Meet Riley, an autistic, transgender former student living in Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Pkwy encampment

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Riley, an autistic, transgender 26-yr-old w/ a heart full of empathy & a head full of big ideas, has lived at the newly populated tent encampment on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Pkwy since June. They, (Riley’s pronoun) are 1 of about 150. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit the BFP camp, which formed in part as a reaction to Coronavirus. Recently, the community has gotten a lot of attention, thanks to the standoff between the residents/local activists & the mayor, following a judge’s decision to allow the camp to be forcibly cleared. Philadelphia maintains a poverty rate of 25.5 percent, far higher than either LA or New York. The city’s rates of *unsheltered* homeless, however, are a fraction of the other two cities. This divide is possible thanks to temporary housing solutions in Philadelphia. But permanent housing is another issue altogether; one largely absent from public discussion thanks to its lack of visibility on the streets. The Philadelphia Housing Authority currently manages a permanent housing waitlist of 47,000 families. And it hasn’t accepted a new applicant since *2013.* The Benjamin Franklin Parkway encampment emerged as part housing solution, amidst more tumbling into homelessness and more leaving homeless shelters because of unpopularity and risks relating to Covid, and part protest against the lack of affordable housing. Before they arrived at the encampment, Riley was a social engineering student at Drexel U. working to find solutions to poverty & hunger. “How people eat, how they get water, that’s network engineering,” Riley said, getting emotional. “We’re not focusing on the right things.” Riley fell into homelessness, they said, due to Coronavirus’ push to move things online — a relative impossibility considering their inability to process learning or working from across a screen. Still, they’re not wasting this moment. They wants to use this large tent to create a “camp counseling center,” a safe space where people can zone out or talk ab what they’re dealing w/ physically & emotionally. “Everything that comes out of (this encampment) is so negative,” they said. “But there is so much beauty here, too.”

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Tour Bertie

A van build for the PEOPLE

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⚠️ WARNING ⚠️ is *not* the outrageously expensive, over-the-top #vanlife experience you see taking over Instagram. ⁣ ⁣ Bertie is a van for the people. 😂🥰⁣ ⁣ Actually, this whole process taught me that you can make something beautiful AND highly functional on a serious budget. I’m talking about $1,000 including build and decor, compared with $150K versions of #vanbuildout that you regularly see. (I had to request people to stop sending me links of those for “inspiration” about 8 times.)⁣ ⁣ I went down to Atlanta to meet my friend @usapastorblue (pictured!), bought $300 worth of wood and supplies and installed a bed frame over the tire wheels, two shelves over the bed, and a counter top with leg space for a desk/table and three more small shelves, plus a wooden basket for inside the side door and a small built-in drink holder. ⁣ ⁣ Later, back in North Carolina, my mom and I installed a third shelf over the desk/kitchen “area” with a 1×8 she had lying around and a cut 1×4. ⁣ ⁣ From there, it was screwing in a couple of spray painted metal baskets, bigger hooks for hanging jackets, towels and bags, and smaller hooks to hold lighting and eventually, plants. 🥰🌱 ⁣ ⁣ I sanded and stained everything (twice, cause I messed it up the first time 😩) and then… it was time to decorate. ⁣ ⁣ Have you seen pictures of my final designed #tinyhome on my Instagram highlight yet?! How many stars would you give Bertie & I?! 🥰 #vanlife #vanconversion #projectvanlife

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Van life begins

Reading aloud: my column about a journey through the Deep South

Reading aloud: Coronavirus stimulus checks and the off-the grid unhoused PART ONE

Star Tribune column: a tour of Civil Rights landmarks reveals what’s changed and what hasn’t

While recently traveling from Missouri to North Carolina, I embarked on a somewhat spontaneous 10-day road trip through the former Jim Crow south.

It gave me the opportunity to visit a lot of Civil Rights landmarks I never have, and to do so amidst the backdrop of the current Black Lives Matters movement.

But my journey from Memphis to Atlanta, stopping in Jackson, MS, Selma, AL and Birmingham, AL in between, also struck me as a gauge of just how far we have to go — from the homeless camps in walking distance from MLK’s home, to the abject poverty evident in a hitchhiker’s neighborhood, to the thinly veiled racism I witnessed on the streets of Memphis.

Transpiring simultaneously with the demonstrations fighting police brutality that have seized widespread attention, these quiet injustices — the faces of which are still overwhelmingly Black — manage to persist, I found, in relative anonymity.

Amidst Coronavirus, stimulus checks offer hope, hindrance for off-the-grid homeless

This is a story about unprecedented opportunity in the midst of an unprecedented global catastrophe, and how our collective failure to see it led to the further victimization of  a chronically neglected community.

Shorty leaned against the plexiglass window outside the brick building, her wide cheekbones springing toward her eyes and pulling her entire face into a smile.

“Drumroll please,” she crooned, her small, wiry frame a coil of energy. 

We were at the Los Angeles Mission in the heart of Skid Row — one of the country’s largest communities of homelessness; a tent city smoldering beneath the wealth of downtown Los Angeles’ soaring high rises. We’d come to the charitable organization in downtown LA, to ask, again, about any mail for Shorty; to keep going through guessed motions even though I had no confidence that one day a government check would show up.

I had arrived here, to Skid Row, in April, curious to see how Coronavirus was affecting a community that in some ways mimics a developing country; where sewage is tossed into the street and water is accessed from fire hydrants.

One of my many adopted projects was this: to try to find out if it was possible to get a CARES Act Coronavirus stimulus check for someone like Shorty — an unhoused woman who is essentially off the grid, lacking income, taxpayer status or a history of government assistance.

Over the two-plus months I spent in the community, even sleeping side-by-side in a tent for a few nights, this would be a process that would take me on a roller coaster through highs and lows; twists and turns that served to both offer unexpected hope and reinforce the very structures of oppression that created such a conundrum.

But in this moment, back at the Mission, Shorty was feeling optimistic. 

“Happiness is on the way,” she sang. “Peace and quiet and serenity is ON. THE. WAY!”

When the man working the window indeed produced a government-marked envelope, it felt like a miracle; a victory won against long odds.

But the real miracle, though I didn’t know it then, would come later.

Meal Magazine story: Cooked by fire, filled with memory

Did you miss my story for Meal Magazine when it appeared in print in their stunning Issue 1? (You can order the worthy hard copy here.)

Thanks to Meal going digital, it’s now online.

• • •

Over the last 15-20 years, many U.S. natives have added a new dish to their food vocabulary: pupusas.

But not everyone understands why these Salvadoran snacks started showing up around major U.S. cities—and how our own government played a role in getting them there.

That journey is a tale of war, migration, imperialism and how deeply food is engrained in our identities and histories.