by Alessandro De Giorgi*
The materials presented in this blog series draw from an ethnographic study on prisoner reentry I have been conducting between March 2011 and March 2014 in a neighborhood of West Oakland, California, plagued by chronically high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, and street crime. In 2011, with the agreement of a local community health clinic that provides free basic health care and other basic services to marginalized populations in the area, I have been conducting participant observation among several returning prisoners, mostly African American and Latino men between the ages of 25 and 50. In this series of blog entries, I will be presenting ethnographic snapshots of some of these men (and often their partners) as they struggle for survival after prison in a postindustrial ghetto. For more detailed information on this project, please read here. Other episodes in this series:
#1 – Get a Job, Any Job
#2 – The Working Poor
#4 – In the Shadow of the Jailhouse
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From now on, the rule for residents who commit crime
and peddle drugs should be one strike and you’re out.
—President Bill Clinton, State of the Union, January 23, 1996
Finding suitable housing upon release from prison is one of the first priorities and one of the most difficult challenges for ex-offenders. The recent sociological literature has rarely analyzed the nexus between homelessness and incarceration (but see Gowan 2010), despite several surveys showing that a high percentage of homeless people have spent time in prison, and that a significant number of released prisoners face the prospect of homelessness upon release (Roman and Travis 2004, 7). The effects of draconian measures introduced at the height of the war on drugs, such as the “One Strike and You’re Out” rules that deny convicted drug offenders access to subsidized housing, are compounded today by the chronic lack of affordable housing in the urban areas to which most ex-offenders return (Thompson 2008, 68–87). In California, and particularly in large cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, the situation is compounded by two recent developments: the ongoing process of gentrification of residential areas, which is reducing the stock of accessible housing (see Beitel 2013; Smith 1996), and the provisions of Public Safety Realignment, which deprives growing numbers of ex-offenders of the few temporary housing options (e.g., halfway houses, transitional housing, etc.) available to state parolees. Under these circumstances, returning prisoners are increasingly left to fend for themselves in a hostile and often discriminatory housing market. The few who are fortunate enough to have stable families find adequate housing upon release; many, however, face the prospect of becoming homeless or falling prey to slumlords who populate the shadow economy of the streets.
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Rico is a soft-spoken 50-year-old man who was released from state prison in 2010. Born in Puerto Rico, he was raised by his single mother in the infamous Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. During his childhood, which he spent as a hustler in the streets of New York, he was sexually abused by an uncle and suffered constant beatings by his mother’s violent boyfriend. As a young teenager, he started using drugs and dropped out of high school; as soon as he turned 18, he moved to Oakland to be with his biological father, who was dealing drugs. Rico sold drugs for his father, but soon the two were arrested. In jail, his father assured him that they would both be out in no time if Rico, who at the time did not have any convictions, would “take the rap” for the two of them. Young and inexperienced, Rico obeyed, and his father was released after a few days. Rico, however, was sentenced to five years in state prison; during that time, he says that he never received a visit, a call, or even a letter from his father. Rico became addicted to heroin at the age 18 and has been in and out of prison, mostly for drug-related charges, for the past 30 years.
When I first met him, on a warm morning in late September 2012, he had been clean for over a year; he had just graduated from a drug rehabilitation program and was staying in a sober-living house. At the time, he was earning $800 a month at the community clinic in West Oakland that served as the base for my research. This job allowed him to save money each month—something he did methodically with the dream of renting a small apartment. In the following notes, I document Rico’s struggle to achieve housing independence after prison.
December 7, 2012
Rico is about to finish his shift at the community clinic. On the street corner outside the office, we are chatting and smoking cigarettes. He tells me enthusiastically that, since he has diligently saved a few dollars each month, he now has enough to put down the first month and deposit and is ready to move into his new place in East Oakland. After work, he plans to pick up a sofa and two couches from a used furniture warehouse downtown. For the job, he has borrowed an old white Toyota pickup truck that is literally falling apart. Because Rico has been without a driver’s license since 1981, he asks me to drive the pickup. At the warehouse, which looks more like a dumpsite beneath the freeway, we laboriously squeeze the oversized sofa and the two couches onto the truck. We then drive to East Oakland through a spectral sprawl of abandoned warehouses and factories. Liquor stores dot the landscape, in front of which congregate hustlers, drug dealers, and homeless people with carts in tow.
