For more please head over to my collection on Flickr, Street Art Photography, an album containing over a thousand photos of street art captured over the past 15 years in NYC and Sacramento, with some images taken in other cities and countries. From tags to large scale murals, with everything in between… Some of this artwork has long disappeared, others remain, some are hidden between buildings, others are displayed prominently, proudly, on visible walls. Many of the photos in this album were taken in Bushwick in Brooklyn over a decade ago, an area which has undergone significant changes in the past few years, with more artwork going up, but, at the same time, a lot disappearing too. Art is everywhere, we just need to look around to see it.
It’s no secret that the homeless crisis in California is steadily rising and that no long-term solutions are in place to put a dent in the growing numbers. The ongoing opioid epidemic, natural disasters such as floods and wildfires, rising rents and lack of affordable housing, and inaccessible mental health care conflagrate the issue, but homelessness is not new to the US in any shape or form. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the numbers that appear in city-mandated reports don’t even begin to scratch the surface. Right-wing activists use the homeless as a poster child for their anti-immigration stances (I don’t see them actually proposing actual solutions to get people off the streets though), and others pretend the issue isn’t as bad as it appears. But those of us who walk miles of city sidewalks every day know the score.
I walk eight miles a day to and from my kids’ preschool, rain or shine. During the last autumn and winter I would jot down little stories, anecdotes, and thoughts from these walks, wondering where these people were from, what brought them to the streets of Sacramento. It’s easy to turn our faces away and complain about the (multiple) discarded needles, the human feces and vomit on the sidewalks and the grass, to worry about the mental illnesses that plague so many of the people on the streets, but we have to remember that these people are still people.
Here are some of the stories, fragments of moments in time that caught my eyes.
I suddenly realized the other day that my children are growing up thinking that homelessness is normal. Every morning we walk through the streets of downtown and midtown and they see people sleeping on the sidewalks, under shop awnings, and in tents. My eldest, a four year old, wants to grow up fast so that she can build houses for everyone so “they can have beds and clean toilets and a bath”. She says that it should be easy. It should really, shouldn’t it? I don’t want them to grow up desensitized to what they see. This is not normal. This should never be normal.
As I walk to and from preschool with the kids every day I see the same scenes, different people, but the same poverty, despondency, the rock bottom I hope none of my loved ones ever meet. My father may or may not have been homeless for a while before he died, and while it was a different country, a different time, it was the same sort of drug, and the same issues that none of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads seem to be able to solve. Sometimes I see a boot, black hair, and I look for him in a stranger’s eyes, but that is a story for another day.
As the sun rises behind the Capitol we walk past figures curled around underground steam outlets, wrapped in blankets with their shoes and bags tied together, some empty cans or food wrappers in a corner. People rise from makeshift beds in the Capitol Gardens, rolling up sleeping bags and putting on shoes, washing their faces in the public bathrooms, walking over to wait for the Central Library to open as no one stops anyone from using the restrooms there. Everyone deserves to have access to basic commodities, to the privacy of a restroom, to a mirror, and warm water. But based on the amount of human feces we have to step around in some areas, that doesn’t seem to be a priority for the officials of Sacramento.
There is the beautiful lady with the elaborate hairdo who is probably much younger than she looks. She applies her make up in the public toilet in the Capitol Gardens, and walks away with her neatly packed cart, her face serene, her age unknown, but definitely in the over 50 range. How long has she been on the streets? Who knows…
What about all of the people who are homeless and breathing the Camp wildfire smoke into their lungs? The micro particles embedding themselves into their internal organs, the air quality deemed hazardous. We are told to go inside, to stay inside, but those people have no indoors to enter. There is nowhere near enough space for everyone in the shelters, so they have to stay outside and breathe through the toxic smoke. My kids had coughs for months afterwards, so I can only imagine how it would have affected those who couldn’t stay indoors.
The first time I saw the arm flexer I was walking alone near the girls’ school. I saw him from afar, flexing his arm muscles as he walked, as if he were readying himself for the ring. He may have looked threatening and possibly creepy from afar, but I took my chances anyway and walked past him: harmless. And then I thought about how life on the streets is so dangerous for him, more dangerous, because those who would call the police are really just calling death. Don’t call the cops on homeless black men in Sacramento, they will arrive 5 at a time and aggressively pin your arms to your back and let your pants fall to the ground while they muscle your yielding body into the patrol car*. Sacramento PD have a notoriously terrible reputation when it comes to gunning down mentally ill and/or homeless black men. I see their actions frequently while walking, four to five to one person, manning their bikes like riot gear, ordering people from their sleeping bags, telling them to move on. This is not a solution. This is not even a Band-Aid. Move on? From the streets to the riverside that is currently flooded, bloated with water from another wet winter?
I see the arm flexer regularly now, in different locations, always flexing his muscles, hyping himself up for the powerful walk into the ring, a boxing ring that only exists in his imagination. Or maybe just every day on the streets of Sacramento is the big fight to survive. I can believe that.
The man who always stands on the corner of 10th and L by the traffic lights selling the Homestead newspaper never forgets to smile, to acknowledge you, and to ask you how you are. He deserves the same consideration, a smile, a hello. I don’t know how he arrived here, and I don’t know where he will go, but our paths cross frequently and he always remembers me. I feel so guilty that I rarely have a dollar on me for his newspaper.
