At the corner of 22nd Street and Carlson Boulevard in Richmond sits a homeless encampment where the unofficial mayor, Oretha “Porkchop” Stevens, is calming down her next-door neighbor Tone. His phone is missing and Porkchop works to reassure him.
“You’re not crazy, you know where you put your stuff! Don’t play with your own mind,” she says with authority, perched on the bed inside her tent from where she presides all day over her dozen neighbors’ lives.
She and her community of homeless friends and neighbors are so steeped in the struggle of daily survival — finding their phones, searching for their next meal, and fighting eviction — that news of the largest initiative in recent years to try to help people like them has yet to reach their camp.
Cities and towns around California will vote in November on whether to spend $2 billion over the coming years to build housing and provide services to the state’s homeless. Virtually all of the money from the funding initiative, known as Proposition 2, will be focused on supporting the severely mentally ill, say county officials.
Porkchop and her friends, who are still recovering from being evicted from this same spot just a couple weeks earlier, know what they need and are happy to tell anyone who asks. They do need services for those facing mental illnesses in their community. But equally important for many is a job that pays enough to cover the soaring cost of housing in the area.
Oretha “Porkchop” Stevens stands outside of her tent in the camp at 22nd and Carlson. “You got to put yourself in our shoes, you know what I mean? Come kick it out here for like 24 hours and then you see what we really go through,” she says.
Some simply can’t make enough money in their low-wage jobs to pay rent in an increasingly unaffordable Richmond, says Vincent “Rocky” Clemons, a 53-year-old father of four who lives in the tent next to Porkchop’s. They need jobs that pay enough to cover rent and the cost of a roof over their heads, Rocky explains, with the hope that those deciding how to spend the money from Proposition 2, if passed, think of the various needs of everyone at the camp.
More than 130,000 people are homeless across California, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study. More than 90,000 of them are unsheltered, representing nearly 70 percent of the total population. These represent the highest numbers of any state in the nation, according to that same study.
Beginning in 2017, one of the county’s outreach teams counted 721 unsheltered people in Richmond. Without reliable data from previous years, it’s hard to know how that number has changed, but both experts and the statewide data indicate that the homeless population has been growing fast. Between 2016 and 2017, there was a 14 percent jump in the number of unsheltered homeless people across the state, according to the HUD study.
On September 25, in response to the growing homelessness, the Richmond City Council unanimously supported Proposition 2. And in recent months, Mayor Tom Butt has reached out to several locally based companies seeking donations to establish a fund to create an encampment with basic services for the homeless in Richmond.
But even as these measures were underway, the city was clearing the homeless camp on Carlson where Porkchop, Tone and Rocky live, displacing everyone there. The eviction was just one of 81 over the past year and a half, according to the Richmond Police Department.
The stresses of constant eviction — and even the threat of it — are evident at the camp. The residents periodically look up from what they’re doing to keep an eye on the street, watching for the city’s white code enforcement trucks.
After the last eviction on September 18, the camp’s residents returned to see most of the trees had been cut, leaving hardly any shade for their tents. Despite the unrelenting sun and the uncertainty, they’ve reclaimed the space, and say they intend to stay.
Under the hot morning sun, after Porkchop tells Tone that she hasn’t seen his phone lately, the two conclude that it was probably stolen by one of the strangers who’ve been frequenting the encampment since that last eviction.
Porkchop tries to help, handing him an extra phone she’s got charging on a portable battery next to her bed in the tent corner.
“I appreciate the gesture, I’m gonna keep looking for mine,” Tone says.
“Just calm down and look thoroughly before you explode,” Porkchop advises.
“I’m not gonna explode. I’m not gonna get emotionally attached to it. I’m just gonna let it fly by. I’ll address it later when I’m able to maintain my emotions,” Tone says as he heads back to his tent, already making use of the gifted phone.
