03 Dec 2019

Down and Out in the Bay Area

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Wes Enzinna, in Harper’s, describes the bizarre fringe existence of a millennial bourgeois Bohemian trying to find living space in ever-so-rich, ever-so-f*cked-up Bay Area California.

[T]he year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Down these same streets, tourists scuttered along on Segways and techies surfed the hills on motorized longboards, transformed by their wealth into children, just as the sidewalk kids in cardboard boxes on Haight or in People’s Park aged overnight into decrepit adults, the former racing toward the future, the latter drifting away from it.

To my mother and girlfriend back East, the “shack situation” was a problem to be solved. “Can we help you find another place?” “Can you just find roommates and live in a house?” But the shack was the solution, not the problem.

As penance for abandoning my girlfriend, I still paid part of our rent in New York, and after covering my portion of our bills, my student loan payment, and car insurance, I had about $1,500 left over each month. That wouldn’t have been so little to live on, except that, according to some estimates, apartments then averaged $3,500 a month in San Francisco, $3,000 in Oakland. That year, 2016, 83,733 low-income San Franciscans would apply for the city’s affordable housing lottery, fighting for 1,025 slots. There were still cheap rooms available in the Bay, to be sure, mostly in ramshackle Victorians or weathered Maybeck bungalows where artists or activists or punks lived collectively and were protected by rent control, but these rooms were in dwindling supply and astonishingly high demand. On Craigslist or by word of mouth, vacancies were often offered exclusively to “Q.T.P.O.C.” (queer and trans people of color) or “B.A.B.R.” (Bay Area born and raised) roommates, a reasonable defensive measure against the ravages of the tech economy, which, block by block, was replacing the weird old counterculture with Stanford M.B.A.s and Google engineers.

For those of us caught in the middle, it meant that to score a bed, you had to have Q.T.P.O.C. friends willing to make an exception for you, or be a member of obscure Facebook groups like (’’’), which served as an underground network for people seeking shared housing. (The page also offered bartered services like massage and childcare and, on at least one occasion, a “free hearse.”) As in other cities under intense economic pressure, marginalized inhabitants had created an alternate, black-market rental economy: the currency may have been cultural capital, but competition was still fierce.

I spent a few weeks on friends’ couches before an acquaintance posted on Facebook about a room opening in his eight-bedroom house in Oakland for $475, a steal, and I messaged him immediately. Thirty people had already written, he said, and his roommates had also received scores of inquiries, so the odds weren’t good. He stopped answering my emails after that. The same thing happened with a few vacant rooms I tracked down at illegal warehouses, cavernous lofts where residents scrimped on such things as functioning plumbing or reliable electricity in order to have space to paint and make sculptures and host bands all night, places like the Dildo Factory, or Heco’s, or Ghost Ship, whose leaseholder posted a roommate-wanted ad on Craigslist that winter seeking

    all shamanic rattlesnake sexy jungle jazz hobo gunslingers looking for a space to house gear, use studio, develop next level Shaolin discipline after driving your taxi cab late at night, build fusion earth home bomb bunker spelunker shelters, and plant herbaceous colonies in the open sun & air.

I didn’t answer the Ghost Ship ad, but I went to a few “auditions” at other lofts. There were so many people vying for the spaces, I rarely got a call back and was never offered a room. I’d squandered whatever cool I once possessed, it turned out, by building a “normie” career as a writer and editor on the East Coast.

RTWT

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3 Feedbacks on "Down and Out in the Bay Area"

Bilderback

I suggest taking 2-3 dozen people to sunny Spain on a taxpayer paid vacation to discuss with others how to reduce their carbon footprint; works for Nancy Pelosi with the benefit that she won’t have to wade through homeless beggars, used hypodermic needles, and knee-deep shit.
They are producing more carbon (while picking my pocket) for this trip than I produce over several years, while doing nothing for America at large and less than nothing for her district.
All of which begs the question: how does half the population not see that?



OneGuy

What is needed in this discussion and search for an answer is some truth. We all make believe that these people are “homeless” as in they are just like you and me but suddenly they don’t have a place to live. No! That isn’t what happened and their homelessness is a symptom of the problem and NOT the problem. Without exception they are either addicts or crazy. Giving them money, housing and other benefits will do nothing to solve their problem and will only attract the marginal/functional addicts and crazy to the lifestyle.

The fix for this problem is to identify the reason be it mental illness or addiction of each homeless person and then to treat their “illness”. This should be done vigorously and relentlessly, i.e. every homeless person in sight anywhere or at any time should be taken into custody and placed in a mental health facility for evaluation. Those who need more mental health care should receive it and those who need to be helped with their addiction problems should get that help. In both cases it should be mandatory and while remanded to custody. Period. Wash, rinse, repeat as needed.



Mike-SMO

Our “hero” is living in a box on a junk heap because he can’t bring himself to change his relationship with his NYC “girlfriend” or to tell her, “It’s over”, but he did manage to find a market for a short piece that blames “society” for the conditions that he is living in. Very perceptive in an unperceptive kind of way.

The “druggies” and the “mentals” probably can’t see how they ended up with this guy either, but they are probably aware that they all are on the same voyage. “Gibs me moar” so I don’t have to grow up (or sober up).



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