I don’t know whether the drugs came first or they are the way to bear life on the street, but K Street and Cesar Chavez Plaza are where deals happen so frequently that people walk through them without even realizing what is going on around them. I see bags of meth passed between hands in front of my kids’ stroller, and want to clap my hands and tell dealers to stop profiting from the homeless, but then again if they don’t get it from one they will get it from another, right? But still, it makes me angry when I find used syringes in the grass my children are running around in, and I have to teach my daughter to never ever touch those orange plastic things we find littered around street corners all over the place.
How do we actually help people survive the streets long-term, how do we effectively treat mental illness, drug abuse, and years of surviving day to day in a world that runs parallel to ours, visible but invisible, but only invisible because we make them so?
A lady carries a basket of food items out of the dollar store without paying and no one says anything, hopefully she will eat a proper meal tonight. I have spent so many weeks when I wonder how to make $20 stretch unbelievably far, but I have never had to wonder where I will sleep tonight or tomorrow, which I know is a privilege now. There are so many of us who are one small upset away from losing our home, one less paycheck away from the worry of where we are going to go if we can no longer afford the rent. The man who used to sit outside the same dollar store with the sad eyes and the little brown puppy has gone. I sometimes wonder if he just moved on, but my spirit hopes that he got clean and made it out alive.
I used to think K Street was bad, but after our walking commute started taking us along the other side of 16th St I realized that it could be a lot worse than K. 16th St is skid row. I can hear the sound of shoes being scraped along the pavement behind me while I’m walking with the stroller, shoes that don’t fit properly, I assume, but I don’t want to turn around and look. I walk past the Governor’s House, on the floor in front of me are flyers warning of government takeovers, and across the street a homeless man is sleeping in a shuttered shop doorway. The new governor decided to move into a house in a place that is “more kid-friendly”, and while I actually like his policies, I think by doing that he just played into the same old system: building walls around his family so that they don’t have to see what we do every day. It’s just wrong, you walk around and it just gets worse, poverty on the one side, and the rich on the other, construction everywhere, but only for new condos and expensive accommodation, no affordable housing anywhere. (Although you always hear the local government talking about “more affordable housing” there hasn’t been any proof of it).
Coming up to J Street I hear the slouching foot sound behind me again, and then the sound of plastic wheels hitting concrete: someone pulling a bag on wheels. Not the sound of someone going to the airport or the train station, not the sounds of early morning commuters I could hear when I lived in my little apartment in Grenoble, France. This is the sound of people pulling their only belongings behind them, their lives in a bag. Going from one spot to another in the city hoping to find a warm place to sleep, a hot cup of coffee, a friendly face, a dealer.
It was 32 degrees last night, freezing this morning, nothing compared to winter in my previous home of NYC, but for Sacramento this is cold. There are over 4,000 people on the streets every night in Sacramento, but those numbers are from 2017 and I know for a fact that there are many more today, just from walking everywhere. There is never enough room at the shelters, the largest holds about 600 beds but is far from downtown, and in comparison with the actual numbers on the streets is nothing. People are cold, walking around with blanket cloaks, it feels like zombie land sometimes: freezing people slouching along, vacant stares, not here anymore. Nowhere to go, no one to help them, no clue if or when they will taste their next hot meal. I walk faster, away from the footsteps behind me, never turning back to see their face.
This is the “land of the free”, the country where supposedly everyone has opportunities, but these opportunities seem to be only available to those who have the privilege of having those opportunities in the first place.
Walking down P St towards home, I realize that for what could be such a beautiful place in the world, this city houses so much gloom, sadness, and darkness. The sky is so blue, and the sun shines so much; there are so many oranges falling from the trees to rot on the ground, and people are going hungry in the streets. Nothing makes sense. All of the new buildings going up, all of the abandoned structures waiting for new life, all places only available to the richer. Sacramento is no longer the affordable city it once was. In January the townhouses in Capitol Towers were emptied, getting ready to be demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel and newer apartment blocks. They are still empty, all of those homes that could be a shelter to many. But instead they pay a security guard to patrol the area 24/7 to make sure no one sleeps there. I understand why, but it seems like such a waste all the same.
To the man standing barefoot on the freezing concrete: I’m so sorry. To the lady standing and sleeping with her head against a windowsill: I’m so sorry. To the person who left all of their belongings on the slope up to DOCO and disappeared: I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that I don’t know what to do. I walk through DOCO, this new area that feels so posh and shiny, bang in the middle of disrepair, poverty, loneliness, and addiction staring at me from each side. I just feel so sorry, and so guilty, and then angry because everybody is failing these people, myself included.
Every morning I see a new tent popping up amongst the others on a sidewalk, in front of City Hall, in a grassy space that has yet to be claimed by condo-builders. Not everyone has a tent, there are so many who just lie down on the street and cover themselves with a blanket. Residential streets, shopping streets, downtown government building streets: people set up makeshift homes for a night or two, a bed for now. This morning I walked past someone asleep in front of the house that is for sale for $900 grand.
A woman pulls a shopping cart behind her wearing shoes that are at least 4 times too big while the gentleman who spends his nights drinking cheap 40’s in the awning on S and 5th shuffles his government-issued wheelchair across the main road. And people, like me, walk by, parallel worlds in the same world.
