The Bay Area’s homelessness crisis inspires wave of art

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.

Lisa Gray-Garcia, left, speaks during a performance of the play “Crushing Wheelchairs” on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. The play was created and performed by community members who have experienced homelessness. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

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.”

Frances Moore with artwork at Driver Plaza on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Frances Moore with artwork at Driver Plaza on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

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.

Community members sit near artwork at Driver Plaza on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Community members sit near artwork at Driver Plaza on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

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.

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