A watercolor of three ghosts in a window. In the foreground a person in a hat looks up at them.
Unhoused people are haunted by traumas that polite society would rather forget, Stefani Echeverría-Fenn writes. (Enera Wilson)

Science has now proven that trauma can be passed down intergenerationally; that rats whose mothers were exposed to stressors like water can epigenetically inherit a special fear of water. Before we had this science, nearly every culture on Earth had ghost stories. Nearly every culture on Earth intuitively understood that unresolved traumas will continue to haunt and walk among us for as long as we refuse to reckon with them. That painful histories must be acknowledged, not simply buried, or we will wake up in the middle of the night terrified and haunted. I started #37MLK—an encampment in North Oakland—because I am haunted in the daylight too. I escaped long-term homelessness by the skin of my teeth 10 years ago. In 2010 my Oakland neighborhood (Ghost Town) was still cheap enough to rent a one bedroom for $800, no credit check required. I still live in that place, haunted by the fact that if I were only 10 years younger, I’d still be homeless. Post-gentrification, identical units to mine now start at $2,500; an unthinkable sum for folks transitioning out of houselessness. The spectre of my slum landlord hovers, trying to push all of us long term tenants out so he can raise the rent. 

All those years as a homeless disowned queer youth, I felt
myself a phantom—completely invisible to the housed as they hurried by me on the sidewalk.

More than anything though, I am haunted not by ghosts but by the memories of what it felt like to be a ghost myself. All those years as a homeless disowned queer youth, I felt myself a phantom—completely invisible to the housed as they hurried by me on the sidewalk. Never truly seen as human, only a threat going bump in the night whenever I dared cry out that something was terribly wrong. 

After I was housed, after I began a new life as a fancy Berkeley PhD student, I was expected to just forget about it all. Forget about the street communities that sustained me when no one else would. Ghosts do not forget though, that’s how they come.to be. 

Ghosts refuse to leave homes quietly for the convenience of new owners. We at #37MLK are the ghosts that rich landlords will never be able to exorcise. Who refuse to be shipped out of our communities and our block, but stay here haunting the powerful; our very presence refusing to let them forget their own histories of violence. It is white violence that first called Black people spooks, and the legacy of white supremacy continues to haunt this block. We obtain the old records of racist real estate redlining on this block. We stay around the very buildings unscrupulous landlords evicted us from. We offer this land back to the living Ohlone people whose ancestral spirits still walk this land, their burial shellmounds harmed terribly by the nearby Emeryville malls. 

We are the communities haunted by these histories that polite society would have us forget, and if we are ghosts, we are holy. 

Stefani Echeverría-Fenn is founder of #37MLK and The Sportula: Microgrants for Classics Students.