Just after the Christmas break it felt like there was suddenly an influx of visibly mentally ill people in the downtown-midtown area. Around the school mainly. It felt like somebody had just emptied a psychiatric hospital out on the streets, a slightly Gothamesque vision every time I pushed the stroller along F St. One morning a dense fog covered all buildings and swirled through the streets, a similar effect seen during the first real snowfall of winter in NYC. Suddenly a woman’s face popped out of nowhere, cackling about Santy and candy, even though we were well into January by then, her fingers pointing at us as I sped past. I don’t know if the drugs came first, or the streets, or both, but she was not a safe person, not to herself or to others. These are the days when I question our determination to bring our kids up downtown rather than in some random suburban setting.
One day I had a sudden weird desire to cross J St earlier than I usually do, I don’t know why. I pondered my impulsive decision to cross where it was a lot less safe when I saw that a man was having a very angry and violent mental breakdown on the other side of the street. He was throwing his suitcase into the air, shouting, and throwing punches around, and there was no way to settle him down. My gut is never wrong, it usually leads me away from danger.
I walk several different routes to and from the school, depending on the weather, my mood, and my anxiety level (being spat on by a neo Nazi back in the autumn always an event in the back of mind). We always end up crossing the same streets and seeing the same people though. I realized while pushing the stroller through another rain storm on 10th St that we would run into the same man at the same time in the morning, in the same place. And then again in the afternoon. And then I saw him again, walking in the same direction at a random time on a Saturday too. Does he live nearby? He is striking, handsome, piercing light eyes, dressed in what appear to be clean clothes. One day I noticed that he was always carrying a neatly folded blanket under his arm. And that he passed by us for the second time when we were waiting on the corner of the street. That’s when it clicked: he wasn’t on his way somewhere at the same time we were on our way somewhere else every day. Passing him by on the same street at different times wasn’t chance. He was walking round the block, again and again, in a determined fashion, a sense of purpose but no real destination. Is he ex-military? Possibly. Homeless? Definitely, as it has since been confirmed that he sleeps is a doorway on that block every night.
On that same block I saw a man light his crack pipe in the middle of the sidewalk a few weeks ago, a few feet ahead of me. Broad daylight, a well-frequented street, children in a stroller close by, and a crack pipe. The streets are hard, unforgiving, it’s freezing at night most of the time, and when it rains the streams of water pound relentlessly onto the concrete, finding their way into gutters, running into doorways, soaking blankets and cardboard and tarp, pooling around tents. But the drug use is so out in the open, desperate, and unforgiving too. There has to be a better solution that ignoring it and hoping it goes away.
There was a woman dressed in a garbage bag yesterday. One of those heavy duty large black ones, a garbage bag dress. The wind was brutal, freezing cold, more NYC than Sacramento. More and more tents are appearing around City Hall, people gathering together for safety and comfort, so many women. I can’t begin to imagine the traumas experienced by women living on the streets. (But the data is readily available online, although it would be good to see more up to date studies as this is a pretty important subject).
I am still haunted by what happened to us last year in the Capitol Gardens… I was helping one of my daughters use the public toilets when suddenly the woman who had been washing her face in the sink started shouting, cursing, screaming (in a British accent). I held my daughter close and told her not to worry and we stood silently in the stall wondering what we should do. My mother, visiting from the UK, was standing outside with the other kids asked if we were OK but I didn’t respond, afraid I would antagonize the lady even more. And then as suddenly as it started it stopped, and she walked out of the bathroom and away. Another day we saw her wrapped in a blanket not far from the toilets, sleeping.
16th Street Donuts is hands down the best donut shop in the city, with the kindest owner. It’s the kind of place where you tack on an extra dollar or two to your bill and ask them to give the next homeless person to walk through the door free breakfast. The kind of place where you can go and receive a warm cup of coffee when you have no money and no home. That strip mall on the corner of F and 16th is home to many people, their faces the same, their faces changing overnight, new ones replacing old. The parking lot is adjacent to the elementary school, a fenced wall separating the two. I’ve seen people shooting up, relieving themselves, buying drugs, sleeping, reading, eating, fighting, and just living in that small 20 or less car parking lot right against the school grounds. I’ve seen people set up camp in front of the school, and in the school playground. I hear the words “but its downtown, you have to expect it” as I walk by. I’m sure apathy never helped anyone though… I think the donut shop has the right attitude though: treat everyone as human. Most days my empathy overwhelms me, but some days I get angry because I don’t want to have to yet again tell my kids to never ever touch a needle like the one we just stepped over.
Those days when I am angry I go into the donut shop and remember that we are all human.
There are so many more stories, so many more people. I just continue to jot them down in my journal, remember their faces, and hopefully remind those around me that we can choose to look away, or we can choose to be present.
*I’ve seen this happen several times. Sacramento PD has a very bad reputation for shooting first, asking questions next, especially when it comes to homeless and/or possibly mentally ill black men.
My two daughters currently go to preschool here in Sacramento. One is nearly 5 and will be starting Kindergarten in September, and the other is 3 and should be enjoying another year of preschool before she goes to elementary school. I also have a 20 month old who would have gone to the same preschool when he turns 3, which would have been a smooth transition seeing as he already knows everyone who works there.
But a few weeks ago the Sacramento City Unified School District board decided to cut the preschool program in half by the end of June. Our school got the axe, as well as half of the programs currently in place. The school board claims that it is the only way to cut the current budget in order to avoid a state takeover, but it appears that this is really just a cover up. The fact that we are losing our preschools, and so many teachers and other staff are losing their jobs, came as a massive surprise to all of us, parents and teachers alike.
