There’s nothing beautiful about homelessness.
Or is there?
Amid the heartbreaking conditions of the Bay Area’s homeless encampments, those with little recourse are fighting their despair by creating works of art. The results can be uplifting — like the celebratory murals painted to cheer up residents of tent clusters and cars turned into homes. Other times — like a recent play that dramatized Caltrans workers kicking unhoused residents out of a camp — they’re gut-wrenching.
With more than 30,000 unhoused residents in the Bay Area and little visible progress toward stemming the homelessness crisis, those who live or have lived in encampments, and those who work with people who do, describe this artistic expression as vital. For some, it provides a way to heal from the trauma of life on the streets. For others, it’s an opportunity to tell their stories and teach the world what it’s like to live in their shoes.
“Art has a way of involving people and engaging people and educating people in ways that other ways can’t,” said Anita De Asis Miralle of Cardboard and Concrete, an Oakland collective of homeless artists. Miralle, who goes by “Needa Bee,” hosts block parties at encampments with music, free food and mural painting as a way to get housed and unhoused neighbors together, and to share information about the rights of those without homes.
Poor Magazine, a local grassroots arts and media organization, recently put on “Crushing Wheelchairs,” a new play. The two performances in Oakland and San Francisco, which followed the lives of several characters as they became homeless and fought for survival on the street, were written and acted exclusively by homeless and formerly homeless people. At the Oakland show, a sold-out house of about 80 people watched actors portraying Caltrans workers grab a wheelchair from an encampment and throw it into a dumpster while its distraught owner — a disabled woman named Reggi — screamed “can’t you see I can’t walk?” The scene then flashed forward to a younger, ambulatory Reggi coming home from her shift as a construction worker to find the locks changed on her apartment. Evicted without notice, she became increasingly, painfully upset until finally the police came. The scene ended with the police pulling a gun on her.
“Aunti” Frances Moore, who played Reggi, was once homeless herself and now helps feed Oaklanders in need. To her, the play was cathartic.
“It’s medicine,” she said. “Art is medicine.”
Poor Magazine has additional performances planned in Vallejo and Los Angeles. They hope to turn the show into a film.
The experiences of unhoused residents even have made it as far as San Francisco’s prestigious Davies Symphony Hall, where the San Francisco Symphony recently performed a piece titled “Emergency Shelter Intake Form.” The program by composer Gabriel Kahane, which is being performed all over the country, was inspired by the cold and complex bureaucracy of the shelter and affordable housing system. Vocalists sing questions straight from a real shelter intake form, interspersed with scathing, poetic critiques of the system. Kahane includes people who have been homeless in each production, including the two San Francisco performances last month.
The chaotic nature of life on the street can make any attempt at artistic expression fleeting. Miralle and her fellow unhoused activists have built several clandestine tiny home villages and covered them with murals, but the art was always destroyed when the structures were inevitably torn down. So they started painting on tarps and canvases that could be moved whenever a camp was cleared. In early 2022, they started hosting the block parties.
Then, in November, several of Cardboard and Concrete’s vehicles — including the RV where Miralle slept and a box truck they used as a studio — were destroyed in a fire. The parties, and the art, stopped. But Miralle hopes to restart the project within the next few months.
In West Oakland, residents of a large homeless encampment on Wood Street are filming a web series, “The Lowdown on Wood Street” — essentially their take on the nightly news. Anchors sit behind a hand-made desk and share news from the camp, while correspondents give viewers a tour of the encampment and talk about how devastating it is when the city clears a camp and scatters its residents. They produced their first episode this year with help from Journalism + Design, a media program at The New School, but recent rains — and threats of an upcoming eviction by the city — stalled Episode Two.
John Janosko, who lives at the camp and co-anchors the show, said his goal is to change the misconception that all unhoused people are lazy, alcoholics or drug addicts.
“It’s a thriving community with a lot of things that we want to do,” he said. “We want to make sure that the positive narrative is put out there.”
Unhoused residents in the Bay Area recently got a chance to tell their stories in a slightly different form through the screening of the documentary “We R Here.” Filmmaker Kyung Lee gave Android phones to three people and asked them to film their day-to-day lives. She then edited the footage, without inserting her own commentary, and the result is an unusually personal account. Viewers follow James “DJ Nyce” Goodwin, who lives out of his car in San Leandro, as he stops by his aunt’s home for a shower, admires a sunset over San Francisco Bay and argues with a city worker threatening to trash his belongings. They watch Billy Pearce and his wife lose their dogs and their RV, and end up in a tent.
“I wanted people to see exactly what we go through,” Pearce said in an interview. “That it’s not easy to be outside.”
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