Building Sanctuary: Artist Collective Uses their Artwork to Protest for Their Rights

Five unhoused artists in the East Bay work to get their voices heard through their art-making practices

Photo by Jehlen Herdman

Listen to the full radio report here, first aired September 9, 2021 on UpFront


OAKLAND,CA In Oakland, California, there are thousands of people experiencing homelessness on any given night. In November 2019, unhoused organizers and allies led an action in front of Oakland city hall, putting up tents to protest housing injustice. Twenty-two people were arrested and taken to Santa Rita Jail for protesting. Among them were five unhoused artists who would go on to create the Concrete and Cardboard Artist Collective. The Collective aims to communicate these artists’ experiences and their dreams as unhoused people living in the East Bay. KPFA’s Jehlen Herdman reports.

The lobby of the Asian Resource Center is very ordinary. It has grey tiled floors – the imitation marble kind – and white walls. A security guard sits on a rolling office chair behind a desk at the front. All in all, it’s a nondescript place. Or it would be, if not for the huge tent in the center of the floor.

One of the members of the collective, Yesica Prado, describes the tent to me.

“Okay. So this is a six person tent. It’s about 10 feet by 10 feet. Basically what you see here is a colorful fly. It has been painted kind of like a camouflage of like different swatches of color, just kind of like stained glass pieces. And then we fill the cracks with glitter, with gold glitter because you fill the cracks with gold.”

I’m here to see the art of the Concrete and Cardboard collective and meet its five core members: Yesica Prado, Needa Bee, Ayat Jalal, Toan Nguyen and Tim Petty. All of them are, or were, unhoused artists living in Berkeley and Oakland. They’re a mostly Black, Brown and Indigenous artist collective.

Communities of color are the hardest hit by displacement in the Bay Area. In Oakland, nearly 70% of unhoused people are Black, and encampment residents are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color.

The tent is part of a larger exhibit from the collective. It takes up a lot of floor space. It’s grey, with orange accents and a yellow rain fly. It’s the kind of tent you might buy at a big department store like Walmart for cheap – maybe to use for a few days at a well appointed campsite. It’s painted on all sides, and the front entrance has cardboard letters hanging off that read “sanctuary”. On the side, dozens of photos hang in plastic sleeves adorned with names.

Yesica Prado describes the scene. “So basically on one side you can see like different clear sleeves that have the names of people that have passed away in 2019 and 2020 that were unhoused.  We basically made like a little… it’s a memorial tent. So paying attributions to the people that have passed away and had to survive in the streets, right?”

Along with the tent are about a dozen photographs that Yesica took. They show people who, like her, live in vehicles in Berkeley. She points to one, saying, “And then this is the Mercedes, you know, she always likes to take care of her garden, even though it’s just a patch of dirt that belongs to the construction company. She nurtured the land just to be something beautiful.”

“I just wanted to capture the moments where usually people don’t see cause a lot of people just see the cluster of vehicles. They don’t see who actually is living in them and why they’re here and how they got here.” – Yesica Prado, Concrete and Cardboard Artist Collective member

Photo by Yesica Prado

The person in the photo looks to be in her 50’s or 60’s, though it’s hard to tell. She stands in front of a lush patch of nasturtium between the sidewalk and the chain link fence. Pigeons are flocking around her. She looks serene and powerful. She’s standing in a wide stance, her hands tucked behind her back, watching the birds.

Yescia describes her impetus for this, and her other photos, in the exhibit. “I just wanted to capture the moments where usually people don’t see cause a lot of people just see the cluster of vehicles. They don’t see who actually is living in them and why they’re here and how they got here. And basically I was trying just to do that with my photography, just talk about those stories that kind of get lost and basically talk about them as people, not just vehicles, because I feel that that gets thrown a lot. They always just see them as ‘these vehicles gotta move.'”

““Maybe they don’t want to kill me by starving me, but they certainly want to hurt me by restricting my access to the restroom. And so if they’re willing to do that to people, then something’s wrong.” – Tim Petty, Concrete and Cardboard Artist Collective member

The art work made by the Concrete and Cardboard Collective ranges from documentary film, like the one Needa made, which plays in the lobby – I call it a mixed tape because it is a collection of found videos, videos people gave to me and interviews that we conducted.”

To paintings by Ayat – “I paint impressionistic art.”

To installation art – like the toilet Tim brought in, which has a handwritten sign on it that reads “customers only.” The C and S in the word “customers” have lines through them, like dollar and cent signs.

Tim explains, “Maybe they don’t want to kill me by starving me, but they certainly want to hurt me by restricting my access to the restroom. And so if they’re willing to do that to people, then something’s wrong.”

All of the artwork at the exhibit is about the experience of being unhoused. For the artists, it’s a form of protest for their rights: to have a place to sleep, to use the restroom, to not be criminalized for simply existing. And none of the members of the collective are new to protesting. In fact, they say that’s what brought them together.

