Donte Clark stands in the middle of a dimly lit stage. A projected photo of a dilapidated apartment building flickers on the wall behind him. In this scene, he’s speaking as the voice of the building.
“Somebody needs to speak on behalf of these peoples. Get them out of my custody and let me go. Cause I've been ragged and brown for quite some time now,” he says.
Clark is performing in a play called This is Home at San Francisco’s Tides Theater that tells the story of two housing projects in Richmond. Most of the people who live there are elderly or disabled. They pay rent on subsidized apartments overrun with mice, cockroaches and mold. Crime is common, and security is lax.
Journalist Amy Julia Harris from the Center for Investigative Reporting spent nine months looking into the rampant neglect in Richmond’s public housing.
“The thing that struck me was that people were complaining about these things and trying on their own to combat them,” says Harris. “It was just the housing authority was not responding, or not dealing with the problems.”
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, Richmond’s housing authority is one of the worst-run in the country -- so bad that the feds are considering shutting it down. Harris wanted to know why. So she started poring over documents and public records.
“There were financial problems, management problems. There were cases where the deputy director at the housing authority had steered contracts to his brother. They had misspent millions and had to repay to federal government,” says Harris.
She says she also found many cases of residents who made repair requests that were never addressed. Yet Richmond Housing Authority documents showed they were fixed.
Residents told Harris they’ve waited months, sometimes years, without getting any help. Disabled people were stuck in upper floor apartments because the elevators are broken. Leaking ceilings were so bad that mold stalactites formed from the dripping water.
“I’d never seen stalactites outside of caves. That was just kind of shocking to see that. Something you could see had gotten so bad for years and years of just this dripping. That takes a long time. That was a very visual representation of how much this place had fallen into disrepair,” Harris says.
One woman she met trapped 12 mice during their two-hour conversation. A picture started to emerge…one with faces and names.
“It was real people, and no longer documents. Everyone had a real compelling story. That was when we started thinking, ‘What are different ways we can tell this story?’” she recalls.
That’s where a group called RAW Talent, or Richmond Artists with Talent, comes in. It’s a theater and spoken word troupe focused on social justice in Richmond. The members are all in their 20s.
William Hartfield is one of performers in This is Home. He and the other RAW Talent poets partnered with Amy Julia Harris to bring her stories from Richmond’s housing projects to life. They read her reporting, visited the project with her, and saw conditions first hand. Then they wrote spoken word pieces about what they’d seen, and turned those pieces into a stage play.
“In my piece is basically exactly what I saw,” says Hartfield.“My whole approach was to like ‘see me for who I am.’ Recognize that some paths in life haven't been chosen, but we make the best of what we have. And that you're only a paycheck away.”
Hartfield plays a squatter, an old man, and he wrote This Is Home, the poem the play is named for.
“Mind your business. Pay no mind to that dead body that just fell from the top floor the other night. Silence has become an ally to fear. The fear of being evicted. Like a sickness, the madness of this reality soaks into a simple state, better here than out there,” says Hartfield from the stage.
Some characters are made up, drawn from the lives of the many people the poets met or read about. Others are based more directly on real people-- like Helen Hall, known as ‘Mama Hall, a resident in her 80s, who patrols her building as a self-appointed security guard. She’s played by Tassiana Willis.
“I thought by 81 I woulda earned my keep,” says Willis from the stage. “But I keep keeping on strong, like these old bruised bones, I ain't broken. I'm broke.”
Willis didn’t actually meet Mama Hall before she wrote these lines. Instead, she had to imagine what it would be like to be elderly and alone, trying to keep things together in a place crumbling around her.
“What year was she born? What era did she come out of? And it was 1933. Ooo wee, 1933. How do you go through hardships in the 40s, 50s, 60, 70s, into the 2000's with all the changes, especially for people of color, and then at the end of your life, you don't get a chance to sleep and rest and go on vacation,” says Willis.
Back on stage, Willis, as Mama Hall continues.
“I’m going to go tell it on the mountain! For the soul’s too weak to weep, bones that creak, I worked my whole life! And I know pain. and I know sacrifice. But I don't know how many moons I got left, so tell me what I'm supposed to do, huh?”
What are people like Mama Hall supposed to do? Since Harris’ article came out in early 2014, government officials in Richmond began an investigation. They found living conditions so bad in one building that the city council voted to evacuate residents. But the Housing Authority is $7 million dollars in debt, so where residents will go, and who pays to relocate them is unknown.
This Is Home ran for two weeks in San Francisco. A video version is in the works. RAW Talent poet Deandre Evans says theater is one way to shine a light on what’s happening in Richmond, but it’s not a solution to the actual problems.
“I like to talk about what's going on, but I also like to give my input on how it could be better,” Evans says. “And right now, we ain't really show that in This Is Home. It’s just kinda like, ‘This is what the issue is, this is what's going on, this is how we living. Tomorrow is going to be better.’ And it's like, that's dope. How, though?”
How is an open question. Amy Julia Harris’ reporting is ongoing. The city of Richmond has asked the federal government to pay for relocating the residents, but a decision on that won’t be made for several months.
‘This is Home’ was produced as part of Off/Page and StoryWorks, two collaborations between The Center for Investigative Reporting journalists, spoken word artists and actors. CIR works with Youth Speaks and Tides Theater in San Francisco on the projects.
This story first aired on May 22, 2014.