A digital image of a person in a car driving into Oakland. On the side of the car, text reads "seeking greener pastures," and a Black boy looks longingly out at Oakland, which can be seen ahead of him. In Oakland, there is a sign that says "Oaktown," as well as many tall buildings and cranes. But tents can also be seen, and words like "homelessness" and "mental illness" float above the city in the sky.
(Brittany Thornton)

My name is Samel Leparan Ntiwuas. I live unsheltered just down the street from the house where I grew up. I grew up in Oakland and San Francisco. My folks succeeded in their own ways, at one point owning a home, which was once considered the very foundation of financial stability. Then, when life chose to give me a bitter test, I joined the surging number of unsheltered immigrant people who spill out around freeways, along train tracks, and through vacant lots in the Bay Area. 

Most people who can help take more time to better understand how residents with good jobs and deep roots in the community wind up among the city’s homeless population. Like me, nearly all unhoused people in Oakland I have interacted with were living in Alameda County when they lost their housing. 

Each person has a unique life story, but we all suffered the same, haunted by the legacy of racist development policies, job loss, financial troubles, drug addiction, medical crises, and mental illness. And we all find that our path back into a home is hindered by insufficient support from the city and astronomically rising housing costs. 

My parents were immigrant folks who came here to San Francisco for greener pastures and a fresh start. They worked their way up just as their other folks had to stability, and this gave me a fair chance to live in a new foreign country with no relatives and more competition for survival. 

My father died when I was still young and I remained with my mother, who struggled to make ends meet through means that I had no choice but to accept for survival. She suffered mental illness due to the nature of her job and contracted a disease. I lost my mother, my only hope for a life in a new country. 

This was the beginning of all my struggles: trying to find financial support for my mother and trying to keep up with the bills and all the relevant requirements to keep our house. But all was in vain. Being a Black person, racism got the better of me. If by chance I was able to get a job, I was paid poorly or went home with no pay at all. 

Financial constraints, sickness, and mistreatment became the norm. I wished that my family would stay with one of our relatives, but the milk was already spilled. I visited different offices in search of help, but in some I was helped and in some ignored, and this made my visits fruitless. I tried to avoid joining drug gangs and cartels, but my situation became more and more unbearable. My refusal to join these gangs made me rub shoulders with most of these groups, and to some extent they treated me as a rat who would snitch on them when given a chance. Little did they know that I was not interested in fights with gangs, which always lead to deaths. I knew this from Cate, one of my neighbors in the streets whose tent was next to mine, and who was stabbed while sleeping. May her soul rest in peace. 

Racist development policies, financial troubles, and my mother’s mental illness made us lose everything. The road to a home was blocked by lack of support from the city, and by rising housing costs. My mother is stuck in a mental facility and I am out lost with nowhere to go and no way to make money, no one to run to, because everyone I ask for help doesn’t, for their own reasons. I watch from a distance a place that was once my home, now renovated, with some rich family now enjoying it, and tears never stop running down my cheeks. Just the thought of my family moving to a new country for greener pastures only for me to end up all alone with my mentally ill and sick mother, now confined in a mental institution, makes me ask God very many rhetorical questions. 

I have been beaten, abused, accused, forced to sell and use substances for my survival, with nothing in return. I am now hiding from a gang leader of a drug cartel who promised to chop off my head. The Bay Area was once my home, the friends I had are now ghosts and the small homeless tents we try to put up are always stolen, burned, or even sold by our fellow homeless folks. The pain does not seem to end, so only our stories are shared, our problems may be halfway solved. 

Street Spirits is a feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.

Samel Leparan Ntiwuas is an unhoused writer and contributor to Street Sheet, where this article originally appeared.