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Living on the Streets of Oakland

The Great Recession may be over, but every night people are sleeping on benches or in makeshift shelters. Here are a few of their stories.

East Bay Express

After I went out with Vinny Pannizzo, I began to see things differently. Now, when I drive through downtown Oakland late at night and I see someone sitting in a bus shelter, I wonder if she'll be sleeping there. On park benches and in doorways, I'll look for men and women curled up in sleeping bags, using their shoes for a pillow to keep them from being stolen off their feet. Driving down a freeway off-ramp, I'll notice the tarp strung between bushes or the edge of a tent inside the trees.

It's not that I didn't see these things before. Like most people, I noticed the homeless, especially when people would come up to me on the street and ask for money. And like many of us, I also made it a point not to treat those people as though they're invisible — to acknowledge someone who's obviously been sleeping on the sidewalk or in a doorway as a fellow human being.

But Pannizzo, who is homeless himself and works with the nonprofit group Mission for the Homeless, opened my eyes a lot wider, and got me to listen and look in a way I hadn't before.

The government says we're no longer living in a recession. Housing prices are skyrocketing. But as housing gets more expensive, more people are unable to pay rent. Paul Boden, organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said that in 2012, there were 1.168 million homeless students in public schools nationwide. "Yet that same year, only 247,178 homeless households were eligible to receive services through HUD [federal] homeless assistance programs," he added.

Untold numbers of people are sleeping every night on benches or in makeshift shelters in Oakland and other communities throughout the nation. To Pannizzo, they're not numbers. They're the people he sees and talks with each night.


Every evening without fail, in a parking lot in East Oakland, Pannizzo and two or three homeless helpers unpack big boxes of bread and granola bars, cardboard flats of plastic water bottles, and bags of apples and oranges. They put together about a hundred bags of food. It all goes to people living on the street, and since few people have a stove or a can opener, there's no point in including anything that can't be eaten right out of the bag.

The bagging starts about midnight, and goes pretty quickly. Soon the back of Pannizzo's beat-up white Toyota van is filled. The helpers take their own bags and go back to their camps. Pannizzo hits the road.

For the next three or four hours, he crisscrosses the deserted streets of downtown Oakland, looking for people who need food. Most of them know he's coming, and many have a relationship with him that goes back years.

Bill Davidson heard about Pannizzo, and had eaten his food, long before he actually met him. "He doesn't know how many lives he's saved," Davidson said. "I've seen guys lay down on the cement and never wake up. The concrete sucks the life right out of you. So Vinny will show up with a blanket, water, and bread. That's life right there. We know that's how we have to live out here. Life isn't about you; it's about what you do for others, about the right thing to do. Vinny says the truth came to him, and now he's living that truth."

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Joe Mazarek, one of Pannizzo's helpers, is a former woodworker who came to Oakland from Milwaukee years ago, and got strung out on methamphetamine. "My wife left, and I was living in a van," Mazarek said. "I'd sit in it, and think to myself, I'm a good man. And maybe I am. But then the van was towed, with all my tools and possessions in it. I found Vinny, who took me to his camp, gave me a blanket and a place to lie down next to others. He said, 'Just remember love.'"

Some people, like Mazarek, have been living on the streets of Oakland for years. Together they form a community, and Pannizzo is part of the glue that holds it together. "These have been some of my best years because I have a feeling of acceptance in this community, the people who live on the street in this area," Mazarek explained.

Some street communities are relatively well organized. At one point in his rounds, Pannizzo pulled off the road next to the Oakland estuary. There, under a bridge, at two in the morning, Jeremy White, his friend Kelly, and their dogs were sitting in a circle of friends. Light emanated from bulbs and a TV hooked up to solar panels salvaged from an old VW camper. "I'm an outdoor resident," White said. "I'm not homeless, because that means you're without a home, and we have one here. We take care of this place. I've been living here a year and a half, and when I got here we spent two months just cleaning trash out of the water. Everything we have here has been recycled from trash."

Dozens of bicycles were stacked up against the concrete pylons supporting the roadway above. Homeless people often have to find a place to put their bikes when the camp they're living in gets swept away by Caltrans in its periodic cleanups of freeway off-ramps, so camp residents take the bicycles down to White and Kelly, who store them. "People have to stick together if we want to survive," White said.