We live in downtown Sacramento and don’t own a car. We walk and bike to most places, take public transport, and the occasional Uber when absolutely necessary. We can’t afford to run a car right now, and we actually like living within walking distance from most places that we frequent. Downtown and midtown Sacramento are very walkable areas, and there are grocery stores, parks, libraries, and many other places to go to.
There is however only one full day state preschool within walking distance from our house. When I say walking distance I mean within a 3-4 mile walkable radius. The preschool my children go to is actually a 2 mile walk from our house, and there is no other affordable full day preschool accessible on foot or even via public transport from where we live. I walk 8 miles a day to ensure that my kids are able to go to school, and that’s fine. I’m lucky that I work from home.
At Washington, our preschool, the program is quite specific as it is a full day program, allowing parents to place their kids in a school environment while they work and/or go to school. It’s a brilliant set up for families who cannot afford the exorbitant costs of daycare and/or private preschool to send their kids to preschool while they work.
We don’t have any family around to help out if needed, and the few friends we have here are busy with their own kids. My job allows me to work from home, which is an option that many parents don’t have. But even with me working part time and my other half working two full time jobs we could never afford to pay for private preschool or childcare fees. And without family anywhere within a 1,000 mile radius, we count on ourselves and preschool to ensure that our kids are well-cared for, learn to socialize with others, and also get used to being in a school setting. One of my children was treated for severe anxiety all through last year, and without this full year at preschool she would have had a very, very hard time entering Kindergarten in September.
We love our children’s teachers and caregivers, and it breaks my heart that they will be losing their jobs because SCUSD can’t handle their budget correctly. Last year the board made a promise to teachers and parents that they would NOT lay-off staff or cut programs, and they are doing exactly what they promised they wouldn’t do. In the meantime the board is hiring more administrators, paying themselves nice hefty salaries, see the SCTA website for more information, and basically cutting costs where it hurts those who need the funding the most.
I have written letters to the governor, the mayor, the superintendent, and to board members. The mayor’s office sent back a polite brush off letter telling me that they understood that this is “frustrating” for me (thanks for the condescending attitude), and one of the school board members wrote a kind email back looping in someone who should have had more information (and who never responded). No one else even bothered to say they were looking into it, apologize, or make it right.
So basically it boils down to this:
1). SCUSD have burnt the budget into the ground and continue to refuse to listen to teachers and parents.
2). Instead of actually looking for real solutions the board decided to close half of the preschools and lay-off 350 members of staff (deeming us “unnecessary fat” I assume).
3). All of the “we are doing what is right for our student body” is fake concern as the benefits of preschool in terms of early intervention and providing kids with an advantage are well-documented. Eliminating preschool options is directly hurting our kids.
4). Removing the child development/preschool program hits low income families the hardest as we literally have nowhere else to turn. (Especially when you look at which schools are being slashed and their general location). As my middle child will now not be able to go back to preschool next year I will either have to quit my job or at least reduce my hours, which in turn will put us back on the brink of constantly worrying about how to pay rent again. Moving is not an option, as anyone who has tried to rent in Sacramento with limited funds would know.
5). Every single parent, teacher, and caregiver is affected by this. People are losing their jobs without the likelihood of finding a new one, parents will have to quit their jobs and/or school programs because I can promise you that none of us can afford the $1,000 plus it costs to put a child in private preschool per month. If the state is so focused on making sure that ALL children are given the best start in life then why are the important parts of that being pulled from under our feet?
6). We continue to be ignored. Board President Jessie Ryan refuses to answer her phone or provide parents with a real explanation on why we are losing our preschools, and the rest of the board continue to mislead parents and teachers alike with stories of “putting the students first”.
In NYC preschool is free for all children from 4 years old (and also for 3 year olds depending on family income). If NYC can provide high quality full-day child development for preschoolers, then why can’t Sacramento make it work too? I’m more than happy to be taxed a bit more just so that all families have access to nearby affordable preschool. I would even be fine paying $100 more on top of our regular monthly preschool fee to keep the schools open.
My children have been thriving at school, in terms of learning, making friends, being exposed to the structure of an educational setting. I wonder how I will explain to my three year old in June that I’m sorry but she won’t be going back to the preschool she loves next year because the school district decided that she and her friends weren’t important enough for them.
We still have not even received a courtesy call from SCUSD staff to explain what is happening and how they will help navigate this. They have left that up to the teachers who barely have any idea themselves as they have also been left in the dark.
That rare feeling of knowing you are in one place, but simultaneously being pummeled with the feeling of being in another. Fog like the fog we felt that Monday a few weeks ago is England: thick, dense, gloomy, damp. And beautiful. I am grateful to have been blessed with a day of my England just by stepping out of my door in California.
NYC, London, Sacramento, over the past decade. So many more where these came from, so many more that are still waiting to be taken.
“It appears to be the same rotten old wheel that keeps this country churning:
Oppression, hatred, cruelty, and fear.
We are hanging in there, tiptoeing around, then suddenly jumping full force
With our Doc Martens into the middle of it.
It’s either hide in the shadows and hope for the best or be the change you want to be for your children.
It won’t happen for us, but we can do it for the next generations.
If we don’t maintain some kind of semblance of hope there wouldn’t be any point in living anymore.
So hope pushes us forward, but reality makes it clear that Hope alone won’t save the day.
And if we don’t fight then we are no more than cowards really.
This world is so much bigger than a bar, a city, a country.
This world is so much bigger than the individual.”
(Excerpt from a work in progress with a working name of “Belonging”. It may or may not see the day).
When the Sun is Orange
It’s so smoky; the world is orange and grey.
