Family, work, music: In Richmond, homeless at 25
on December 3, 2018
Sedzi-Solomon Mcnair stood in front of his tent in September as police and city workers forced him to pack up and move out without proper notice or help.
While his neighbors in the Richmond homeless encampment rushed to break down their tents and gather their belongings before the city threw them away, Mcnair stood with his arms crossed, hood pulled over his head and feet firmly planted in the dirt.
It was obvious Mcnair had been through this before. And he was angry.
“Where is the freedom? Where is the peace?” Mcnair shouted, his voice loud enough for the police to hear him. “We are not bothering anyone!”
Because the residents of the encampment were not given notice or help finding shelter upon removal, the abrupt eviction violated a city ordinance and California state law.
A representative from Richmond’s Department of Infrastructure Maintenance and Operations acknowledged the city didn’t follow protocol. The Richmond Police Department did not respond to Richmond Confidential’s request for comment.
Most people call Mcnair “Red,” reflecting both his long, red dreadlocks and fiery personality. At 25, he is a couple decades younger than most of the people living with him in the homeless encampment in central Richmond. But in many ways, he seems wiser, an old soul in a body that has bounced from abandoned homes to street corners to encampments since he, his mother and two sisters became homeless when he was two years old.
Mcnair climbed into his red tent, located in an encampment in central Richmond. (Video by Wesaam Al-Badry)
“None of my friends growing up, none of them made it to see past 18,” he said recently, sitting on the bleachers at Nichols Park, a large open space with two baseball fields, a playground and a skate park in Richmond. “I am a living testimony, sitting here telling you that I made it past 18 to see 25. To me that’s a huge blessing.”
In Richmond, being homeless for years on end is not uncommon. In fact, it is on the rise. The number of “chronically homeless” people in Contra Costa County increased 68 percent last year, according to the county’s rudimentary point in time count. In 2016, the federal government defined “chronically homeless” as being homeless for at least a year, or four times in the past three years, and having a disabling condition that makes it hard to maintain housing and a job.
Mcnair wouldn’t be officially classified as “chronically homeless” because he doesn’t have a diagnosed disability, but he hasn’t had a stable home since he was two.
But if he isn’t “chronically homeless,” it’s hard to imagine who would fall into the category.
Born and raised in Richmond, Mcnair was only a toddler when his mother and sisters were forced out of their house the first time. Mcnair’s mother, Margaret Mcnair, couldn’t afford the mortgage. For the past 23 years, he and his mother have struggled to keep a roof over their heads.
Mcnair is the sole man in his family and takes his responsibility to support his mother and sisters extremely seriously—especially his mother, whom he cherishes most in this world. The two have the same bright smile, gift for words and mirror each other’s strength. They “tag-team,” as they say, checking in on each other every couple of days to make sure the other one doesn’t need anything. Margaret, who recently had open heart surgery, currently lives in a homeless shelter in Richmond.
Mcnair has assumed a caretaker role since a very young age, even as a preschooler at Stege Elementary School, Margaret recounted.
“If anybody was arguing, he would say, ‘you have to love together,’” she remembered.
Mcnair then went on to attend Richmond’s Coronado Elementary School and Lovonya DeJean Middle School. He played baseball, softball and basketball at school. He also started writing poetry, songs and raps in his eighth-grade composition notebooks. Music continues to be his main source of joy and creativity today.
One of Mcnair’s seventh grade classmates told Vanessa Calloway, their after-school counselor, that Mcnair was “couchsurfing.” Calloway started checking in with Mcnair and always made sure she had snacks in her office to give him before he left for the day.
Now, many years later, Calloway still keeps an eye out for Mcnair. She visits him at the encampment often and is impressed with how he has matured into the respectful, resilient young man she knows today.
Even as a child, she remembers, he had a fighting spirit.
“One thing I can say about Sedzi, he’s always had his voice,” Calloway said. “So even when adults wanted to silence his voice, he wasn’t going to allow that to happen.”
But Calloway also recalls how Mcnair’s struggles with homelessness made him angry as a kid.