Pannizzo calls White's circle of friends a "tribe." "They're like a family that looks after one another," Pannizzo said. "They fight occasionally, but ultimately they love one another. If anyone is in need, the others in the tribe will not let them go without for very long."

While some people sleeping on the streets have drug problems, many have passed through addictions and come out the other side. "I kicked dope a few years ago," White explained. "But I've still been living on the street in Oakland for three or four years. Some things you can't get over. Losing a home. Losing your family. That's what puts you on the street."

Bill Davidson has a similar history. At the tail end of the hippie era, he got caught by the cops with marijuana and was given a choice between prison and Vietnam, he said. Like thousands of other veterans, he came back sick from the war and fighting a drug habit.

"About half the people on the street used to be vets," Davidson said. "Most were my age — from Vietnam. When guys came back, the world was hostile. When we needed medical attention, we didn't get any. Of the twenty guys in my unit, eight wound up in the hospital, and all of us got sick. I got strung out in the service, and I didn't get rid of my habit until 2006. The price I paid for being on drugs got to be too high. That's what made me stop."

That price included spending many years in prison and losing his family. In 1999, he began living on the street. Today, Davidson, who is white, lives with an African-American woman — Ebony, who, like many homeless people I met, didn't want to give her last name. "We get hassled every day about being a white man with a black woman," Davidson said. "People call us names and threaten us. Last week, a guy even pulled a gun on us."

Pannizzo calls downtown Oakland a unique place because of the diversity of its homeless people. "Many come from other parts of the country," he explained. "The ones in the camps along the freeways tend to be white and younger. African Americans find themselves less in the camps and more on the benches. But they tend to be Oakland natives, as opposed to people from other places."

Robert, a black man sitting in White's camp on the night I visited it, said he thinks black and white people get along okay in general. But turning to White, he warned that "some people just don't want to see you and me get along." Davidson is even more worried. "We have to get rid of the denial that there's racism on the streets here," he said.

Davidson lived beneath the freeway near Brush Street when I first met him and Ebony. They'd built an elaborate structure out of cardboard and pallets with a bed and mattress. Over the assemblage, they'd draped a big US flag and a smaller Raiders pirate banner. A few days later, I went back to talk, and found them packing belongings into shopping carts. They took me over to the chain-link fence, and showed me the Caltrans notice warning that crews would be sweeping the lot out later that day.

A few weeks later, the barren area had been turned into a parking lot for Greyhound busses. Davidson and Ebony had moved into a fleabag hotel. The population of homeless people and those living in single-room occupancy hotels has so much overlap that it's really the same community. The couple had managed to save enough money from disability checks to pay the $800 monthly rent for a room at the Grand.

"But there's no shower in our room — we have to go upstairs," Davidson said angrily. "There are roaches and mice in the room, and it's so small there's hardly any room for anything beside the bed. For me, the street is better than the dump we're in, but Ebony is sick and doesn't want to be back on the street."

To get a fuller understanding of what it's like to live on the streets of Oakland — what life is like for people like Davidson and Ebony, White and Kelly, and Mazarek, I thought it would best if they told their stories in their own words. Here's what two of them had to say.

Shawana Benson's Story

As told to David Bacon

I talked with Shawana Benson around midnight one night, after she'd finished helping Pannizzo bag up the food for his rounds. She sat on a crate in the middle of her camp near one of Oakland's freeways.

I grew up in Oakland. I've always lived around Fruitvale and High streets. Growing up, I didn't think that going to school was really a serious thing. I didn't finish my education like I should have. I went to junior high, and then I went to continuation schools, like Dewey High. I became homeless and started living outside because of losing jobs, and then living with others. Sometimes people threw me out. It was hard. Even though you're not happy living on the street, you're familiar with it. It's something that you go back to.

I stumbled on this spot about eight or nine years ago. A buddy of mine was living back here, and I used to come back here to visit him. He moved forward in life, and when I became homeless, instead of dealing with people and drugs, I came here with my blanket and my little old belongings. I didn't have a tent or anything then. I was out in the elements, with just a blanket on a pallet. But at least I didn't have to come to anybody for anything. To wash up, I'd go to McDonald's.

