-person teaching programs, including our liberation school for very low-income, homeless, disabled, Indigenous youth, Deecolonize Academy, po’ peoples radio trainings, community writing workshops and support work. At the same time, we began amping up our street distribution work as so many of the huge non-profiteers ended up shutting down, leaving thousands of fellow poverty skolaz and houseless and poor people with no food, no supplies and no shelter.
We increased our two days a week on the street to four days a week and we took out all the masks we had collected when the fires from the summer happened, distributing them to everyone who needed them along with hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies to folks on the street who had no access to water, much less soap or paper towels.
And, because politricksters are evil and people are haterz, we’re still struggling with the violence called “sweeps” – even in a pandemic. I wrote several stories about this unbelievable situation and continue to fight alongside my houseless brothers and sisters to resist and demand hotel rooms so unsheltered people can shelter in place which, no matter how obvious, was oddly difficult to implement in all these stolen land cities.
Internally at POOR Magazine we adopted all the safety protocols we could possibly do and provided each other with PPE – we never went out without masks and gloves and we practiced social distancing, constant hand washing and as much safety as we could manifest. From March to May, we distributed to over 800 people each week all across the Bay.
And then, on May 25, my birthday, something happened. The guy who was in our own community, who also worked on the land at Homefulness and who refused to wear a mask, came down with COVID. The next day my son literally collapsed, saying he was too weak to stand up. The following day I almost fainted, and another member of our Homefulness family also fell ill. We closed everything else down, sent everyone home and got tested and, lo and behold, four of us formerly houseless residents of this beautiful liberation village called Homefulness had contracted COVID-19.
Now, to be clear on the logistics behind this. I lived in the school-office-recording studio-Mac-lab-building. All of the group activities and bathroom use and traffic and supplies came in and out of the place me and my son lived – I as someone who literally was on the street houseless with my mama for all of my childhood, and then again before we moved to Homefulness in 2013 because of mold poisoning and gentriFUKation in our last home. Israel, who was living on the street in a tent before he moved here, and I were happy and blessed to even have a roof, a home and safety.
But in some ways, this moment meant we weren’t as safe, because as we un-packed it, our private areas were public, and we had no way to control that. So, we weren’t able to really prevent contact, especially if someone in our community wasn’t acting carefully and consciously. We have since changed all of this, and now everyone has private quarters. But this was the situation at the time.
My and Tibu’s reality is, sadly, like a lot of poor people living communally; like the over 830 families we support weekly at Sliding Scale Café – Mercadito de Cambio – at Homefulness with masks, food, hand sanitizers, medicine, produce, diapers and groceries. Most of them live in communal housing and are unable to successfully “quarantine” even if any of them gets sick.
On top of that, unless they are engaged with Street Level Health project or some other Indigenous medicine clinics, they struggle for access to their Indigenous healing practices, living on this stolen land thousands of miles away from their villages and mamas and community doctors and yerbas (herbs).
We went into an arsenal to bump up our collective immune systems, determined to not end up in the increasingly filled ICU, and because we knew that white science did not hold our collective cure.
All of our village elders convened an emergency elephant meeting and we decided to close everything down, beginning with our school, Decolonize Academy – which we were already holding on Zoom most days – so now even the promotion ceremony was moved online. Poor News Network-KEXU radio and all of our outreach work, like Sliding Scale Café and RoofLESS radio, went into shutdown mode so as not to put anyone else at risk, this being our first and foremost priority we realized we must do so no one else would suffer our fate.
ComeUnity saves us: It takes a ComeUnity to boost an immune system
While you could say that being embedded so deeply in community caused our collective virus, it also was responsible for our survival, thrival and eventual health. First, we went into an arsenal to bump up our collective immune systems, determined to not end up in the increasingly filled ICU, and because we knew that white science did not hold our collective cure.
Michelle Steinberg, the nutritionist and herbalist at Street Level Health Project, created a tincture blend of baikal skullcap, red root, boneset, elecampane, usnea and licorice – no licorice for those with high blood pressure – for each of us that we took religiously for four weeks: 90 drops of horrible tasting wonderfulness in water. Michele Kim and her fierce mama, one of our POOR Magazine solidarity fam, created some beautifully amazing Korean healing soup – that was all me and Tiburcio and the other family member here could seem to eat.
