A few months ago, Arnoldo told me that someone had stopped by his truck and helped him fill out his US Census forms. "That's good, right?" he asked.
"Yes! That's very good," I said. I had been meaning to make sure he'd been counted, but someone beat me to it.
For the last year, I've been filming Arnoldo in a short documentary I'm making, called This Adventure Called California. He was labor trafficked right here in the Bay Area, and the film is following his emotional journey to recover and reconcile with his family. He lives in his truck, and it turns out that the person who helped Arnoldo with the Census was not a diligent Census worker, as I assumed, but Willis Reuter, an outreach worker for an organization called CityServe of the Tri-Valley.
In addition to registering unsheltered people for the Census, CityServe provides a ton of critical services to the community --including helping people with resumes and employment searches, and assisting with housing, legal aid, and case management. In short, they provide a safety net for vulnerable people who might need food, counseling, a ride to the doctor, a job, or a shoulder to cry on. There are so many ways that our current society is failing its citizens --lack of affordable health care, housing, safe streets, quality education, trustworthy law enforcement...I could go on... so I'm grateful for organizations like CityServe who are stepping up to help.
Willis remembered that Arnoldo is a painter, and introduced him to Carol and Craig, his in-laws, who happened to need their home painted. I've been wanting more footage of Arnoldo at work, and Carol and Craig generously let me come with my camera. It turns out, they live on a ranch. A real ranch.
As I packed up my gear, I got texts from Willis: "There will be goats and cows roaming around freely. And we got a new puppy, Waffles, that might greet you. Oh, also, the goats might jump on your car... And the llamas are friendly, they won't spit on you."
After spending most of the pandemic in my home office, living life through screens, this was beyond exciting. Goats! Llamas! Puppies! But this is one of the greatest things about this work -- getting to enter different corners of the earth, and meet the fascinating people who live there. And in this case, dwarf Nigerian goats!
I don't think I can properly convey the cuteness, hilarity, and enthrallment of these goats. Named Rachel, Phoebe, Toast, Grits and Gravy, they were like a little pack of puppies. They were curious and unafraid of me, a new visitor, who had all kinds of tantalizing straps, cords, and cables to chew on. If I set off at a pace, they followed me. They tasted my fingers and my ponytail, and Arnoldo took a photo of a hoof print on my shoulder. (In truth, I feel like that could be a dog print too, because Waffles was super friendly as well.) And while they were uninterested in my car, the goats clearly felt very comfortable scaling Willis' vehicle, and making themselves at home.
Everywhere I turned on this ranch, there was something intriguing, historic, beautiful, or thought provoking.
Willis and his partner, Ariel, kindly invited me to a cookout they were having with Arnoldo that evening. Arnoldo made carne asada and charro beans, and I learned more about Willis' work. One of his projects is simply compiling a database of services available in the area, and it's been a challenge. Because of the aforementioned societal failings, a patchwork of services has developed, provided by different government agencies, nonprofits, and churches. But even identifying and navigating these services is nontrivial -- some might provide only to residents of the county, others only to minors, another to low income residents, others to seniors. So it's not always simple when members of Willis' team try to refer their clients to help. Hence, Willis' database.
One thing that impresses me is that Willis goes to where the need is. He found Arnoldo in his truck, in the parking lot of a shopping plaza. I have tried to connect Arnoldo with various services since I met him, but most of them require Arnoldo to make a phone call or a visit, and some have curtailed services during the pandemic. And mostly, Arnoldo doesn't call, for all kinds of reasons. I certainly don't blame agencies for choosing how they spend their limited resources, and for expecting people to take some initiative in their own self care. But not everyone is in a position to do that. While it's exponentially more time and labor intensive to be out in the community, finding the people who have fallen through the cracks, that's exactly what Willis and CityServe are doing.
When I imagine doing this work, approaching people who are living on the street or in their cars, who may have mental illnesses, be addicts, or have other issues and vulnerabilities, it seems scary, and potentially dangerous. But it doesn't faze Willis. He had a difficult childhood, with violence in his home. No child should have to live through that, but it uniquely prepared him for this work. "Sometimes, the honesty makes more sense than the plastic smiles of the corporate drones" that he left behind at his last job, he says.
So often, in hearing the stories of people who've lived through trauma and violence, we think of them "overcoming" their pasts, or leaving them behind. But Willis is framing it in a different way --using his past as his secret superpower that lets him enter situations with a deeper level of understanding, resilience, and wisdom. And he says the work is therapeutic for him, too. I find this so inspiring, to think that survivors can potentially leverage their trauma into a hard-won advantage.
As the traditional time for feasting and gathering is upon us, I am reminded that this year will be difficult for so many -- people who will be lonely, who won't have enough to eat, and who may not have a job as we move into a winter with more shutdowns and disease looking likely. So I'm especially grateful for people who dedicate their lives to helping those who are overlooked or forgotten, and who remind us that we can work together in very tangible ways to make life better for everyone.
That was probably my last shoot with Arnoldo -- I already have a rough assembly of the documentary, and it's already too long! (Stay tuned in early 2021 for more information about it's release.) But I'm so glad I got the chance to visit this beautiful place, with people who are doing good work, and to receive the attentions of puppies and dwarf Nigerian goats.