Then I got a job and got a place. I became self-sufficient. But then I wound up back at square one. At this phase in my homelessness, I'm blessed. I've been able to find four or five people, and I can go to their home and shower. If you smell me, I don't smell bad like I haven't washed in a while. Of course I pay my way.

So I collect my [recyclables], and get preacher man [her nickname for a friend] to take me to turn them in. I can make $45 or $50. I panhandle in front of restaurants, and I'm blessed because people who have their heart give me a full meal or money so I can buy food. I can take it over to someone's house and make some catfish and broccoli and rice pilaf. Then I'll pack it away and I'll bring it back here. I can eat it for a day before it goes bad, because I can't refrigerate it. So, that's how I eat.

I've been knowing Vinny over the years, and he will come to my rescue. I like helping him because it makes me feel good to see those bags get filled. At first, he wouldn't let me help, but one night he finally said, "You really know how to do this stuff!" I'm the only estrogen on the scene.

This is my third time back in this camp. This is where I feel comfortable. What makes it comfortable is that I have fears about somebody doing something to me. If I had an apartment I'd be afraid about somebody breaking in. Or some sicko that pays attention to homeless people and comes to hurt them. They come back here and they destroy our stuff. A couple of people have been hurt already.

In the front, there's maybe four people living there. Since I'm the female, I live back here. I have another tent here, and I make money off it. I rent it out. The least is $10 per night, but some people want to come back here and do their thing, and they'll pay me $25 or $30. They know nobody's going to come back here and bother them.

Now there's someone that I'm letting stay because I have a good heart. I know what it's like to be wandering the street, tired and worn out, looking for a place to crash. You just have a few dollars and you want to rest. So it's not indoors, but you can go in there, and zip the door closed, and no one's going to bother you.

No one comes in here — unless it's Caltrans. They came less than two weeks ago. Usually they put notices up. Where there's a homeless camp, they have to give you notice, but this time they didn't. I had all my clothes here, and an ice chest with all my soap and body hygiene stuff, like shampoo and conditioner. I like to buy the best I can afford, so I can clean myself up and smell good.

They took the whole thing. Some of the guys felt bad. One of them said, "Can we just clean up around you, and then take pictures of that to show we've done our job?" But the other guys weren't happy with him — that he had a heart like that.

The next day it was raining. I was down the block and a friend came up to me and said Caltrans was back again. "Your shit's on the back of their truck," she said. I ran back and asked them not to take it all. One of them said they were going to take it to their site and keep it for thirty days. They were going to take my tent and everything. I had a mattress in my tent that made it heavy, so they were having problems with it. Finally, one of them said, "What do you want back?" I said I wanted everything. They gave me back my clothes, but all my hygiene stuff was gone.

I feel so empty, just for losing that. It was really a wake-up call. I've got to get myself together. I hate living here. I hate that I can't wake up in the middle of the night and fry me some bacon and eggs, or get in the shower in the middle of the night, or burn my candles and meditate and just be indoors. I hate the fact that I am not doing what I need to do in life.

This is not like camping out. There's nothing fun about it. When you're camping out you go home afterwards. You break your tent down, you go home, you get back to your normal life. But for me at the moment, this is normal life. This is the gritty, the real deal, what's happening in Oakland, California.

Vinny Pannizzo's Story

As told to David Bacon

Before I went out with Pannizzo on his rounds, we sat in the old van he uses to distribute his food. He explained to me what led him to spend the last fifteen years driving through the streets every night, handing out food and blankets to people sleeping on bus benches and in homeless camps.

I had a wonderful childhood. But I never really took life seriously until I became an adult and went to college. I became rather cloistered, devoted to my studies, first at Rutgers and then at Berkeley. I approached the Bible with an academic understanding initially. On an historical level, on a literary level, and then on the level of prophecy.

I began to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I became obsessed. Certain passages leapt out at me. I felt suddenly enlightened. It happened rapidly. I knew it had to be true, and I couldn't avoid it. There was no turning to the left or to the right. I had no choice but to make every effort to get to know God. He put a spirit in me and he wouldn't let go.

I began to neglect my studies. It was frightening. I'd find myself reading the scriptures and looking over at the corner of the room and the pile of books I needed to hit to continue the daunting workload I had in graduate school. Neglecting it more and more to read the Bible. And eventually I just dropped out.