I began an extremely rigid regimen of 1,000-4,000 mg of Vitamin C – which I learned from a doctor in China – 8 mg of zinc, 10 mg of melatonin, ginger, garlic, turmeric, reishi and Vitamin D every day and as much nettles, mullein and other lung tonic teas. We cut all sugar out, ‘cause these parasites and viruses live on the sugar and replacing it with tiny slivers of the insanely expensive Marukan honey as prescribed by indigenous Filipino nurse and teacher Sockie Lala Smith, referred by beautiful sistar Pearl Ubungen.
Last, but definitely not least, I had heard that in France, for people who had asthma like I do, taking an antibiotic is a good idea to kill the infection that might grow in the lungs. So I got a “Z-Pac,” or Zithro-Max, which if you ask a doctor for, they act like you are slanging it in the streets and make you fight them for it. To be clear, this didn’t cure me, but it did take the edge off a bronchial infection growing in my weak lungs thanks to the violent attacks of this evil COVID.
COVID ain’t got nothing on the trauma in our heads
Minutes leaked into hours, hours into days, days into weeks. Time passed in that molasses way that time passes for traumatized people who can’t stop thinking, worrying, activating, working because the minute we slow down – even a little – all that we are working so hard to forget fills our heads and we start obsessing and depressing, getting lost in the silent terror of our trauma that lurks there in the shadows, that drives us to seek the man’s poison, dangerous killer substances and our own death just to quiet the pain.
We held each other – not actually, but spiritually and metaphorically held each other’s stories, shared those survival tips, survival through the violence of our own dangerous minds that has kept us alive this far, even when we thought we couldn’t go on any further. We prayed deeply in all the traditions each of us practice and fed the ancestors with offerings and requests for help. And then we just waited.
In two weeks, we felt sort of ok. Just to be sure, we waited another two weeks and then tested everyone in the village. We all tested negative. Twice. After a full six weeks, we raised funds, acquiring a porta potty so community could use a bathroom not in someone’s house and we had public messaging posted all over the land as well as ongoing teachings and trainings with youth and elder residents, visitors and workers about COVID protocol. With that came a whole overhaul of use of community space, and we tentatively opened up for limited community service activity.
Although we were “healed,” I never felt exactly the same. None of us would qualify as “long-haulers” but I never got back my sense of taste or smell – olfactory gland – and even with the negative tests I felt like my immune system was constantly being tested and for at least three weeks more I would teeter on what felt like the knife’s edge of getting sick again, amping up the garlic, ginger, mushroom, cilantro, mint caldo de pollo – chicken soup – and as much water and clear liquid as I could stand along with more of the high doses of Vitamin C and on and on and on.
Wealth-hoarding kills; radical redistribution heals
Now let’s get real about something. These tinctures and vitamins and organic foods and produce aren’t cheap. Health in Amerikkklan is tied to access and resources. That is one of the many reasons we work so hard to get organic, homemade, healthy food out to our Sliding Scale Café each week and why we collaborate with multiple bakeries, Green Gulch, the Fruit Guys, Phat Beetz and The Self-Help Hunger Program to get fresh produce harvested and distributed out to all the hundreds of very low to no-income families and elders we support weekly at Mercaditor de Cambio and across the Bay with houseless folks in RoofLESS radio.
When we buy food for our school and Homefulness communities, we only buy organic, and this is not cheap. It’s made possible by the radical redistribution principles we teach young folks with race and class privilege at our biannual PeopleSkool. It’s also why, when we launched Homefulness with ComeUnity gardens, the space was always open to everyone to pick and eat and have. Lastly, it is because of conscious medicine makers like Bay HRT (Bay Area Herbal Resource Team) who, in addition to Street Level, redistributes organic, bougie vitamins and fire cider, an immune boosting tincture.
From COVID to cancer
“I have a theory – not at all proven, but a theory – that COVID attacks the immune system, allowing cancer cells to grow,” said Rupa Marya, a revolutionary doctor friend who has been working on a book to connect the way colonization causes our collective “inflammation.” Two weeks ago, on Dec.15, I went in for a perfunctory pap smear and discovered that I, in fact, had cancer.
“I have difficult news … we found cancer in your uterus.” As she spoke, the doctor’s words seemed to lift out of the phone and drift off into the afternoon sky, melting down into a pastel blob blending into other words, grabbing memories and turning them into images, dark into light. Fear into terror. I really don’t know how, but then I ended up on the floor of the POOR Magazine revolutionary service van, which we use to transport endless numbers of disabled children and elders into and out of school, events or support.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, numb and confused. “Really?” I murmured to my breaking self, “haven’t I been through enough struggle for 10 people in my life? Do I really need more loss, more sorrow, more evil, more to ‘overcome?’”
