Editor’s note: Some of the images below contain graphic content.
Mac Oson heads into his kitchen for an afternoon snack. He offers his guests – me and a photographer – some tea.
Oson decides on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and starts pulling the supplies from the shelves.
The scene and many of the things surrounding it – the rooms that shoot off from the kitchen, the carefully swept floor – are pretty banal, except for one thing: Oson’s place is a homeless encampment underneath a bridge on Friars Road.
The kitchen shelves were dug out of the trash. The “rooms” are separated by shower curtains. Cars zoom along overhead.
The peanut butter jar bears two homemade labels. One says “Did you wash your hands?” The other: “Pls keep this jar in the kitchen. – The Mgmt”
Oson considers himself the management.
For months, Oson and as many as a dozen others have lived under the Friars Road bridge. Many come and go.
Oson welcomes visitors to the sanctuary he’s created.
“This is like a fortress under here,” Oson said.
He’s built a stairway to a makeshift suite for himself that’s filled with artwork and keepsakes.
Oson sees this place as a safe zone. It’s less chaotic than the downtown encampments that often break up by 6 a.m. or those nestled in canyons that can be hazardous to those who live in them and those who try to disband them.
Oson, a trained cosmetologist, offers visitors haircuts and meals in the kitchen. They often bring food to share, and Oson enjoys cooking it.
“Anybody that comes in here, the first thing he asks is, ‘Are you hungry?’” said Jon Cotterman, who lives in the camp.
(Oson’s best dish, said Cotterman, is his chorizo and egg burrito. Pasta and rice dishes are mainstays.)
“We don’t go without,” Cotterman said.
Oson and his companions work hard to keep it that way.
They search for food wherever they can find it, including in dumpsters.
And when visitors leave, Oson cleans and repairs what’s broken. He straps on a headlamp and sweeps or arranges the trinkets that decorate the space.
He and others in the camp regularly combat erosion. Vibration from passing cars is constant and the rocky undercarriage of the bridge often shifts. Sometimes pieces break off.
Oson – who declined to reveal his age – knows he won’t be able to continue this work forever. He increasingly suffers from neuropathic pain in his feet, a symptom he fears means he’ll soon have to confront the diabetes that runs in his family.
For now, though, it’s worth it.
Fostering a small community gives Oson purpose.
“I’m really helping,” he said.
Oson and his companions store items for other homeless people that can’t be lugged from place to place. They keep watch over one another’s belongings when they leave the camp. They often sit together and talk.
“Under here it’s not like the other [encampments],” Cotterman said. “It seems like the others are always ripping each other apart and fighting. Here we get along and we look out for each other.”
That includes short-term visitors.
On my first visit to Oson’s place two weeks ago, I met Curtis Rodgers. He was living under the bridge for a few days after El Niño rains flooded his camp along the riverbed.
Rodgers said he immediately went to see Oson, who offered refuge from the rain.
“Here is a lot better because you’re not out in the elements,” Rodgers said.
The rains brought uncertainty for the bridge encampment, too.
The Friars Road bridge is surrounded by two large apartment complexes, and the development manager for one of them feared the area could be flooded.
Civita residents also told property managers they were concerned about frequent comings and goings from Oson’s encampment and shopping carts left around it, said Mark Radelow, the Sudberry Properties vice president who oversees Civita.
In December, Radelow hired the nonprofit Alpha Project to clean up trash that had piled up in the area and to talk to Oson and others about relocating before rains hit. They offered to connect the group with services and gave them items to shield them from the rain.
“That was the point where we said, ‘Hey, guys you have to move. You can’t stay under this bridge,’” Radelow said.
Oson’s now resigned to the fact he’ll have to leave someday. He just doesn’t want to.
“I feel safe here and I’m not causing any problems,” he said.
In the past few weeks, a gated wrought-iron fence has gone up on Civita’s side of the bridge. Radelow said he plans to speak to the managers of the complex on the other side of the bridge about putting up a fence there, too.
Radelow said he hopes Oson and the others in his camp will move into a shelter or more permanent housing.
“It‘s unfortunate, and I’m sorry that this place they’ve made a home, they can’t keep,” Radlow said.
But Oson and the others in his camp don’t believe a shelter would be an improvement over the life they’ve built.
Here, they’ve got a kitchen and shelves filled with food. Oson’s got his own suite with a futon; the others are comfortable in their tents and rooms. There’s space for Oson’s artwork. He and the others take care of one another and don’t have to deal with the curfews or other rules they’d have at a shelter or in many housing programs.
“I think we live a lot better than certain people do and it’s because I put the effort in,” Oson said.
All photos by Jamie Scott Lytle.