A town burned down 80 miles away, to the ground;
We put masks to our faces, my chest heavy,
Involuntarily smoking now;
I see the particles embedding themselves in my children’s lungs:
They cough, vomit, cry, cough again. But we,
We still have our homes, our belongings, our lives.
Our city is standing, shrouded in the smoke from
The fire that burned a town to the ground.
The orange sun is strange, dusk at noon,
Challenging the smoke with its warmth: surprising.
Autumn hues, wrong, set the balance off kilter,
And the smoke continues to swirl, stuck, an apparition
Of our future perhaps, but real, this is no image.
Our ground is literally burning away beneath our feet
And we still deny, deny, deny.
Orange sun, grey smoke, burning breaths,
Search for bones and remains: where is the rain?
We lack appreciation for the droplets of water,
Praising blue skies and wispy clouds.
But when the rain refuses to come and blue turns to smoke
And smoke turns to death, all we do is
Close our eyes and yearn for change.
We are on Day 8 of being engulfed in wildfire smoke from the Camp Fire which burned down Paradise, a small town about 80 miles north of us, and is now considered to be the most deadly California wildfire on record. The air quality levels peaked over 343 today, harzardous, and our normally blue skies are grey, orange, hazy, and thick. The fire is still burning, and the wind is still blowing all of the smoke to our sity, where is sits, stagnant: the smell and the feel of the world’s biggest bonfire at our doorstep.
Last Wednesday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day, and this year I only really had time to mark it online in passing by reposting an essay I had written a while ago. But mental health awareness and the ramifications of untreated mental health issues are always on my mind. I don’t really have a choice in the matter. Mental health conditions, suicide, addiction, PTSD, and anxiety have all been part of my life from a very early age, through close family members, myself, intergenerational trauma, and usually a bit of all of that mixed together. Everything is boxed off separately, a contained “issue” that we deal with, and seal away. But in reality it is all linked, interconnected, and if we don’t talk about it, and seek some kind of help, it leaks out at some point.
Leaks out, combusts, explodes. I’ve been through all of that, and it’s never very pretty. Most of time it just gets boxed back away again, because dealing with the layers trauma creates means you have to actually start peeling them back again. That’s scary. And trauma has this way of making you feel like you are all alone, no matter how silly that may sound. You can read so many similar stories to your own, but still you are alone, throwing the same battered ball against your box of hidden memories. My methods of “dealing” with events has either been to drink copious amounts of alcohol, or withdrawal. As the latter is no longer possible, I resort to withdrawing myself, which in itself is actually not always unhealthy; it is a method of self-protection that has served me very well all my life.
At the beginning of this year I started to withdraw myself from everything that was causing my anxiety to skyrocket. One area at a time, I began to refocus on what matters the most to me, and to take myself out of the race that people everywhere seem to think we should be in. I spent the summer reading and writing, and spending quality time with my children, especially as two of them started school just recently. I also “quit” one job, and started another, allowing myself to go back to focusing my writing on what matters to me, and not what matters to businesses, which is often soul sucking and tremendously boring. I also ended up deleting most of my social media channels, and kind of just going back to basics. I haven’t been writing too much online recently but have more than made up for that offline with about 10 projects in the works. I don’t know where they are going, or what I am going to end up doing with them, but they are all cathartic, as I have found the more I reduce my online presence, the more I feel ready to expand my offline work. Next week I will post a story about being visible/invisible that many of you may relate to, and it is one of many short stories I have written this year.
Circling back to the subject of mental health, the importance of consolidating trauma and pain, as well as sharing it in a way that will help you as well as others: this is something that has been on my mind a lot this past year. The growing emergence of the #MeToo movement, the suicides and accidental overdoses of some of my favorite artists from my teens, as well as my beloved Anthony Bourdain, and then the triggering current events where again and again abuse and assault victims are picked apart and vilified are absolute proof that we need to start listening. And when I mean listen, I mean really listen. Not every survivor is able to talk about what happened to them, and we need to listen to that too. Listening, sharing, and moving on doesn’t always mean providing graphic details. Sometimes we may just be able to share that something terrible happened to us and that we may need help. Listening means hearing between the lines and holding out a hand.
At the end of September I participated in the Out of the Darkness walk here in Sacramento. It was the first time that I joined one of the AFSP’s (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) walks, and it solidified the points I have been trying to make to myself for so long now: there is no reason to hide away anymore. You are not alone. Over 1,000 people gathered together for the walk in Sacramento, and I’m sure hundreds if not thousands participate in the walks all over the country. There are different honor beads available at each walk, each color representing a person you may have lost or someone who is struggling. I found that it was a great way to see why people were walking without having to ask any questions. And it made me feel like I was less alone: there were other people wearing gold beads too, and other people wearing purple, and green, and teal. It felt like everyone was holding your hand, because they understood your pain, and you understood theirs.
I may have passed some of these people on the street or in the grocery store before, and never would have known how they had also suffered due to the suicide of a loved one, or because of their own struggle. Mental illness and trauma are often invisible, and when they are visible we shy away out of fear or disgust, unable to reach out and provide some kind of help.
