A viral video kicked off a debate about homelessness. But what happened after concerned bystanders tried to help?
When the sun shines, Lake Merritt sparkles. And since the lake sits in the centre of Oakland, California, this happens a lot.
It’s summer 2018 and sunlight is dancing across the water. Suddenly raised voices break the peace. One of the joggers – shirtless, sporting headphones sitting over a cap pulled backwards – is dumping a homeless man’s belongings into the lake.
Bystanders start to ask him questions. What is he doing?
“I’m picking up trash. What do you want me to do?” the jogger responds.
“Stop taking his stuff,” one onlooker remonstrates.
Blankets and clothes lie strewn in the water. More of the homeless man’s belongings are spread across the floor.
And JJ Harris is watching all of this unfold from behind his phone’s camera.
JJ saw the homeless man – known locally as “Drew” – when he gets his morning coffee most days. He and others were shocked by what the jogger was doing.
“We kept saying ‘This is a person’s belongings, this is a person’s whole life.’ He never really acknowledged that. He just kept going.”
Later, JJ posted his video online. It went viral. The jogger was christened – in the alliterative way of the internet – “Jogger Joe”.
The next day
Social media users quickly discovered Jogger Joe’s real name, Henry Sintay – and the next day he was back at the lake.
“I pass by where Drew lives every day on my bicycle,” says local resident Matt Nelson. “I had seen the headlines but I hadn’t actually seen the whole video. When I passed by it was very odd to see a man in the lake… in what seemed to be a promotional video of Jogger Joe cleaning up. On its face it was absurd and ridiculous.”
Matt, like JJ had the day before, pulled his phone out and started recording.
“I just started asking him, what’s going on here? Why would anyone throw this man’s possessions in the lake? Why do you feel that you have that level of entitlement and control over another person’s wellbeing?
“He didn’t really have an answer, so his answer became violence.”
Matt’s phone was stolen. He received hospital treatment after suffering a concussion. Sintay, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, was arrested. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanour battery and misdemeanour vandalism and was sentenced to five years probation.
Support for Drew
Along with the drama and violence around Lake Merritt came a reaction of a different sort. Kenzie Smith, another Oaklander, saw the clip and wanted to help.
“I took bottles of water. I took a blanket. I took food,” he recalls. “I gave Drew the stuff and said, ‘Tomorrow I’ll be back.'”
He teamed up with JJ. They bought Drew a tent, but city regulations meant he would have to clear it away each morning. Then Kenzie had an idea.
“What if we could get you an apartment?” he asked.
A crowdfunding campaign was born.
The bigger problem
Drew’s story and the viral videos which highlighted it are just small glimpses at a much bigger problem. Homelessness in Oakland is rife.
Between 2015 and 2017, the number of homeless people in the city increased by 26%. In the larger Alameda County, which also includes cities like Berkeley, the homeless population has increased 43% from 2017. And some researchers say these figures underestimate the problem.
The San Francisco Bay area, of which Oakland is a part, is booming – in part due to the region’s tech firms. That’s driving prices up, and making homes unaffordable.
In a city where median household income is about $60,000, three in 10 homes are valued at more than $1 million. Between 2013 and 2019 Oakland’s average rent increased 77%, according to the real estate site Zillow. Much of the city’s housing is beyond the reach of its residents.
City authorities have touted new developments and an effort to house rough sleepers in “Tuff Sheds” – small temporary homes. But these initiatives have been criticised.
Since 2016, permits have been granted to build more than 10,000 homes. Just 7% are classified as affordable – versus a target of 28%. Some homeless advocates say Tuff Sheds weren’t ever designed to house people – others say that even if they were, there aren’t nearly enough of them to house everyone who needs one.
In September 2018, a UN report condemned Oakland’s treatment of its homeless residents as “cruel and inhuman” and “a violation of multiple human rights”.
“I’ve seen squalor, I’ve seen homelessness in countries around the world,” said UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha said. “I’ve seen really horrific things. And I saw all of that in Oakland, but I also witnessed a cruelty there that might be unparalleled.”
What Henry Sintay did – disposing of a homeless person’s possessions – is actually quite common in Oakland. It’s just that most of the time, it’s not a private citizen doing it, but the city authorities.
Crews hired by the city regularly throw tents, blankets and makeshift shelters into the back of rubbish trucks. But most of the time there are few witnesses, and no viral outrage or crowdfunding campaigns.
“I think that the video might be a little misunderstood,” says Heather Freinkel, a managing attorney with the Homeless Action Center, an advocacy group. “Part of the reason why people were outraged was because this is something we never see.”
“The city and the police come in and forcibly remove people’s things,” she says. “A lot of the time, people don’t have anywhere to go.”
What happened to Drew?
The crowdfunding campaign for Drew quickly amassed $14,000. But that, it turned out, was the easy bit.
Kenzie and JJ found Drew a job, a barber to give him a free haircut, and a pre-paid phone. But he turned all the help down.
“He declined the offer,” Kenzie says. “He said that [the lake] was his home. And he said he didn’t really want to be a part of the world.”
“I try to chat with him once in a while but it’s become a bit difficult,” JJ said. “All the media attention and all the stuff going on with Jogger Joe really had a negative impact on him.
“I think he’s still trying to cope with all the madness that went on.”
And so it turned out that Drew’s story turned out to be much more complicated than a short viral video could ever capture.
For more on this story, listen to the BBC Trending podcast.