Rico’s new one-bedroom apartment, although in desolate surroundings, looks decent. A modest ground-floor unit of a duplex, it is surrounded by a metal fence. The small front yard is unkempt, with tattered furniture and old car parts scattered across the sidewalk. The apartment sits across from the parking lot of an elementary school, which is now bursting with people—most of them Latinos—as the children are getting out.
After bringing the sofa and couches inside, we begin to turn the empty space into Rico’s first living room in years. Shuffling the bulky furniture around takes a good hour. Meanwhile, Rico has been jumping excitedly from one seat to the next, in anticipation of the great times we will have playing games on his PlayStation and chilling together. As he gives me a tour of the other rooms, he repeats that for the first time in years, he feels happy. In the kitchen, he opens the fridge to show me the fresh groceries he bought. Unlocking the kitchen window facing a small backyard, he points to the corner where his grill will go. Then he invites me to the first BBQ he will host to celebrate the new house.
February 15, 2014
Last January, the community clinic suddenly dismissed Rico for “lack of funds.” Now out of work and without any source of income, he will be forced to leave the apartment at the end of the month. I drive to his place around noon, but he is just getting out of bed. He is depressed over losing the apartment and looks thinner than the last time I saw him. He stresses that he had done everything he could to do good. While looking for another place to live, he has to find a place to store his recently acquired furniture.
I agree to drive him around East Oakland to find a place to stay. There’s a dilapidated building on Front Avenue, where Rico says rooms rent for $500 a month. A rusted metal gate opens into a messy communal lobby: bags of trash and old furniture are amassed in each corner, cigarette butts litter the carpet, and debris is scattered everywhere. Black plastic bags covering all the windows prevent natural light from entering the building, even during daytime. The 12 single rooms are arrayed along both sides of a long, trash-filled hallway. A large white pit bull with a plastic bottle in its mouth runs back and forth.
I follow Rico to the last room on the left, which is occupied by one of his old friends. Peering through the open doors, I see only decrepit rooms with littered floors. In some, people are sitting on their beds eating, smoking, watching TV, and arguing loudly. All residents of the premises share two bathrooms and showers. Like the rest of the building, they are filthy. Hip-hop music blasts from the surrounding rooms, including the one we enter. There, two middle-aged white men, whose teeth are mostly missing, are smoking crystal meth. They become nervous at the sight of me, but when Rico reassures them that I’m not a cop, they intently inhale the vaporizing crystals again. After a few minutes of silence, Rico explains that the building was formerly the site of a transitional housing program for recovering drug addicts. Now it is just a ghetto building with cheap rooms for rent. Since Rico is no longer on parole, he cannot go back to the halfway house; moving here may be his only option, because the landlord does not require a deposit or credit report.
October 10, 2014
Rico has been living on Front Avenue for almost eight months. He covers his rent with monthly General Assistance checks from the county, along with money from odd jobs, hustling, and gifts from friends. In June, the complex caught fire, likely because a tenant had a malfunctioning hot plate in one of the rooms. Rico said that the sprinklers did not work when the fire erupted. Without emergency exits, the tenants had to jump out of their windows to escape the flames.
I arrive at the building around 10 a.m. With half-burned cars, bags of garbage, abandoned appliances, and carbonized furniture accumulating all along the fence, the front yard now resembles a dumpsite more than ever. On the front door a red notice warns people not to enter the building because it is “seriously damaged and unsafe to occupy.” Several people still live here anyway, paying around $300 per month in rent to stay. If tenants have insufficient cash, the landlord accepts food stamps.
Rico opens the gate and lets me into the dark space. As we hug, I can almost feel his bones. He has been losing weight over the last few months and doesn’t look good: his eyes are sunken and he emanates an aura of affliction and weakness. I wonder if his hepatitis might be getting worse. But he claims the situation is simply stressful, and to prove his strength, he starts doing pushups. “I’m alright, bro… See? Still can do these.”
The building has no electricity or heating. In the former communal area, exposed electrical wires are hooked up to some outside source. The smoke-stained walls support a structure verging on collapse. A pungent post-fire odor dominates three months after the flames. Every window is boarded up, and flashlights are needed to navigate around the debris and charred furniture.
