Oakland director Cheryl Fabio’s latest documentary, A Rising Tide, maps the scope of homelessness and institutional racism in Alameda County through 18 interviews with homeless families, young people, advocates, poets and policymakers.

The documentary, which released this summer, illustrates the traumas and truths of homelessness, and prompts solutions to what is often presented as an intractable problem in the Bay Area.

The poster for Cheryl Fabio’s film, A Rising Tide. Credit: A Rising Tide film

The film will be showing Saturday at Tarea Hall Pittman Library in South Berkeley.

“This is a community swell sort of distribution,” Fabio said about upcoming dates, which are available on the film’s website.

We interviewed Fabio to hear more about the filmmaking process and what she hopes to communicate about the regional housing crisis. Watch the trailer.

What do you hope your film communicates about homelessness in Oakland and the Bay Area?

When I started making this film, I didn’t have a list of people I wanted to talk to. The unfolding of the film was a surprise to me. Ultimately, what I hope it does is humanize people. On Nextdoor, you read terrible things about homeless people. What is wrong with how we approach the human condition? We just have to think about it differently.

Do you want your kids to be safe and sound? Then why is it OK that these kids are in this situation? One of our goals is to allow people to tell their story in their ways and to honor that. What’s different about them that they need this experience and everyone else doesn’t?

There is a binary, and we want to hold on to that. In one of the richest economies in the world, it’s not OK to have some people with way too much and other people with absolutely nothing. I don’t know why you can’t be human to humans. Everyone ought to have a decent place to live.

We’ve got enough money in California to solve homelessness six times over and folks who are hoarding that money aren’t choosing to do that.

Our film is all about the conversation, the thoughts that happen after you see it. The purpose of the film is to change the narrative — this narrative that people are homeless because they choose it, because they’re drug addicted, they’re mentally ill. 

Darlene Flynn, executive director of the race & equity department for the city of Oakland, is interviewed in the film. Credit: A Rising Tide film Credit: A Rising Tide

Tell us about the specific context around homelessness in Oakland and Alameda County that your film focuses on.

It’s not a city-based problem, it’s a county-based problem. Over half of the county’s homeless population lives in Oakland. Of the 50% that live in Oakland, about 70% of those homeless residents are Black. (Editor’s note: As of the latest homeless census, Black residents make up about 60% of Oakland’s sheltered homeless population, compared to 70% in 2019.)

Oakland has basically been the dumping ground for poor Black people — it’s a very, very long, racialized history that has to do with wealth accumulation. Segregation puts you in the places that are least desirable — like industrial areas in West Oakland — and then there’s declaring through redlining that ‘this property is less valuable.’

All of those things are impacting that today, when Black families get up against a challenge, there’s no safety net. If they’re coming up against a challenge with no safety net, they’re going to fall over a cliff. It’s not a simple response.

How is this context at play in the documentary, 2020 and onward?

That’s the bedrock of homelessness in Oakland. The “now” is about available units, and affordability and teacher housing, and all that other stuff.

My film is focused on families, and families with children and the impact there. We’re not trying to talk about all of the housing crisis.

But what we know is that now, we’ve invited 500,000 tech workers and built an extra 50,000 units. We got a problem. And who is it that’s going to be able to afford that 50,000 units? It’s those tech workers that are getting great salaries.

Everybody else is vulnerable. We’re getting people that are vulnerable that you never would have thought would have been in this situation.

It just comes down to who has that safety net to keep them out of homelessness. You’re going to have two people standing on a cliff. One has a safety net, and one doesn’t. When they fall, one of them will get a cushion and the other falls flat on their face — and now they’re living in a car.

What do you hope to shed light on by focusing on children and homeless families?

All of the crisis is horrific, but when you start children out in homelessness, you’re putting something in this child’s brain about their worthiness that they’re carrying with them for the rest of their life — they pass that down to their children for the rest of their life.

When it’s so unfounded, so based in nothing, and you watch a kid grow into this, it’s heartbreaking. It’s tearing at your soul, your personality is changing. 

One subject in the film has been exposed to so much meanness. It’s heartbreaking that we’re generating new generations of homelessness by not handling something that’s ours to handle. 

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...