Today, Porkchop wears a purple patterned blouse, jeans, and a knitted hat that keeps her neat hair tight to her head. She’s got three tents at the tip of the encampment: a medium-sized one to sleep in, a small one to store her belongings in, and a family-sized tent for “guests” — she shelters others in this tent.
She was born in Berkeley, and Porkchop caught on as a nickname when she was young. She spent much of her life on the streets until about a decade ago. She moved in with her daughter to help take care of a newborn granddaughter. “Before that, I was out here on the streets. I didn’t worry about where I slept ‘cause I was out here hustlin’,” she says.
For ten years, she lived with her daughter, until she outgrew the living arrangement. “I’m grown and I didn’t wanna follow my daughter’s rules,” she says. And so, a few months ago, Porkchop moved out and found herself living at the camp.
Since leaving, she’s lived all around the area doing “odd and end jobs,” she says, but doesn’t get paid enough to make ends meet. Porkchop makes some of her money by collecting and recycling cans and bottles, “but it’s a whole lot of work,” she says, with a weary look.
After helping Tone work through the loss of his phone, Porkchop explains that the people who live in the camp face a spectrum of mental health challenges: some folks struggle more in the day-to-day than others. Seemingly simple tasks require more help and attention than others.
There are those, she says, who are, “screamin’ out for help, but nobody’s listenin’ to them. Every single day, they’re screamin’ for help.”
And so, the proposed funding for mental health services for the homeless will be useful, she says, because, “We do need some psychologists and psychiatric help for those who want it.”
Ever a realist, Porkchop adds: “But you can’t make them get it.”
The dozen or so residents of the encampment on 22nd and Carlson support one and other through an informal system of mutual aid. Fixing bikes, sharing tools, and cooking communal meals are all part of an average day here.
From their tents next door to one another, Porkchop and Rocky share the same view of a line forming across the street. It’s lunch time at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, a nonprofit that provides free meals and space to shower, but instead of heading over for some food, Rocky decides to sit tight on his stoop to first gauge the crowd’s reaction to the meal. We talk some more.
The way Rocky sees it, the reasons folks in that line and at his camp are homeless are more complicated than many assume.
The last couple of decades of Rocky’s life have been marked by struggles and losses within his family. Somewhere along the way, the Richmond native became homeless and less able to provide for his kids. One has died. Two now live elsewhere, one in Las Vegas and another in Sacramento.
The youngest, a son, is a student at Richmond’s Kennedy High School who lives with Rocky’s ex-wife. Rocky proudly adds that she is doing a great job raising the boy.
On some days, his son comes to check on him, and usually knows where to find him. They talk on the phone often, and occasionally, the two head down the street to Dirt World where his son rides his bike around the track.
Rocky supports himself doing odd jobs around town, but it isn’t enough to afford rent in Richmond.
“I have mental health [challenges] myself, but I’m able to maintain to a certain degree,” says Rocky, adding that many of the folks in and around camp struggle more severely in their day-to-day lives. Despite that, he wants to see a therapist.
“You got people already coming into this with serious mental health problems and they aren’t able to do functional things like pay their rent or buy their food,” Rocky says, gesturing to his neighbor’s tents. Ideally, he thinks they should have help with those tasks.
Ask Rocky what he and the other homeless residents of Richmond need, and his answer is direct: “We need jobs that pay livable wages. A livable wage is working a month and being able to pay your rent twice. Being able to cover your rent. And able to buy food, and pay your bills, and still have some change left over.” He stresses wanting to be able to provide for his own family members, who are getting by with their mother at the helm, herself working as a counselor.
While Rocky and Porkchop welcome new resources that could come from Proposition 2, they share a greater long-term hope for structural change in society that will support employment, housing, and other resources for everyone.
“This is not no joke. This is not a game. This is real life,” says Rocky. “I’m a stand for something. I’m homeless. Until I have my name on the rental agreement, I’m a still be homeless. So, until then, I hope and pray.”