A formerly homeless family finally gets their home in Richmond
on April 5, 2019
For the first time since he was a toddler, 25-year-old Sedzi Solomon McNair has a home to call his own.
“To be able to look out a window, just to be able to look at a heater or clean up a kitchen, just the basics—I haven’t had that feeling in so long,” said McNair as he sipped hot coffee at the kitchen table, his house keys hanging on a string around his neck. “It’s the best feeling ever: Being able to stick your keys in the door, open up the door and smell good ribs cooking.”
McNair and his mother, Margaret, shared a tent in a homeless encampment in Richmond until last month, when Bay Area Community Services, a nonprofit that provides housing and mental health aid, helped them find a room. The organization will pay the rent for up to six months in a shared three-bedroom house in Richmond and help negotiate a subsidized rate after the agreement ends.
“Just the fact that we have all this at the grasp of our hands—words can’t express that I am actually sitting in the backyard of our home,” McNair said as he walked through the grass that covered the yard and stood in front of a table with an umbrella and chairs. “I was kind of shocked. I didn’t think it was real at first.”
His journey towards living in a home again started when Tiffany Powell, a housing coordinator at Bay Area Community Services, was driving back to her Berkeley office on a rainy January day after meeting with a client in Richmond. McNair was living in an encampment on Carlson Boulevard and 22nd Street and as Powell drove by, she recognized him. Born and raised in Richmond, Powell had attended Contra Costa College with McNair’s older sister.
“I’ve known Sedzi for a long time,” Powell said. “He is a young individual who grew up and has been on the streets for a long, long time.”
She made a quick U-turn, parked and walked up to McNair’s tent to speak with him.
McNair had been homeless in Richmond since he was 2 years old, when his mother could no longer afford to pay their mortgage. So his mother, McNair and his two sisters bounced across Richmond—from abandoned homes, shelters and friends’ houses to street corners and encampments.
Powell listened and then acted. The nonprofit she works for focuses on Alameda County and the McNairs were in Contra Costa County. But she asked her supervisors to make an exception. They did.
“I wanted to give him a chance to be able to thrive,” Powell said. “The people of our city, of our community of Richmond, and everybody has been letting him down.”
By the time Powell found him, McNair had lived in the encampment of 11 or so tents in Richmond for almost a year. It sits across the street from the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, a nonprofit that provides shelter for families, as well as a daily meal and bathrooms and showers for homeless folks to use during the day.
McNair’s mother moved into his tent last December after staying at Brookside Homeless Shelter for four months while she recovered from open-heart surgery. She didn’t feel comfortable or safe at the shelter and wanted to be closer to her son, she said in an interview last December.
McNair was happy to live with his mother again, but worried that the harsh conditions would affect her health. “There would be nights where I had to go grab a stick or something to tap on my tent and check for rats. That process was getting very frustrating. I wouldn’t want anybody in life to have to go through that,” McNair said.
Their new house is only a mile from his old camp, and McNair bikes back there during the week to volunteer as a janitor for the nonprofit. “I feel happy serving the people of the encampment,” he said. “That’s my family. I’ve been in their shoes before. The people at the encampment, they are still my people—nothing will ever change that.”
The nonprofit is also helping him find employment, according to Kathleen Sullivan, the executive director of the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program. Sullivan has known McNair since he moved into the encampment almost a year ago and has seen a shift in his drive and demeanor since he moved inside into the house.
“Since he’s gotten the housing, it’s a whole calming of his spirit,” she said. “When you’re out there and you’re on the streets 24 hours a day, there is a lack of peace. He looks a lot happier. He has a lot more self-confidence.”
Sullivan has brought McNair to meetings and presentations over the last couple of months to talk about his experience of being homeless in Richmond. She is also currently considering him for an on-call position at the nonprofit.
“Once we were placed in our housing, I feel like the opportunities just started coming left and right,” McNair said.
McNair has also returned to working on his music since moving into his house, a passion he’s pursued since he was 13. He is a dedicated R&B singer, songwriter and recording artist. He hopes to start playing shows soon to have extra income to help support him and his mom. But more than anything he wants a steady job so that they can stay in the shared house even after the organization stops paying for their rent.
“Just being able to throw my covers over me and look at my mom going to sleep peacefully— from my perspective, that’s a dream come true,” McNair said.
Photos by Wesaam Al-Badry
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