Back in November of 2019, activists from several advocacy organizations built a Housing Justice Village outside  Oakland City Hall. Around seventy people pitched tents and camped out. They were demanding justice for unhoused people and changes to Oakland’s encampment policy.

Needa Bee, a future member of the collective, was on Facebook Live during the protest. In one of the videos she posted that night, she’s sitting inside of a tent much like the one in the gallery.

She says it’s late at night, and police are starting to hassle protesters. In the video, you can hear, “Is someone getting arrested right now? Someone’s getting arrested?”

“They are breaking into people’s tents illegally and unlawfully. They are illegally breaking into people’s tents. They are breaking lots without a search warrant. I was about to go to sleep.”

When Needa reflects on the night with me months later, she recalls the timeline. “By 11 o’clock that night, DPW [the Department of Public Works] and OPD [Oakland Police Department] were sent out to destroy our village, and 22 of us were arrested.”

By the end of the night, Needa, Ayat, Toan and Tim would all be arrested. I found a video of Needa’s arrest online.

Needa is wearing a white head scarf and a crocheted white sweater. She’s dragged out of her tent by four police officers, each one holding one of her arms and legs. The scene cuts out as Needa screams at the officers to put her down. The next scene shows her walking on her own.

Over a melee of voices, Needa can be heard yelling to the officers. “You are violating my constitutional rights. You are hurting me! You’re hurting me!”

Two white-presenting male officers tower over either side of her, holding her arms at the elbow. Needa looks tiny in comparison, this Filipina woman who even with a headscarf barely reaches their shoulders.

Needa says the arresting officers injured her shoulder during the arrest. She says she wasn’t able to get treatment until after she got out of jail and nursed her arm in a sling for the next three weeks. Needa and other demonstrators were arrested and held in Santa Rita Jail, some for up to 48 hours.

“As unhoused people, we are already criminalized, we are already seen as worthless, we’re already seen as Other, and we’re already invisible. It’s very difficult to assert that we’re humans and that we have the same rights as someone who has a house over their head.” – Needa Bee, Concrete and Cardboard Artist Collective member

But the protest that night was a catalyst. Because it proved something to the future collective members, Needa describes how she felt about it.

“Every time we step up, we literally get repressed. Our property gets destroyed. We get set back. Our yurts have been destroyed. Our campers have been towed. Our property has been destroyed. People have died because of the evictions, literally have died.”

After the protest, Needa got to work on creating the collective. Ayat, Toan, Tim, and Yesica all joined soon after.

Regarding the shift to an artist collective, Needa says, “As unhoused people, we are already criminalized, we are already seen as worthless, we’re already seen as Other, and we’re already invisible. It’s very difficult to assert that we’re humans and that we have the same rights as someone who has a house over their head.”

But maybe, they thought, there was a way for them to use art to break through that wall of invisibility.

Oftentimes even if you’re telling someone the truth,” says Ayat, “like about gentrification, if someone’s job is working for them and you’re telling them, hey, I know y’all out here chilling [and] enjoying Oakland, but literally you coming in and enjoying Oakland is really the reason why I’m homeless. You know, you can’t go up and talk to somebody like that, that’s letting someone know that they’re immorally living.

“With art you can break through all that, and you give a person a chance to really look inside themselves. And that goes back to the core thing that inside of humans, there’s this thing called humanity. Even if people lie to themselves, you can’t deny art touches, that music touches, that poetry, you know.”

And thus, the concrete and cardboard artist collective was born. The members started to work together on projects. They brainstormed ways to get their art out into public spaces and to uplift unhoused artists.

Here are some of the core tenets of the Concrete and Cardboard Collective:

“To explore the platform of art, to explore the platform of art for the expression of our stories as to alter the narratives of society… To remind people of our shared humanity through art… To amplify the individual voice, passion, and desires in the heart of ‘we the people… To join us solidarity with all who fight against the oppression of the human spirit… To alter the conditions that have caused great dis-ease in today’s society. And to stand against the death of humanity.”

That brings us back to the exhibit at the Asian Resource Center, with the painted tent in the middle. Part of it is from the one Toan used while living on the streets – specifically the rain fly, the part that kept Toan dry.

“The fly was used for about nine to 10 months before it started showing deterioration a bit,” says Toan.

When you go inside the tent, you can see the light shining through the worn holes in the fabric, trickling in like sunlight through the branches of trees.

“When the light shines through the insight, you’re able to see all the tears and all the cracks that the fabric has sustained,” says Yesica. “So you’re able to see like if it wasn’t for this piece of thin fabric, like all those scars, all those things will be in people’s skin. So it kind of also to like give people an idea. Then you can also walk in–”

We step inside the tent. The inside has splatters of pink on it from where they painted all of the pieces adorning the outside. Toan and Yesica worked on the tent in short spurts, slowly, over weeks. Big cardboard letters on the side read: “we will survive this moment together.”

And even though the tent seems like it’s taking up a lot of space in this lobby floor, Yesica says, “This is just barely enough space for one person to live. It’s only 10 by 10 feet.”

