This essay appears in Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color (2021)
Late 1990s. I ran the first leg of three along Skyline Boulevard in the dark, gripping a baton in my hand, a headlamp lighting the way. To my right, the vast Pacific Ocean I could hear and smell but not see. Ahead of me, a long, empty two-lane road. My teammates had dropped me off at the handoff point, where I jumped out of the van and grabbed the baton from the previous runner: each of us with a hand on one end of the stick for a brief moment as one runner—tired, fatigued—let go so the fresh, well-rested runner could take over. It went like this for 24 hours until our team of twelve made it 192 miles from Calistoga to Santa Cruz to raise funds for charity. On my last leg in Ben Lomond, the lack of sleep, the cold and hunger had taken over me. Just when I thought about giving up, two exhausted teammates who’d already completed their three legs emerged from the van to run alongside me. Because of them, I made it to the handoff station, where the next runner grabbed the baton from me and hurried off.
* * *
August 2020. I got the call late in the afternoon from Rose, a longtime housing worker and activist. It had been eleven long days since I started helping Anita, an African American houseless mother, and her four children ages two to nine. Her boyfriend, her niece, and her nineteen-year-old son were also part of the tight group that made up their family circle. All of them were living between two small tents in Oak Knoll Park at the bottom of my street near Lake Merritt.
I hoped my conversation with Rose would be the beginning of a months-long effort to get this family housed during a pandemic and raging wildfires that pushed Bay Area air quality to unhealthy levels. However, after listening to my story, she said, “The need is so great. Housing is just one of their challenges. You don’t know them; they didn’t come through “the system.” you don’t know their history, if there’s drug or alcohol abuse. I know this isn’t what you want to hear but I wanted to call to protect you. To make sure you don’t get too involved. The need is so great.”
It took me several minutes to process her advice. A part of me wanted to disagree with Rose, to let her know I couldn’t stop now. A two-year old girl in diapers living on the streets. And then, another part of me exhaled in the deepest way, as if Rose had given me permission to disengage myself from the difficult situation altogether. Something I didn’t think possible at that point, or ethical. A realization I mightn’t have arrived at on my own any time soon.
I first met Anita and her kids when passing out lunch bags to the houseless folks in my neighborhood, something I started doing when homeless encampments developed in my immediate area over the past year. It got to the point where I couldn’t run an errand or walk my dogs without seeing people in need in my own neighborhood. I’ve experienced secondhand trauma from my dad’s stories of hunger during WWII in the Philippines; his mother, my grandmother, died from starvation. I didn’t want to be another person looking away.
Each week, using money I would’ve otherwise spent on sushi, I bought Costco lunchmeat for sandwiches, chips, and chocolates. I packed the lunches on Sunday afternoons and distributed them until I ran out. Soon I started to include dog food as well. I asked for donations online so I could expand my operations. Never had I come across any children during my deliveries. That day Anita’s two-year-old emerged from the tent, followed by her four-year-old, followed by her seven-year-old, followed by her nine-year old, I couldn’t make sense of it. What are they doing here? How can they be living here? How can we (neighbors, passersby, the city of Oakland, the mayor) allow this?
Anita and I exchanged numbers. She asked me for multi-vitamins because the whites of her eyes turned yellow, something I’d noticed immediately. She pointed to her shoes to show me her swollen feet and said her boyfriend’s feet also were swollen. When I asked her what she needed most right now, she said a van that seats seven, which I couldn’t provide for her. “You need medical attention,” I said. She looked at me like I’d just said something in a foreign language. Her young kids crowded around me. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Basketball player and scientist!” said the nine-year-old boy, with every confidence he could be both.
Operation Dignity arranged to put the family in a motel for a week. I used the funds I raised online to buy food and water in bulk and delivered it to them along with Anita’s vitamins. She texted to ask for a hot plate for cooking, so I ordered one and brought it to their motel along with a large pizza and quarters for laundry. One generous person on Nextdoor paid for two extra nights when their motel voucher had expired and air quality worsened. I called every nonprofit I could find to ask about assistance for the family. Many said their shelters were full. Some offered food and diapers, and temporary shelter but only for Anita and up to two kids. All of them asked, “Is she in the system?” When I’d ask Anita if she were in the system, she would say ‘yes’ even though the case managers I spoke to at various agencies said she was not.
After intense efforts over a few weeks, the call with Rose woke me up. At the same time, Anita stopped responding to my texts, weary of my insistence that she sign up to a system that can both help and hurt her. “I don’t want to lose my kids,” she would say. I couldn’t reassure her otherwise because I knew it to be a real possibility. I knew the chances were high that they could take away one or all of them, something that needs to change if houseless mothers are to get the help they need without fear. Unfortunately, I never heard from Anita again.
My boyfriend once said to me that you can’t help everyone, but you can do small things to help make someone’s day better. I’ve realized that, although I couldn’t help Anita and her family in the way I’d hoped, I and my neighbors did make their lives better for a brief period. That we’re all in a long relay race, doing our part the best we can, and then handing the baton off to the next person who can help as much as they can, and so on. Every leg of the race counts, every gesture, however big or small, matters.
I’ve since left the Bay Area for a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As soon as things open up, I’ll be ready to help again in any way I can.