A dystopian future, if you care to look

Part of the encampment of unhoused people under a freeway and railroad overpass in Oakland, Cal. that has been the scene of numerous fires, most recently Aug. 16. Copyright, David Bacon.

“The Highwaymen,” a 2019 movie starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the lawmen who tracked down and ultimately killed Bonny and Clyde, is worth seeing (you can find it on Netflix), not just because it offers a less romanticized view of the outlaws than was served up by Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, but for the gritty glimpses it shows of life during the Great Depression. Among them: an almost casual drive-by of travel trailers jammed side by side in roadside woods, clearly not a vacation spot but an encampment of otherwise homeless people struggling to provide themselves with basic shelter.

Ninety years later, some things haven’t changed, as seen in the photo above. While the U.S. is not in a depression, and arguably not even in recession, its wealth gap is bigger than it’s ever been and the people at the bottom are being priced out of existence in the second-most expensive real estate market in the country. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported today, that city’s officials estimate as many as 20,000 residents “will experience homelessness” (the politically correct phrasing these days) at some point in 2022.

Some will be homeless for just a short while, even as others live on the streets for months and years at a time, but at any one moment the city can expect to be “home” to approximately 8,000 people without a home or apartment to sleep in that night. Small wonder, then, that the area also features scenes that would look remarkably familiar to Bonnie and Clyde’s contemporaries. These aren’t the homes merely of drug addicts–that’s a child’s toy in the foreground. Families live here.

In this case, “here” is an area known as the Wood Street encampment, located across from San Francisco under the Oakland approach to the Bay Bridge. More than 200 people have been camping there at any one time for the past seven years, living in an assortment of RVs, tents, plywood shacks and huts made from a mixture of straw, clay and sand called “cob.” Their hardscrabble existence is made even more precarious by the need to build fires for cooking and heat–fires that spiraled out of control more than a hundred times in 2021 and 48 times to date this year, including one just a couple of days ago.

Still, they persist, not just for lack of alternatives but because shared hardship creates a bond. “These are communities,” an encampment resident told a local reporter last month. “People stay at these places because they feel safe there.” 

Only thinly chronicled to date, such communities may start getting wider exposure through the efforts of non-traditional journalists like David Bacon, who has spent a lifetime photographing and writing about marginalized people, notably migrant workers and indigenous peoples of Central America. But from time to time he has focused elsewhere, and now he’s taken what I suspect will be the first of several extended forays into the Wood Street encampment.

More than a score of Bacon’s trademark black-and-white photos of the encampment can be seen in a photoessay on his blog, which also is an excellent introduction to an immense body of work by a passionate, principled observer of the human condition. I urge you to take a look. One can also hope–I hope–that his example will inspire others to follow suit, in the best tradition of advocacy journalism, so that the countless other Wood Street encampments around the country can be spotlighted for the rest of us to see.

Part of the reason Bonnie and Clyde were so hard to corner was because of the help they got from a public that viewed them as Robin Hood-type figures; the money they stole, after all, was held by banks–depositories for the rich–not from people just scraping to get by. These days we have a different criminal class, one that’s more politically driven, but its depredations are similarly abetted by those who have little to nothing of their own and few prospects of that changing. It’s time the rest of us started paying attention.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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