It’s hard to imagine keeping all of my belongings in this space. It’s sold as a 6 person tent, but for that many people to actually fit, they would have to squeeze. Picture 6 adults, lying side by side on the floor, their sides touching. The three of us crouch to get inside. I’m the tallest one, and it’s tight.

This squeeze strikes me as a metaphor for what concrete and cardboard collective is doing. They’re claiming space: placing a bright and bulky tent in the middle of this ordinary lobby, asking people to squeeze inside, to have the embodied experience of entering a tent and really thinking about how your body fits into it.

Inside the tent, you can clearly still hear everything happening outside: people walking through the lobby, stopping and chatting, a janitor pushing a big trash can on wheels into the elevator. It’s simultaneously so ordinary, but so jarring. When you enter the tent, you are suddenly somewhere totally different than the lobby, somewhere separate. You’re part of the space and at the same time not.  It’s a private space and also very exposed. And it brings up this question: whose space is this?

“That’s why they call it real estate,” says Ayat. “It’s the only real thing that you never have is land is place because power is the, the ability to hold, to stand, where you are.”

Ayat has been an outspoken activist for civil rights for most of his life. He describes himself as a Panther Cub, the child of two Black Panther parents. He says he was part of the Occupy SF Movement back in 2011. He’s known Needa Bee for years, including from a tiny home village for families that was violently evicted by Oakland Police in 2017.

“Yeah we were building houses, cleaning all dope needles up, there was this vacant lot that no one wanted for years and years and years. And it got bulldozed. So I was almost housed, finally in the end, I was just ripped away, so I got into the politics of it.”

Like that village, nothing that the collective creates is permanent. As unhoused people, the members of the collective live in this in-between place. A human-constructed no man’s land where they exist, but are invisibilized. Like their lives and belongings, the art they create is real, but also constantly in threat of being destroyed. They all say they have experienced the trauma of being displaced or evicted from their homes. Even in the gallery, Toan worries that they will have to take down the tent because some people have complained it takes up too much space in the lobby.

Many of the artists have lost irreplaceable art over the years, art that they made to survive the experience of living on the streets.

“I was brought up in an artistic family,” says Needa, “but I really dived into my own art, not realizing at the time, but it was my therapy. It actually saved my life cause I was able to purge my trauma and purge the oppression I had faced that I didn’t have the vocabulary for, that I didn’t know how to deal, that was sending me to really dark and self-destructive places. But I believe that I’m alive today because of art.”

But during another violent eviction by the city of Oakland, Needa’s writing was destroyed.

“They threw away a crate in my writing.” says Needa. “The writings that I had been keeping around and lugging around every year, because one day I’m going to make a book, maybe three of them that got thrown away. That’s some of my best writing. That’s why I kept held onto it, because I’m like this is gonna be something one day.”

“My strength came from me remembering who I was and from me expressing my feelings on canvas.” – Ayat Jalal, Concrete and Cardboard Artist Collective member

For the Concrete and Cardboard Collective, the act of being unhoused is an act of perseverance and resistance. And what they do is make art that forces people to look at that reality.

They do that with their protest signs, their paintings and photographs, their public works. They do it by making the public see the people who live in the vehicles on the side of the road, watering their gardens. They do it by continuing to make new things, when the old stuff gets destroyed.

“Me being homeless,” says Ayat, “I got to a point where, yeah, no matter my poems, no matter anything else, my screaming shouting gets to a point where I had to go deeper into myself to continue. And what I found kept me going was art. It had nothing to do with how much money I had in my pocket. It had nothing to do with my belief in his system that continued to fail me. My strength came from me remembering who I was and from me expressing my feelings on canvas.”

A janitor comes in and starts mopping. Before we leave, Yesica tells me one last thing about the tent in the center. Earlier I had wondered why the tent had gold glitter in its cracks. Now she points to the refracted colors painted on the rain fly, tessellating out in jagged pieces:

“The way that we perceive people is like, they’re broken, right?” says Yesica. “So like, that’s why you see different swatches of like color, like to represent the brokenness, but we’re still coming together and we’re filling that brokenness with positive things, with love, with friendship, unity. And that’s why the cracks are filled with gold, you know?”

“We’re all living in this moment, we know we’re going to survive and it’s going to take for us to do it together. We can’t survive on our own, it takes all of us to actually survive. We don’t know how, how are we going to live the next moment, but we just know we gotta get through this moment right now.”

And the Concrete and Cardboard Collective is doing exactly that. Despite the system’s best efforts to invisibilize them, Ayat, Toan, Tim, Yesica and Needa remain. They make art. They take up space. They make people ask themselves hard questions. And they are doing all of that while still surviving and caring for each other in a place that might rather they not be there.

I don’t think they are going anywhere anytime soon.


This story was reported and produced by Jehlen Herdman as part of the KPFA Storytelling Project. It was edited by Lucy Kang with support from Ariel Boone. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.