My new monkish existence was very different, because it required me to go into the field, to visit the needy, the marginalized, the despised. I was reading Luke Chapter 6, and Jesus says there to give to everyone who asks. I was still uncertain whether it was all real or not. But I decided to be obedient to it, and I went out and started giving to everyone who asked me. Every single person. I gave money, straight up. I'd run out of money from time to time. I'd look between cushions on the couch for change so I could go get a cup of coffee, hoping that no one would ask me for money before I got it.

It was the beginning of real faith, of surrendering myself completely. That was the most difficult. I was renting a room in a little house on Channing Way in Berkeley. I knew that if I start giving my money away, I wouldn't have any to pay my rent. I did lose that room, so I had to beat it. I went back to New Jersey and got married, and came back out to California. My wife and I decided to move into an apartment, with the idea that we were going to serve God together. She didn't have the same ideas about giving everything away, but she went along with the program. She was a trooper.

We began getting kicked out of apartments for housing homeless people. We would take people right off the streets. Women with crack babies. Alcoholics. I felt guilty paying rent somewhere, and sleeping in a warm bed, when there were others on the street, right outside my apartment. The spirit of God within me wouldn't allow it.

That was a tremendous source of tension with my wife, and it escalated. I tried to convince her to surrender more of our money, more of our time, more of our living space. She really hung in there for a long time, but it was not fun. Those were some troubling times. We're not together anymore, but I love her. She's a wonderful human being — caring, very loving, and strong.

I'm living on the streets now. I've been homeless for over ten years. But I never expected to have anything in serving God. It's not about living comfortably in this world. It didn't make it any easier to become homeless — it was still a very frightening experience. Wringing of hands. Wandering the streets. My time in the army, as a paratrooper enduring the cold, the rain and the mud, actually helped prepare me for being homeless.

I didn't know if I'd lost my mind at first, but there was that small voice of God, saying hold on. My revelation was a matter of intellect, rather than gut feeling — that the words of Jesus are true, and to hold onto them. I did, and they got me through the first few years of homelessness, which were difficult indeed. A day does not go by that I don't want to quit, when I'm overcome with feelings of despair. I've put all my eggs in one basket and that is Jesus. He sees me through everything and gives me strength that I didn't know existed. But it's draining. It's exhausting. It is.

I work every day. I do carpentry. I paint. I do tile. I'll even do yard work. The food I distribute comes from donations, from bakeries, the Salvation Army, and the Alameda County Food Bank. People help me do the collection, and Jeffrey, who does the accounting, started up a nonprofit organization for me. We receive donations from that.

I live in a camp on the side of the freeway. I've been kicked around from camp to camp by Caltrans for years — my own personal diaspora. Many times I've had a camp full of feeble people, old people, people with dementia. Think of how hard it is to march everyone to a different camp, with all of their bedding and belongings in shopping carts. So I form an advance party, and clear out a space somewhere along the freeway. We all move in together, like a family. Sometimes we move back into the same camp, if the police aren't involved. Many homeless people do that.

Caltrans workers are very pragmatic about the whole thing. They understand there's homelessness, and they're hoping you'll cooperate. They usually give a warning, but I've had experiences of going back to camp and discovering everything missing, including the people. I have to search for them, and bring them to a safe haven somewhere. All my library books, suddenly gone, because Caltrans takes them.

There are different types of homeless people. Many homeless have personality disorders and find it very difficult to be around people or hold down jobs. They have no choice but to be on the streets, because they're ill-equipped to deal with the requirements of life. That should inspire mercy in us, and compassion.

Of course, there are people on the streets who got there because of drugs and alcohol. That is also something that should require compassion in us, because people don't always understand the consequences when they get involved. There are relatively few people who want to be on the streets. I know I don't want to. I'd rather be inside with a nice warm bed, a shower, a toilet, and everything else.

There are many intelligent people on the streets. They have interesting things to say and fascinating personalities. That's what we need to recognize — that these are real people, with hopes and dreams and emotions, just like the rest of us. People have to think it through, and recognize that not everybody is born with the same level of confidence. There are many people out there who need assistance. Why is it such a big deal that we need to assist the weak? Why is that so baffling?