by Lydia Gans
An exhibit of photographs by David Bacon, “On The Streets, Under The Trees,” is far more than a picture show. The 50 photos, together with extensive captions, form a documentary picture that is deeply moving, as well as informative about the struggle of homeless people to survive in the cities and farmlands of California.
Bacon’s compassion and concern for the people he photographs shines through, as does his commitment to activism in the cause of social justice. The exhibit will remain on display throughout the month of July at the Asian Resource Gallery, 317 Ninth Street at Harrison in Oakland.
Many people remain unaware that poverty and homelessness are not just hardships faced by those living in large cities, but also affect countless numbers of unhoused people in rural areas. Bacon’s exhibit remedies that blind spot by giving equal attention to low-wage workers and homeless people in the countryside.
That is why the full title of the exhibit is “On The Streets, Under The Trees: Homelessness and the Struggle for Housing in Urban and Rural California.”
The show offers compelling portraits of people who are homeless, or as Bacon terms it, “people living outside.”
He traveled throughout California, connecting with people in the cities and on the farms, taking their pictures and hearing their stories. He is fluent in Spanish, enabling him to learn from the experiences of farmworkers and undocumented immigrants.
Homeless in the Cities and in the Fields
In words and pictures, Bacon gives viewers a sense of the lives of the immigrant workers on the farms and the homeless poor people in the cities, as well as the people and organizations that are reaching out to help them. His subjects come from San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and from rural areas and farms in San Diego, Sonoma County and elsewhere in California.
The photographs are beautiful and visually striking, and capture the images and stories of “people living out of doors” — people who “don’t have a fixed place to live, no apartment, no house.”
Taking the photographs and creating public exhibits is an integral part of Bacon’s work for social justice.
“It’s the way I do my work as a photographer,” he explained in an interview with Street Spirit. “I don’t do my work as an individual person, I do it in cooperation as part of different social movements and social organizations. So the photographs, most of them, have been taken in long-term projects with other organizations.”
He has worked in collaboration with the Los Angeles Community Action Network that works with homeless people on Skid Row, and with California Rural Assistance providing legal aid for farm workers.
The pictures are powerful, and the captions are also instructive and important. “The captions help people understand,” Bacon says, “and also they are useful. I think photographs have to be useful, not just something to hang on a wall.”
Bacon describes the value of “being able to combine photographs that show the nitty-gritty of what the reality is of living on the street with photographs of peoples’ movements against evictions, for instance. I think that’s really important because we want to show that people are active in changing their reality, changing the world. We want photographs that show that.”
Wretched housing for farm workers
No housing is provided for farmworkers who work on farms in rural California. They are expected to manage as best they can. Bacon captures the challenges they face in his photograph of Enrique Saldivar, Leoncini Mendoza and Alfonzo Leal who come from Mexicali to pick grapes in the Coachella Valley every year.
Bacon writes, “At the height of the harvest they eat and sleep next to their car in a parking lot of a market in Mecca. There is no housing for the hundreds of workers at the height of the grape harvest and at night the parking lot is full of sleeping people.”
Bacon exposes the wretched, inadequate housing endured by Erica, a farm worker who lives in a tiny, primitive plywood shack she built with her brothers.
“A grower allowed them to build next to his field in exchange for protecting it. Erica was born in the U.S. Her parents are Huichol migrants from Nayarit in central Mexico.”
Mothers must raise their children in substandard — or nonexistent — housing. One striking image depicts a mother and child of the fields, a Mexican immigrant farm worker who lives with her young son in a tent on a hillside in Del Mar.
Bacon writes, “There is no running water for washing her child or his clothes or for cooking which is done over a fire. She keeps perishable food in a cooler. She speaks only Mixteco, the language in her home town in Oaxaca.”
Some photos show the physical toll taken by years of hard work in the fields, and the punishing costs of extreme poverty and homelessness. One of the most revealing images is a stark close-up of the hands of a homeless man, Clifford Brumley, who lives on the street in El Centro in California’s Imperial Valley.