A few weeks ago I was helping my eldest navigate the public toilets in the Capitol Gardens when the homeless lady who had been washing her face there started yelling and shouting obscenities. I had no idea whether it was directed at us, at a voice in her head, or at someone she thought she heard outside, but my first thought was to hold my daughter close and to tell her not to worry. She is extremely sensitive to these type of things and I could see that she was on the verge of having one of her own panicky moments. My next thought was to grab my phone and wonder if I should call someone, but nixed the idea immediately because Sac PD have a tendency to shoot before they think, and the woman wasn’t actually harming anyone. She suddenly stopped shouting and left the space as if nothing had happened. We saw her sleeping on the grass the next day, her belongings next to her. How can a country treat people this way? How can we, as individuals, let this happen? Who knows what this woman is going through, forced to live on the streets, possible voices going through her head constantly, and then also having to face the physical dangers of being a woman alone on the streets. There are so many people like her, victims of a society that refuses to acknowledge that mental health is a real thing, and not a stigma, or something to shove under the carpet. (This one story is part of a much larger issue in this country, one that I have written about before, and am currently writing about again).
I know that what I can do is continue to talk about all of this, whether it be for myself and/or for others. Depression is one of the leading causes of suicide and suicide attempts in the US, and there are approximately 12 people who perform some kind of self-harm with or without suicide intention for every death by suicide. If we don’t shatter the glass every time someone puts a new pane in, these numbers will only continue to climb. My children will never know their grandfathers, and both my partner’s and my father will never get to hold their grandchildren or hug their adult children. But I know for sure that there will be no holding back when we talk about mental health, pain, and trauma in our household.
It took me a long time to learn that there is no shame in sharing the mental load of life with others, and I’m still very much a work in progress. But I have come to the conclusion that the more we share, the more we help ourselves. No one should have to live with pain, trauma, sadness, anger, mental illness, illness, or anything for that matter, alone. It doesn’t matter how we communicate, but it does matter how the message is received and what the receiver does with it. Put the phone down, look into someone’s eyes and ask them sincerely how they are today. Listen to the response, and hold out your hand. It may be a simple gesture, but it’s a gesture in the right direction.
What started as the Sacramento Mural Festival in 2016, and then morphed into Wide Open Walls last year, has become my favorite time of the year in Sacramento! I love walking around and documenting the murals in progress, watching the artists work, and seeing more and more walls, streets even, become canvasses. The 2018 line up was especially exciting for me as Shepard Fairey is one of my favorite artists, and his mural turned out to be absolutely grandiose. I also discovered lots of other amazing artists, and walked miles with my kids every day to try to capture as many of the murals as possible.
Out of the 30 + artists listed I managed to capture 25 over the 10 days. (The others are not really within walking distance with three small kids, so I will add them to the album as and when I get to them). It was really fun creating routes, documenting the changes, chatting to artists, and just seeing the final results of all of these beautiful pieces of work. I have posted some of the images I took over the space of the 10 day festival below, but you can find a lot more right HERE. (Each image contains the artist’s name in the image title for reference). I will probably add a few more over the next few weeks as some were concealed by scaffolding or cars when I went past them last.
More information on the Wide Open Walls festival can be found on their website, mainly a map of all mural locations as well as information on all of the artists.
Last week when I went down to our building’s laundry room I (gently) kicked the door open with my foot as my hands were full. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw a man as startled as I was in the room. He rapidly picked up his belongings as soon as he got over his shock, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. Not that many people use our laundry room at 8am on a Tuesday morning, so I’m sure the guy thought it would be a safe shelter. This wasn’t my first time finding a homeless person in our laundry room, and it probably won’t be my last seeing as our property managers can’t seem to do anything we ask them to do (another story for another day). I’m not going to report the gentleman for sleeping in our laundry room, just like I won’t report the couple who were charging their phones in there the other time. If you have nowhere to call home and all the shelters are full you are going to look for somewhere safe to rest your head, aren’t you? That said I have obviously requested that the lock be fixed in the building.
We live in downtown Sacramento and we know how hard it is to find a place to live in this city. The rental market is tiny, the supply is way lower than the demand, and rents have risen by 7.2% in the last year alone. We spent over a year looking for a place on and off, and we were rejected from every single place we applied to. It didn’t matter if we had excellent references and rental history, if we made X times more than the required rental fee. Our credit was never high enough, and there were always about 50 other people interested in the place anyway, so we never stood a chance. We got rejected the first time we applied for the place we live in now, thankfully they accepted my mother as guarantor. How embarrassing is that though? Neither myself nor my partner had ever required a guarantor in our adult lives before!! But we have a home, and right now that is better than many others who live in this city.
There are currently just under 4,000 homeless people in Sacramento, a city of just under half a million people (1,723,634 million if you count the entire Sacramento urban area). This doesn’t include all of the people who are couch surfing or staying in extended stay hotels. 56%* of these people sleep on the streets every night. In larger cities such as San Francisco (7,499 homeless out of a population of 865,000), LA (55,188 homeless out of a population of 3.976 million), and NYC (62,974 homeless out of a population of 8.538 million), for example, the issue is even more visible: and rather than getting better it’s just getting worse. Just last year San Diego was plagued by an outbreak of Hepatitis A due to the virus that transferred rapidly through the growing homeless population. Shelters are not being built fast enough to keep up with the demand, and physical and mental health outreach and access is appalling.
I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve seen poverty, I’ve been to places where the dead are picked up in the streets in the morning before the tourists see them. I’ve also been and lived in some of the richest countries in the world, some of which have amazing social safety nets to ensure that those in need receive a helping hand. I always wonder where the safety net is in the US for all of these homeless people sleeping on the streets. Why do I see all of these new luxury condos get thrown up all around where we live whereas the waiting lists on the affordable housing complexes run into years rather than months. Why has the city built a new shelter to house 200 people instead of focusing on building more affordable housing? There is no way we can afford to move when our lease is up in June, so we will be forced to pay whatever higher rent rate that they offer us to renew – so I can’t even begin to imagine how hopeless it must seem to someone who is actually on the street already.