“But he had every right to have that anger built up, every right.” Calloway said. “Because the adults had failed him at that time.”
Mcnair went on to John F. Kennedy High School where he was arrested his junior year after he assaulted a classmate with a wooden stool. He spent nine months at Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Program.
While serving his nine-month sentence, he continued to play baseball, softball and football and worked two jobs in the library and kitchen. Mcnair hasn’t been in a fight since.
“I did the time. I didn’t let the time do me,” he said.
Mcnair also continued to write music in the detention center. A song he recorded last year, “One Chance,” he wrote while serving time.
Mcnair sees that time as an experience that shaped him into the fierce and disciplined man he is today. In the center, he found the time and space to write music alone and with his cellmates.
“I’m not trying to see any more jail cells,” he said, shaking his head.
About a year after his release, Mcnair got his high school diploma, graduating from Gompers Continuation High School wearing a purple robe, his mother’s favorite color. He found a job working at Blue Apron, an ingredient and recipe meal-kit service, packing boxes for shipment. But his wages of $13.50 an hour for 35 to 40 hours a week weren’t enough to help his family and pay for rent and food so he continued to live in encampments around Richmond. He liked his job.
For the last year that he had that job, he rose at 3:25 a.m. to get ready and catch the shuttle in time for his 6 a.m. shift. But he struggled to juggle work, living in the encampment and visiting his mother who was recovering from heart surgery at a San Francisco hospital. He often had to leave work early to go check in on his mom and, even after he told his supervisor about her serious condition, he was fired in July for clocking out early, he said.
When Richmond Confidential reached out to Blue Apron to ask about Mcnair’s job history, a spokesperson said the company “can’t comment on individual employee matters.”
Brandy Vaughn worked with Mcnair at Blue Apron and the two developed a special sibling-like bond. Mcnair refers to her as his godsister. She said that she would stand up for Mcnair when coworkers would poke fun at him because he was wearing the same clothes as the day before.
Vaughn said Mcnair was a diligent worker but “you could tell he had a lot of stuff on his mind.” By that, she meant that he was distracted because of his mom’s condition but always tried to show up for his shifts and worked hard.
“He’s a good person and he has a good heart,” Vaughn said. “He’s family-oriented — family first.”
Mcnair visited and listened to music with his mother in a Richmond park. (Video by Wesaam Al-Badry)
Mcnair’s mother Margaret is keenly aware of the pressure her son feels to take care of her and wants him to be able to focus on himself. She fled from a violent partner with her two older daughters before Mcnair was born and since has been struggling with a heart condition and the harsh realities of living outside and in and out of shelters at the age of 57.
“I’m proud of my son,” she said, sitting next to him, tears streaming down her face.
Music has cemented the already tight bond between Mcnair and his mother. They both see music as a source of joy amid their struggle to stay safe while sleeping in the rain, on street corners and in squats.
“There is a song for everything you are going through,” Margaret said. “It might be a rock and roll song, or you might have the blues. All kinds of music. Hip-hop might do it.”
Mcnair agrees that songs have helped him and his mother.
“In the midst of our struggles, we have those songs that give you peace, hope and encouragement,” he said.
Mcnair has big dreams for his future and almost all of them involve helping his family and his community. The police who toss him and his community out of their encampments with regularity infuriate him, but most of the time he is grateful — for the people in his life who support his dreams and kept him alive and out of prison.
(Photos courtesy of Sedzi McNair)
Today, Mcnair is the beloved youngster at the encampment where he works hard to protect and support his community. He smiles and waves to his neighbors to the right and left of his tent and calls them “my people.”
His dream is to take care of the next generation and make sure they have the support they need to live long and full lives. He thinks about opening a youth foundation center in honor of all of the friends that he has lost to suicide, gun violence and prison. He believes that big things are going to be happening for him soon, and when they do, he said, he’s taking his community with him.
“If I come up, they coming up with me,” Mcnair said.
(All videos by Wesaam Al-Badry)
Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.