For unhoused people, every day is an emergency

No PG&E. No fresh water. And then the cops take your survival gear and supplies. That's daily life on the streets for thousands of people.

“We can’t take all that shit with us in this one hefty bag…”

“But mama, this is my favorite pair of jeans.”

“I don’t give a F%*&k, we have to take stuff to survive on the street now and we only have a few minutes before the sheriff gets here.”

Homeless people share food: It’s an emergency on the streets every day.

The day of the 1989 earthquake, my mama and me were in a desperate fight about what we could take with us back into homelessness and where we were going to set-up our micro-business vending stall which we did just for money to eat. Within seconds of her last words mama threw a shoe at me because I was yelling back — and right then in mid-scream, without warning, the room, the building, and our lives shook so hard we both dropped what we were holding.

The 1989 earthquake killed folks and caused major mayhem across the Bay Area, but for us, it was just another crisis added to the crisis of our houselessness and poverty. Within seconds my mama was wondering how the streets of San Francisco were impacted, which might interfere with that day’s vending business and if the earthquake might give us a few more days in our eviction deadline.

The sheriff did come 24 hours later, so within two days we were outside in a wet cardboard box in Golden Gate park struggling to sell our remaining t-shirts in downtown San Francisco in front of Macy’s on top of 6,000 chards of broken glass so we could raise money for a motel room.

We were scrounging for batteries for our flashlights, blankets to stay warm, water to drink and torn sleeping bags to sleep in. And as everyone spoke about the aftermath of the earthquake and how they hadn’t done enough preparedness, we were like: What else is new?

We never had enough batteries, blankets, sleeping bags, water, and toiletries. We were always preparing because we were always in an emergency. This wasn’t new, it was just another day and more people were living through our everyday experience.

Fast forward 20, years and us houseless and formerly houseless folks at Homefulness struggle with what to do about earthquake preparedness. We share/serve healthy organic food, tents, M95 masks, water, supplies and media channels/outlets with more than 210 poor and houseless people in the Bay Area every week through our multiple education, direct action interdependence projects like #RoofLESS radio, Sliding Scale Cafe, Homefulness, PeopleSkool , PNN-KEXU 96.1fm and Deecolonize Academy, so as this issue of preparedness comes up as we know we are a resource for many and will need to increase the things we share with community like passing out “life-straws” for water cleanliness and medicine for illnesses.

But as poor people in a poor-people movement, we struggle to have the resources we share right now in the emergency called homelessness and poverty caused by existent capitalist scarcity models, even before a so-called “big emergency” has even hit.

“I never had no PG&E, so what gives — we out here every night by firelight, flashlight or no light at all,” Xavier J, one of our RoofESS radio reporters said two weeks ago when the big shut-offs were wreaking havoc on housed people.

All across occupied Ohlone /Lisjen land (Bay Area), from Berkeley to Oakland, to Frisco, unhoused people are living outside in constant states of emergency, barely surviving with very little in a perpetual act of preparedness, and yet we are never truly prepared. And then when unhoused folks are able to get together their belongings and tents and blankets and things they are subject to constant and incessant harassment and theft of their prepared meager things, by police, Caltrans, DPW, poltricksters, and haters stealing, taking, destroying and throwing them away.

It’s so weird really, and this poverty skola hopes a place of empathy for housed people to truly understand the impossibility of unhoused people’s lives. We are always getting prepared for the emergency we are already living in and its made so much harder by this ongoing criminalization and violence called “sweeps.” 

So imagine housed people, if there was a tsunami, earthquake, and power shut off EVERYDAY. That’s the life of an unhoused person, made that much more impossible and difficult if the unhoused person is disabled, elder, child, and/or medically fragile already. 

And then imagine, a whole group of DPW workers, police and/or sheriffs came into your house unannounced and took all your emergency preparedness supplies — your back-up water, canned goods, lighters, candles, and flashlights — and threw them in the trash.

This is what happens every day across this occupied land to unhoused people in “sweeps,” causing us to constantly appear in a state of messiness, disarray and confusion, which then causes more hate of us by society.

By the same token, poor and barely housed people who are just holding on by a thread can’t buy extra batteries, extra food or extra water, because they can barely buy what they need to feed themselves and their families right now. How can you buy a flashlight if you can’t even afford a light bulb? How can you buy canned food for back-up when you can’t even afford food for tonight?

And then finally there is the PTSD. Every time a “crisis” hits I am too busy dealing with the crisis that’s called a life in poverty. The multiple things you have to do to stay alive and fed and keep your families safe and fed, to even think about a possible “crisis” are beyond comprehension and a full-time job.

And then there is this privilege called “recovery.” Unhoused and marginally housed people are never recovering because we are always surviving, struggling, and barely living. We have no renters’ insurance, homeowners insurance, families to live with, or money for vacations to “get away” or drive away or even live away. We are all holding on everyday by a friggin thread, and so recovery is never an option.

So as you all talk through the upcoming possible “Big one” and complain about the power shut-offs and struggle with your insurance and your batteries and your backed-up water, I ask you to use this as a teachable moment of humility to realize every single thing, person and/or dollar you have is one more than thousands of unhoused and poor folks have everyday in this occupied, colonized reality. And maybe you can channel your emergency preparedness anxiety into a moment of empathy, the next time you look at us folks on the street and call us “dirty,” realize we are really just living through a never-ending earthquake called homelessness.

Tiny, aka Lisa Tiny Gray-Garcia, aka “povertyskola,” is a poet, teacher and the formerly houseless, incarcerated daughter of Dee and mama of Tiburcio and author of Criminal of Poverty- Growing Up Homeless in America and Poverty Scholarship – Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth and is releasing her children’s book in 2020: When Mama and me lived Outside. She is the co-founder of Homefulness – a homeless peoples solution to Homelessness- reach her at or @povertyskola on twitter