I often walk around the downtown area but I’m always surprised at just how strange it is. My experience of US city life is mainly relegated to NYC where I experienced living in more rundown areas (Bushwick a decade ago for example), as well as more affluent areas (West Village). But downtown Sacramento is quite shocking in its stark black and whiteness: part brand new sparkling luxury, part boarded up, falling to pieces, abandoned locations stanching of piss. Take K Street for example: at one end there is the new arena, faced by the Convention Center a few blocks down, and in between there are bright restaurants flanked by old, abandoned buildings, a retro movie theater followed by an IMAX with missing lights, a dusty corner store followed by sparkling jewelry shop. And all along the road people standing, waiting for a new direction, or for the drug dealers, staking their spot to lay their heads. It’s terribly sad, and very confusing. It’s not just K Street though... Every single street in downtown Sacramento, and all along the riverbank there are makeshift tents, bikes laden with someone’s belongings, probably all that they have in the world, cardboard boxes flattened against steam outlets, people sleeping on the grass in the parks... Human shit mixed with dog shit, people who have been on the streets for years, those who haven’t, the loners and those who travel in groups, the addicts, the mentally ill, the ones you don’t know if they are addicts because they are homeless or mentally ill, or homeless because they are addicts. I walk through the Capitol garden early in the morning and men and women pick up their belongings, roll their blankets and sleeping bags up, and walk away. Sometimes if you walk home at night along Capitol Mall figures rise up in front of you, only visible when you hit a rare street light, and you feel like you may actually have landed in zombie land. But these are PEOPLE, human beings like you and me, and the country seems to have forgotten them.
The country also seems to have forgotten about their veterans. With the military budget being as enormous as it is ($700 billion for 2018) one would have thought that this country would look after veterans better than they do. PTSD can hit anyone, and it doesn’t always manifest immediately on return from a war zone (or proximity to a war zone). Mental illness can affect anyone, whether they have served in a war or not. There are currently approximately 40,000 veterans living on the streets in the US, and another 1.4 million at risk of becoming homeless. We are failing these people by leaving them to suffer, after serving this country in the way they felt was the best. How can you push a gun into a young person’s hands and tell them to shoot, and then dump them out on the streets when you are done without any kind of psychological follow up? While services ARE slowly getting better, so many have fallen through the cracks. It breaks my heart to see these men and women sleeping rough in the parks, and on the sidewalks. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website has lots of important statistics, as well as information on how individuals can make a difference if they are so inclined.
I was walking past the Capitol this morning and saw the same homeless man I had found in our laundry room. He was sitting on a bench, staring into space. I don’t know what I can personally do about the situation apart from provide kindness, and food/necessities when we can afford it ourselves. Every so often we buy large Ziploc bags and fill them with socks, protein bars, toothpaste, sanitary pads etc, and keep them in the stroller basket to hand out as and when. I hope they help a little. But in the grander scheme of things we need to collectively keep pushing our representatives to take care of those who need it the most, and that includes families who struggle to make rent every month, families who have to juggle bills and are constantly paying late fees. If the number of homeless people in this country isn’t scary enough (just over 500,000), those living below the poverty line (40 million in 2016) is even scarier. How many of these people are one bill away from eviction or foreclosure?
We need better and more accessible mental health help, we need rent controlled and accessible housing instead of brand new luxury apartments that remain empty. We need to raise the poverty thresholds to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks, and that parents don’t find themselves living in their car with their kids because they couldn’t keep up with rent and daycare costs. We need proper shelters that are open to everyone with real access to rehabilitation help, whether it’s for guidance on how to find a place to live, a job, an address, food, medical help etc. Because turning a blind eye to those who are sleeping on the street, in shelters, in their cars, or on a friend or family member’s couch is not going to make the problem go away.
*Figures taken from Homelessness in Sacramento County: Results from the 2017 Point-in-Time Count
I usually pop a camera into my bag every time I go out and last year my partner and I decided to work on a juxtaposition of photos of Sacramento, showcasing the many people sleeping rough on the sidewalks with a backdrop of luxury buildings, government offices, and hip bars and restaurants. I found it very difficult to randomly take pictures of people, and felt super self-conscious about it, so I tried to avoid capturing their faces directly. You can see the collection here.
Where is home? I don’t know, it has changed so many times over the years. Sometimes it changes over the space of a day. You know, home is here, or home is there. Home is everywhere! But where is home really? I spent many years wondering this, yearning for somewhere else, nostalgic, homesickness just another part of my everyday emotional pool. I put my hands in, try to wash it away put there she is, wrapped around the reflection of the New York skyline or the Vercors mountain range. I close my eyes and there it is, my old boulangerie, the smell of freshly baked baguette right there in my nose. Or sometimes it is the bar on Orchard Street, the sounds in the walls when you walk open the doors, cool air, dried glass rings, the comforting smell of old beer that never goes away. Other times it is the churchyard in England, moss-covered tombstones, and names that have long since been forgotten by most. And then I imagine myself walking barefoot down the hill to the little beach on the Mediterranean, a mile or so from Nahariya, a few more from Akko. Home was leaving one home and landing in another, even when I had never been there before. Home was a suitcase in one hand and a cigarette in another, $200 in a bank account and a new life wherever I laid my head. Home is and will always be where I feel safe, happy, and with those I love.