Rico’s room feels claustrophobic in the darkness. The furniture from the old apartment barely fits: a small TV, the sofa with the two couches, a microwave, an old coffee table, and a small cabinet. A huge Puerto Rican flag hangs from the wall facing the door. Rico is on the sofa, watching “The Brady Bunch.” I join him and hand him the lottery scratcher and packs of Newport cigarettes I had picked up at the corner liquor store. He has something for me, he says, and produces a black T-shirt with The Godfather written in Spanish from a nearby pile of clothes.
Then he shares news of his new 2015 license plate sticker. The registration fee came from money earned doing plumbing work with his older son. He paid the fee—despite not having a driver’s license—so the cops won’t have another pretext to “fuck me.” Next, he shows me pictures on his cell phone. There is a video of Rico working with his son, as well as a picture of the $400 check he received for the work. After paying $300 in rent to stay in the building, only $36 in “spending money” remain each month from his $336 GA check.
A skinny young man in his mid-20s ambles into the room while we talk. This is Rico’s younger son, who has spent the last few nights in one of the rooms. About a month ago, Rico explains, the Oakland Police Department, the anti-gang task force, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raided the building. They stormed the place looking for drugs and weapons and took away a few people, thus vacating some of the rooms. During the police raid, Rico escaped through a window in the back of the building.
Rico says the place has become very dangerous lately. With some of the old residents having left or been arrested, new ones have moved in. Most people in the building have guns, and violent incidents have happened with increasing frequency over the past few weeks. Rico feels so unsafe that he has installed two CCTV cameras—one overlooking the front yard and the other covering the hallway. Both are connected to a small monitor in his room, which he keeps on all the time.
Late one night a month ago, the most significant violent incident occurred. One resident had agreed to hide a bag belonging to a man on the run from the police. However, the resident disappeared with the bag, which contained several ounces of marijuana, three handguns, and $10,000 in cash. So the victim threatened to shoot up the building unless his property was returned immediately. Rico attempted to talk to the man and to prevent him from entering the building. An hour later, the man returned with three other heavies, who forced their way past the main gate and into the building. They kicked down doors and beat an elderly black resident almost to death. When they approached, Rico grabbed the .357 he keeps for “self-protection” and sat on the couch facing the door. Rico’s door started to give way under the pounding. He fired several shots and they returned fire as they retreated down the hallway. Outside his room, Rico showed me the bullet holes that pocked the hallway, the bathroom door, and the ceiling. I counted eight holes, but he assured me that many more shots were fired. The door to his room is now broken in half and has four bullet holes in it.
Inside Rico’s room, he shows me his loaded gun. It’s too dangerous to keep anymore, he says, since he already has two gun charges on his record. Another resident—a Latino man in his 40s—enters and asks Rico for some weed. Rico agrees to give him some, but then he tells the man that he expects $10 from him. The guy promises to bring the money soon. When he leaves, I cannot hide my surprise and ask Rico whether he has started dealing again.
He says no.
• • •
As of January 2015, Rico is still living in the burned-out building. As a felon with multiple drug convictions, he cannot apply for subsidized housing. Without a decent job, he will never be able to afford to move to a better place. His only option is to remain in a decrepit building, exposed to chemical hazards, constantly fearing for his life, and inexorably pulled back into the vortex of destitution, hustles, and petty crimes from which he was trying to escape.
Beitel, K. 2013. Local Protests, Global Movements: Capital, Community and State in San Francisco. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Gowan, T. 2010. Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Roman, C.G. and J. Travis. 2004. Taking Stock: Housing, Homelessness, and Prisoner Reentry. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Smith, N. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge.
Thompson, K. 2008. Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities. New York: New York University Press.
* Alessandro De Giorgi is Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator at the Department of Justice Studies, San José State University, and a member of the Social Justice Editorial Board. He thanks his research assistants Carla Schultz, Eric Griffin, Hilary Jackl, Maria Martinez, Samantha Sinwald, Sarah Matthews, and Sarah Rae-Kerr for their invaluable contribution. For a more detailed description of the project, see here. Read the first entry—“Get a Job, Any Job”—here, and the second one—“The Working Poor”—here.
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Alessandro De Giorgi, “Reentry to Nothing #3 — Home, Sweet Home.” Social Justice blog, 2/9/2015. © Social Justice 2015.