I already introduced Paschal to Splash Pad News readers last month when I included the above photograph and described him as the newest member of the Splash Pad Grand Crew volunteer team. What I didn’t mention is that he’s homeless and living in the parking lot under the freeway, which is where I first met him, while publicizing the Lava Mae event. He volunteered his name, asked mine, and thanked me for the flyer. I was immediately impressed by his demeanor and the fact that his encampment was neat as a pin with cardboard carefully stacked and blankets crisply folded.
At the Splash Pad Grand Crew’s 4th Sunday monthly work day in December, I asked him if he’d like to volunteer and he was happy to oblige. He did so again last weekend and, in between, took it upon himself to help keep the park clean. When rakes weren’t available, he swept the plaza (which hadn’t been this clean in quite some time) with palm fronds. He’s also volunteered twice at the Morcom Rose Garden and, without exception, staff and fellow volunteers have been dazzled by his strength, work ethic, and affability.
So, you may rightly ask, “How did someone with all these positive attributes become homeless?”
Paschal was born in Chad but grew up in Nigeria, which in the 1990s was in turmoil surrounded by warring factions. In 2000, at the age of nineteen, he migrated to the U.S. and, after a brief stay in Maryland, he moved to Oakland. His first job was working as a fry cook in the Lake Park Kwik Way followed by a stint driving taxi cabs in San Francisco. After moving to Pittsburg in 2004, he established a successful business as a licensed landscaper and supplemented that income with construction jobs working as a carpenter and concrete mason. Along the way, he married twice and had five children – the youngest is now four and the oldest nineteen – and also purchased a home.
That world came tumbling down when his second wife sued for divorce after learning that he had cheated on her. Ashamed of his behavior, Paschal chose to not contest the divorce and, about seven months ago, packed his pick-up truck with his clothing and tools and moved back to Oakland where he had a job lined up with a local contractor. Encamped near Home Depot, his pick-up truck and tools were stolen. When the construction job in Oakland wrapped up, without transportation, he was unable to accept a job from the same contractor on the San Francisco peninsula but after four men attacked him in the middle of the night – breaking his jaw, he moved to our Grand Lake neighborhood. Even here, he had most of his belongings ripped off during a brief absence.
In the past month, as more people have become aware of his situation, there’s been an outpouring of support. To cite a few examples, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church donated a warm winter coat and a big bag of groceries (more about that later). The Oakland Museum White Elephant Sale donated additional jackets, pants, and a brand new backpack to replace the one that was stolen. Jesset Sidore read about Paschal in last month’s News and hired him to fix her fence. Kimberly Leo, owner of Namaste Yoga gave him cash for food, and Zach Zegle, the Pestec technician who has been doing rat abatement at Splash Pad Park, gave him enough for a bike lock for the bike that had been stolen and later recovered by OPD.
The corollary to the question that started this discussion is, “How does a person with all those positive attributes become whole again; employed and in a secure environment”?
This past Friday, after sharing some Arizmendi pizza, I told him his situation was like being mired in quicksand but that I was confident that he had the strength and determination to pull himself out. I came to that conclusion knowing that he had, during the previous couple of days, ridden his bike to Pittsburg to pick up a letter regarding unemployment benefits and, on the return trip, after both brake levers snapped off on a steep hill, had ridden the rest of the way using the soles of his shoes as brakes. As an encore, two days later, with his bike out of commission, he walked to and from San Leandro to pick up work boots and a hard hat that he’d need if he lands a full-time construction job in San Pablo.
If he’s hired, unless retroactive unemployment benefits (that he may or may not receive) are sufficient to buy another pick-up, he’s planning to bike to work on San Pablo Avenue – which, as most cyclists will attest, takes steely nerves. And even with a job, he can’t be sure that his campsite won’t be raided in his absence. As long as he’s unsheltered, how can he stay healthy while exposed to the elements night after night? And, most importantly, where will he be able to find affordable housing in a market in which the average price for a studio apartment in Oakland is $1,761?
Those are just some of the obstacles that Paschal will have to overcome – despite all the attributes working in his favor. For the majority of the homeless – particularly those who are long-term – those obstacles are incrementally much greater.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thursday evening, Paschal told me he had filled out an application for residence in the Northgate Tuff Shed community and was told that a spot will be opening for him very soon. Here’s hoping!