The smell of rain on the warm pavement in the middle of the summer, a couple of swallows flying for cover into the eaves above my bedroom window, and the sound of the breeze rustling through branches and leaves, that is home. England in the summertime is home. Right there in the village where there is one main road and a few smaller ones, and two churches, the bells ringing on Sundays in time for the morning service. England is also the little room at the top of the building, with the grand staircase leading down to the rest of the apartment, cooking smells coming from the kitchen, the fire crackling in the living room. Home is the warm, thick quilt on Nana’s bed, watching television in the evening because I was allowed to stay up later than my sister. England is also living in London on next to nothing, writing poetry on my lunch break in Putney by the river; dreaming of Israel and California while wandering through the streets of Streatham. England is my first home, the home where I was born, and where I have returned to many a time. England is the comfort, the warmth, but also the grey and the dark. England is living as a working class family under Thatcher in the 80’s, but England is also rolling hills of green beauty and old, old pubs with real ale.
The unseasonably warm breeze cutting through the November air, leaves falling red, yellow, brown to the ground, but still t-shirt weather when yesterday we were in winter coats. Home is the Mistral whistling through the mountains into the valley, a city where the blue sky is tainted by brown pollution, nestled down between different mountain ranges. Vercors, Chartreuse, Belledonne: that is where I am from. France is nights spent sitting on the statue of Berlioz singing songs with a bottle of rose in my hands, hand in hand with my best friend, running through the cobbled streets causing havoc. Home is ivresse, home is warm bread and brie, ravioles baked in the oven, and countless espressos sitting outside en terrasse, no matter how hot or cold it is. Home is the relentless snow in the summer, and the snowcapped mountains in the winter. Home is opening your window shutters every morning to be greeted by the foot of a mountain, looming up into the sky, faces in the rocks, trees that turn with the seasons, somewhat oppressing, mostly a safety blanket. Never a real sunset on the horizon, sometimes I missed that, but those beautifully dramatic thunderstorms made up for it twice over. Dancing in the rain, happy faces, a kind of freedom from everything. Home is teenage years and metal and grunge and goth and friendships that last forever. Home is the most beautiful language in the world.
The smell of 5am in the spring, early morning jogger passing late night last caller, city that never sleeps: that is home. New York City, the place where so many dreams go to die, where so many dreams go to shine, is my home. A decade of decadence, a decade of wonder, of ups and downs and squiggly all arounds: a home that I never expected, but the home that I always craved. So many boots worn into the ground, uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, Queens, bridges and tunnels and subways and ferries. I can still find my way there blindfolded, the city sounds music to my ears. City sounds at night put me to sleep now, silence keeps me awake, ears craving the soothing sounds of sirens and cars, loud beats and voices travelling below my window. Home is the smell of laundry, bakery, trash, and stale beer all on the same block. Home is where love waxed and waned, and finally fell straight. Home is where my daughters were born, where the eldest took her first steps, and where life took a different turn. New York City: city where I lost and found myself over and over again, falling, crawling, standing up and walking tall. Home that haunts my dreams and my daydreams. Homesickness is the strongest with this one.
And now, home is here in this little city, capital of such a big state. Boiling hot in the summer, damp in the winter, wedged between desert and mountain, I suppose it is home. Home because we have a home, and home because my family is here. I still wander the streets like a stranger, one foot on, one foot off; looking for places we can make our own. We live in the bustle, but it is quiet, and we walk everywhere, every day. Past the Capitol where laws are passed and protests are held, through the gardens where each tree proudly displays a name and a history, up, up towards the real bustle, figuring out where we belong. I have known Sacramento on and off for 17 years and she appears to be struggling. Growing, but not fast enough, streets a mess of new and tumbledown, not enough room for the residents, K Street an image of the US that no one wants the world to see. Old Sacramento has my heart; the rumble of the wooden sidewalks as the stroller rolls over the slats, Evangeline’s beckoning us inside, memories of centuries lingering in the alleyways. I learn to love you, new home, the place where my son was born, but we will not be staying, our plans have many more horizons ahead of them.
Laced in between those homes are other homes, temporary stays that became more permanent, and forever etched into my mind. Barefoot walks to the edge of the moshav, running around the kibbutz at night… The little house in the suburbs, the place where I learnt what prejudice really meant, being spat on because I wasn’t blonde and didn’t speak Dutch. Biking to school, rain or shine, learning a new language in the space of weeks, months, little brains like sponges, watching, absorbing, listening. I still smell the Prasad in India, the overpowering smell of flowers on the tomb in the early morning, a perfect quiet, no one to bother me while I wrote and sketched. Sterilized water in containers outside of the rooms, perfectly crafted vegetarian meals, and people from all walks of life, a moment in time, ships passing through the night. That balcony in Barcelona, summer moon shining through my cigarette smoke as I listened to Cat Stevens and dreamed about coming back home, because those streets reminded me of home, of France home. My life is formed by a pattern of homes, all tracing backwards and forwards, down hills, over mountains, with many, many flights between them.
One day we will make our home somewhere else again. Another country, maybe one I have never resided in before, maybe one that I already call home. The wind has a tendency to turn and cast me off into all types of directions, heart first, the rest following right behind. If there is one thing I have learnt it is to never wait for something to happen, instead one should grab ahold of it and not let go.