I’ve Lived in an Oakland and a Mumbai Slum. Here’s what the NYT article got wrong.

A December 17 New York Times Article by Thomas Fuller and Josh Haner compared a homeless encampment on High St in Oakland to slums in the Global South, particularly one in Mexico City. In many ways, “The California Homeless Camp” is an accurate portrayal of the condition in California’s encampments.[1] In other ways, the article negates or omits nuances imperative to our understanding of the lives of unhoused Americans.

In 2018 I helped support a group of unhoused advocates in establishing a women-run encampment in East Oakland.[2] Women experiencing homelessness along with a group of housed allies including myself and a trusted group of male allies ran the camp during the day. We passed out donations of food and clothes to community members and maintained a medical tent where people could receive supplies from socks to condoms and basic first aid. And at night we slept in tents on the concrete or on pallets, and together with volunteers constructed tiny homes where women could live with dignity and independence. That camp — which supported hundreds of community members through mutual aid — was brutally evicted in December, 2018 by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Special Assistant Joe DeVries in a police raid that lasted 10 hours and left half a dozen women who were promised shelter out on the street in the middle of the night.

Almost a decade earlier, I lived in a slum in Mumbai, India, while researching the dietary habits of migrant workers in three slum areas in the city. When I was preparing my dissertation, I proposed to my academic advisors to allow me to compare an Indian slum to an American one. They declined, indicating that to propose that American homeless settlements were comparable to those in India or elsewhere in the Global South was preposterous.

They were wrong. Last year, a UN Rapporteur made just that comparison in a report that likened the informal settlements sheltering unhoused people in California’s Bay Area to the worst public health disasters in global slum areas.[3] This NYT article shouldn’t be shocking; it’s ten years late. And it glosses over, reduces, or omits some of the most important similarities between American slums and those in the Global South.

Here is the truth:

1. Officials turn a blind eye only when it serves them. Referencing stolen utilities in slum areas that can go intentionally ignored by city officials, authors Fuller and Haner miss an opportunity to highlight the tension between what is seen and unseen in homeless camps. City officials occasionally overlook a stolen utility line but only when it is in their best interest to do so. If calling attention to it strains resources, threatens to destabilize a truce between a camp and local city enforcers, or exacerbates waste disposal issues that may anger housed residents and business owners nearby, they may ignore a transgression. In doing so, they also “turn a blind eye” to the suffering, humiliation, and destitution of these places.

Furthermore, city officials often refuse to acknowledge the reality of the attention they do pay to street settlements. San Francisco’s Mayor Breed routinely denies that city officials “sweep” homeless encampments, a tactic used in Oakland and throughout California as well as each of the slums in which I spent time in Mumbai. Sweeps are often referred to as “cleanup efforts”, but most often result in the brutal eviction of unhoused residents by police. Officers forcefully remove people living on sidewalks, parks, and in their vehicles, shuffling them off to some other corner or bench, most often illegally destroying or confiscating property in the process.[4] Officials then ignore protesters, policy advocates, and the persistent pleading of unhoused people and housed experts at City Council meetings. The blind eye of city officials is strategic; it sees what it wants, and only to its own advantage.

2. Oakland encampments are not refugee camps. When Fuller states in the article that the High St encampment could easily be a refugee camp, he is unfortunately playing into mythical rhetoric used by Californians to delay homelessness solutions: that the people in the camps aren’t locals, they’re from elsewhere. Yet roughly half of California’s unhoused citizens are long-term residents of the state, and the vast majority were housed residents of a Californian city prior to becoming homeless there.[5] These camps are not filled with people from elsewhere, allowing policymakers to somehow put off responsibility. They are issues of local displacement and housing injustice.

3. Those visitors aren’t shadows, they’re rapists. Fuller was likely using the words of the homeless woman he was interviewing in describing her sexual attacker(s), and yet it is important here to report more than just metaphor: the men who come in the night are not shadows, they are violent rapists. Homeless camps and slums are rampant with sexual assault and sex trafficking, making them perilously dangerous places for women and children to live.[6]

In the Oakland encampment where I occasionally stayed overnight, many of us slept with baseball bats poised in our hands or knives under our pillows, ready to confront intrusions from men who came in the night, some of whom were known to have assaulted women at the camp. I had the privilege to go home in the morning when I wanted to, and sleep in my bed when I was exhausted by the ubiquity of imminent danger. I didn’t have that opportunity in India, where I shared three rooms with twenty-two women and girls. The men would come after midnight, most often in pairs or small groups. They would land on the corrugated tin roof, and whoever woke first to the hollow sounds of their feet would raise a loud cry. We would run into the enclosed courtyard, swinging long sticks and howling, fending off the surprised and fearful attackers as the youngest girls hid silently inside. Most of the women in our slum neighborhood weren’t as fortunate as us to have locks on our compound door and the protection of numbers. Most of the women on the streets of Oakland also lack those basic protections. Arguably, the greatest tragedy of ignoring the housing crisis is ignoring the dangers it poses to vulnerable women, children, and LGBTQ+ residents who suffer health and dignity injustices as well as the constant threat of sexual assault.

4. Homeless people work. They work minimum wage, full and part time, they have professional or illicit careers. They are dishwashers and cooks and housekeepers and carwash attendants and sexworkers and more. They are entrepreneurs who build informal economies inside camps, selling or trading coffee or goods or personal care skills. Some people like to believe that homeless people are lazy, but the truth is many unhoused people work. This highlights the economic reality of California’s homelessness: many employed people cannot afford housing in the state. The Fuller/ Haner article highlighted the dynamism and dignity of our unhoused residents. Yet neglecting to center employment — and the resilience required by homeless residents to maintain employment and seek out innovative forms of income — dismisses the weight of the economic issue facing California and urban officials across the globe. Street homelessness isn’t about lazy people who caught a bad break. It is about mostly hardworking citizens who can only afford to live on the street because of failed economic and housing policies.

It is important that we’re uncomfortable with the word slum used to describe part of one of the wealthiest areas of our country. It is a word that depicts a dense area of poverty and the lack of essential infrastructure. We are uncomfortable with the comparison of one of our fast-growing, tech-heavy American cities with a slum in a “developing” country because we like to think that our intellect, our progress, and our politics have and will save us from a life of pure survival. And importantly, the term slum is often used in a pejorative and stigmatizing way. Slums are a nuisance. The word captures the disgust and annoyance that California city officials feel at the burden in their backyards that won’t go away. And the word does nothing to define the individual lived experiences, diverse living conditions, and nuances in needs and preferences of people who experience housing injustice.

There is nowhere in the world where people like to think of their cities in this way. Mumbai housed residents are generally permissive of conversations about homeless settlements, as long as you’re not talking about their neighborhood. And Americans are generally content to lament the homeless problem, as long as you are not talking about the homeless people on their doorstep. In the city of Mumbai, too, officials pose for newspaper photos under headlines about championing homelessness and sit on commissions to fix the problem. And they send their police out to sweep the streets of evidence of the survival of human frailty, of evidence of the brutality of wealth disparities, of the failure of real estate development to deliver a city from grace.

One and the same.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/17/us/oakland-california-homeless-camp.html

[2] https://www.ktvu.com/news/city-of-oakland-evicts-homeless-womens-housing-and-dignity-village

[3] https://www.undocs.org/A/73/310/rev.1

[4] https://www.sfexaminer.com/news-columnists/tough-love-continues-to-be-an-excuse-for-criminalizing-homelessness/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/us/homeless-population.html

[6] https://vawnet.org/material/no-safe-place-sexual-assault-lives-homeless-women