Bacon writes, “His hands show a lifetime of work. He lost part of his thumb and 2 fingers to frostbite when the weather got very cold one winter and he had no place to go.” Another photo simply shows a homeless man’s feet, hugely swollen and calloused from always being on his feet.
Homelessness in the Cities
Conditions in the cities are different. Homeless people sleep on the sidewalk, on bus benches, and in doorways. The only constant in their lives is that they are continually being forced to move.
Santa Barbara has a reputation as a pleasant seaside community. Yet the city has been harshly inhospitable to homeless people for many years, and the climate of repression has worsened despite the best effort of advocates to defend the human rights of unhoused people.
One photo seems to be a peaceful portrait of a homeless veteran asleep on a bench on Main Street in Santa Barbara. Yet, as Bacon writes, “Every so often the police come through and move him and his friends off the street so that tourists won’t see homeless people sleeping there.”
For the past 20 years, San Francisco has been one of the meanest cities in the nation for homeless people, and has criminalized virtually every aspect of their existence. Police have issued tens of thousands of citations, arrests and fines of homeless people for quality-of-life crimes.
Yet, homeless people in San Francisco face something that is arguably even more inhumane than police harassment — the public indifference to the highly visible suffering of extremely poor and desperate people.
In one of Bacon’s pictures, “a man sleeps on the sidewalk on Market Street in San Francisco while people walk around him and pretend he’s not even there.”
Skid Row, Los Angeles
For many years, the Skid Row area of Los Angeles has been a place where homeless and hungry people could find a place to survive. Yet like so many inner-city neighborhoods, Skid Row is now being “developed” — and development means displacement for poor residents.
Bacon shows the clear connection between big business, real-estate development, and the mass eviction of poor people. A photograph shows a street scene on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Bacon writes, “In the distance rise the office towers of downtown. The encroachment of development threatens poor downtown residents and has led to a big increase in evictions and people forced to live on the street.”
Another photo exposes the police harassment faced by homeless residents of Skid Row, who often have their belongings confiscated by the L.A. police.
Bacon’s photo is captioned, “On Skid Row, a man posts a sign on the shopping cart holding his belongings telling police and city workers not to take them. The Los Angeles Community Action Network just won an order from the city council telling police not to take the belonging of people living on the street.”
Defending the rights of the poor
Both in rural and urban areas, outreach workers from community organizations are talking to people and helping them secure their rights. Bacon’s photos document the work of outreach workers from California Rural Legal Assistance who talk with migrant workers who pick wine grapes all day and sleep under tarps at night in the fields near Santa Rosa. CRLA outreach workers help them learn about their rights as workers and immigrants.
In urban areas, homeless and housed activists are carrying on protests against anti-homeless laws and the unjust treatment of people living on the streets.
Bacon photographed a cop giving a ticket to a poor bike rider on Skid Row, Los Angeles. He writes, “Community activists accuse the police of harassing poor residents in order to force them out of the neighborhood, to make room for more upscale development and residents.”
Another set of pictures tells the story of an Oakland family with four children being evicted from their home. They had an adjustable mortgage and couldn’t manage the payments when interest rates increased. Sheriff’s officers came to evict them while supporters tried to hold them off.
Bacon captured the eviction on camera, and he described the scene: “Home Defender activists sit in on the steps of the home of Tosha Alberty, her husband, four children and two grandchildren, who were evicted after First Franklin Mortgage Services, owned by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, foreclosed on the home.”
Liberty City in Berkeley
Bacon took many photographs at the occupation set up by homeless activists at old City Hall in Berkeley as a protest against the draconian anti-homeless laws passed by the City Council last winter. He wrote a lengthy article on the Liberty City occupation that showed how homeless activists used the creative nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement and the farmworkers movement.
Bacon found this Berkeley homeless occupation to be a very meaningful effort to create a political movement for social change, while also building a self-governing community that could provide a safe space for those without housing.
Bacon dedicated his photo exhibit to the homeless people who created Liberty City. He wrote, “This show is especially dedicated to the homeless activists of Berkeley, who were first driven out of Liberty City last fall. Then they were drive from the Post Office Camp, where they’d lived for 17 months, just as I was printing the photographs shown here. Their vision is one we should pay attention to.