It was a blur. My Mama Dee, who always sent me messages from the other side of the spirit journey, sent me a message, cut and dried like she always did, without any fat or frills, in a blog of survivor stories by a Boricua sister who even looked a little like her named “Dee M.” Yea, it was mama alright. It stated simply, “If you catch it early, you will be OK.” Mama and her jokes.
White science – which I had never had success or trust in – came through, claiming after a CT scan that a robot could take all my life-giving parts out, that I must do this procedure quickly and trust implicitly in everything I had no trust in.
Cancer ain’t got nothing on the cancer called trauma that plagues my mind as I sit and try to “rest” my racing thoughts. But community surrounds around me with a love blanket I can’t even describe.
I consulted with my madrina in the Yoruba tradition I practice and learned that this was a full circle back to the day of having my son when I was houseless with my mama, caught in a dangerous DV relationship that almost killed me. My mama was gravely ill with what took her to the other side. The best day of my life and the worst, all mixed together, where I was 5150’d in my white science, softly violent hospital room. The police were called on me and I almost lost the beautiful life I had just brought into this world.
The robot and me
I did the surgery. On Monday, Dec. 21, winter solstice – the longest night of the year. The night that is like a womb itself. The weird robot was, apparently, 100 percent successful. They handed Oxycodone out to me like it was candy and threw me out of the hospital way too soon. And I’m still alive. The intense pain subsides a little more every day and I grapple with what this terrifying lesson I really didn’t need to learn “taught me.”
For one thing, cancer ain’t got nothing on the cancer called trauma that plagues my mind as I sit and try to “rest” my racing thoughts. But community surrounds around me with a love blanket I can’t even describe.
There is this magical thing called a Meal Train, set up by sister-warrior-friend and collaborator Corrina Gould, who, along with Fuifuilupe Niumitolu, Muteado Silencio, Israel, Jeremy Miller, Nancy Chavez, Pearl Ubungen, Juju, Mama Blue, Mama Sue Kuyper and Sue Ferrer, Jewnbug, Queennandi, Dee Allen, Joseph Bolden, Angel Haert, Yael, Paige, Tony, Leroy, Loa, Christy, JV, Westyn, Talibah, Frances, Momi, my beautiful son and so many more in my village have been here holding up skies, sending me food, buying groceries, offering love, rides and more, breaking through my deeply terrified headspace and layers of trauma and desperate aloneness.
My mind wanders back to me and mama who were, above all, so desperately alone. Whenever crisis would hit, there was no one to call, nowhere to stay, no one to talk to, no community to call on. My mama was a mixed race, unwanted orphan, an unprotected child who suffered severe abuse in orphanages and violent racist foster homes throughout her childhood and therefore trusted no one. She was left and hurt and betrayed over and over again. She had no reason to believe in people or institutions because they had always let her down, hurt or almost killed her. So, crisis hit us and we were all we had. Always.
I can’t say COVID caused the cancer, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. What I can say is: This colonial virus called COVID should be fought on every front. For everyone reading this, please take these lessons very seriously: Follow all the immune system boosts I mention and integrate all safety practices you can to avoid the virus, from masks to social distancing. And realize if you do get it, the answer isn’t through the white science non-cures but through the medicine, vitamins, sleep and care that Mama Earth provides and has always provided.
In addition, please overstand and understand that the other viruses called poverty, police terror, incarceration, racism, classism and isolation in this stolen land are also extremely dangerous and our lives as humans aren’t meant to live in this hater, hoarding, I-got-mines bubble called krapitalism. All of you must know that this poverty skola, people’s souldjah is here, working my hardest – as I have always done – to resist, protest, manifest, implement, listen, pray, dream and walk with you into decolonization, degentrification and liberation so we can heal together from each of these deadly pandemics before they kill us all.
Tiny and other skolaz will be on the road this spring and summer helping other houseless poverty skolaz launch Po Peoples Radio and POOR News Network outlets while teaching and sharing the medicine of radical redistribution with as many wealth hoarders as are ready to degentrify and decolonize so other sites for the Bank of ComeUnity Reparations can be launched. To invite her to your town, church, group, college or encampment, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to Twitter @povertyskola or Instagram @poormagazine.
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 and @poormagazine on Instagram.