“Instead, the U.S. Post Office refused to listen or see what is in front of them, and used the brute force of the Postal Police to drive people away. Instead of the camp and its residents, the City of Berkeley now has this fence and empty, fenced-off space — a monument to hostility to the poor and an eyesore in this supposedly progressive community.”
Liberty City was a self-governing community organized on the principles of consensus and grassroots democracy, and that involved many meetings of those occupying the tents. Bacon photographed organizer Mike Zint holding a strategy meeting while huddling in his tent.
Bacon writes, “In Liberty City, the camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall called by the residents an occupation, Mike Zint meets with camp residents. Liberty City was a protest against the Berkeley City Council passing an anti-homeless ordnance. Zint was a leader of the homeless protesters and a veteran of Occupy San Francisco.”
Images of Friendship and Love
Hardship and struggle is not all that the show is about. Bacon also witnessed many acts of friendship and love on the streets and in the fields — moments of kindness and mutual support in the midst of desperate hardship. There are housed people who care and will reach out to the homeless, and there are homeless people who will help each other in times of need.
One photo shows how vulnerable homeless women are on the streets in the dark of night. But the picture also shows the crucial acts of friendship that help sustain this woman — the protection and care offered by a friend who watches over her as she sleeps, and the gifts of food and blankets brought to her by other friends in the homeless community who help one another.
Bacon describes this mutual aid on the street: “A homeless woman sleeps on a bus bench while a homeless man watches over her. Before she went to sleep she got a bag of food and a blanket from Vinny Pannizzo, who cruises the streets of Oakland every night handing out bags he and his friends fill under the freeway.”
There are many examples of homeless people looking out for one other. “Adam is a homeless vet who sleeps next to railroad tracks and an irrigation canal near the Fresno airport,” Bacon says. “He sleeps in a tent and takes care of a dog whose owner was picked up for being homeless and thrown in jail.”
He also photographed Jeremy White, his partner Kelly and their dog who live under a bridge by an estuary at the edge of the bay. Jeremy repairs bicycles and stores them for other homeless people, a kind of sharing among homeless people that the general public never seems to see.
There are other moving photos of friendship and good times. Two homeless veterans hug each other on Main Street in Santa Barbara. Three young men sit under the trees and play guitar. Bacon writes, “Three Mexican farm workers share a small camp under the trees. They called it living ‘sin techo,’ or without a roof.”
Bacon photographed another young guitarist in a farmworker’s camp who is highly dedicated to his music, despite the hardships he faces. Bacon explains, “A young Mixtec migrant plays the guitar and sings in Mixteco, in a camp on a hillside outside Delmar. Because of his commitment to the music of his home town, this young man carried his guitar with him on the long journey from Oaxaca.”
A really sweet picture lets us see a loving relationship on the street. A homeless couple kiss tenderly in an image that expresses more than just a moment’s affection; it expresses the longtime commitment they made to each other.
“Marcus Lego and Heather Sheppard live in a van parked in a city lot in Santa Barbara. They say they made a commitment long ago to take care of each other regardless of where they have to live.”
Deportees take over hotel
Not long ago, some people had a brilliant idea about how to help each other survive. Hotel Migrante is an old abandoned hotel near the border in Mexicali. Bacon explains that people who had nowhere to live after their deportation from the United States, took the building over and they “now give other deportees a place to sleep and food before they go home or try to cross the border again.”
“The work of cooking, washing dishes and cleaning the hotel is shared by all the people who live in it,” Bacon writes.
This kind of mutual assistance was seen during the Dust Bowl when refugees helped one another. It occurred during the Depression when people joined together to defend families from being evicted.
David Bacon’s exhibit shows that the spirit of solidarity is alive and well today in Oakland when people protest the eviction of families, and at the Hotel Migrante near the border when people help those made homeless by deportation.
“On The Streets: Under the Trees” will run until the end of July at the Asian Resource Gallery in Oakland.