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Life after the Jungle: One woman's struggle with homelessness

Isabel Angell
Tami Cockrell, 27, and her boyfriend Leonard outside Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose.

In early December 2014, the city of San Jose tore down the Jungle, a homeless encampment thought to be one of the biggest in the country. One of the people evicted from the Jungle was 27-year-old Tami Cockrell. I met her that day as she was pushing a shopping cart away from the Jungle, piled high with everything she owned. She was crying because she couldn’t find her boyfriend.
About a month after the Jungle was dismantled, Tami Cockrell and her boyfriend Leonard are at the Sacred Heart Community Service center in San Jose, to pick up a bag of food. They do this twice a month, Cockrell explains, waiting in long lines for groceries and used clothing.

“We both don’t have jobs right now, and we do what we can everyday. I mean, it helps,” she says.

Cockrell has to wait in one line just to prove it’s her designated day for pick up. Once she gets the proof, she can wait in a second line for food. There are two choices: cooked and uncooked.

“We don’t have a refrigerator or a sink to constantly wash our dishes. We don’t have those things that you normally would if you have a kitchen or a house, so we’re kind of frugal for the most part,” Cockrell says. “You know, chips, junk food, soda, water. I mean we can’t have too much because we’ve got to carry it. It’s hard.”

They have to carry it because Cockrell and her boyfriend have been on the move since December. That’s when San Jose officials bulldozed their home in the Jungle.

For a while, they had to find a new place to pitch their tent every few days. Right now, they’ve set up camp under an overpass. Things are more stable than they have been-- but that could change at any time, Cockrell explains.

“Because you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day, and when you’re in your own little campsite the city can come take it away from you anytime because you’re trespassing or you’re not supposed to be there. Or the people that don’t pick their garbage makes it harder for everyone else that does because they don’t want to see a bunch of garbage, you know what I mean?” she says. “So having to change location every couple days sucks, especially when you accumulate more stuff every day.”

Cockrell says her possessions include things like blankets, food, and clothes.

“So it’s harder because you got to pull it around and you’re doing it on bicycle and foot and it sucks but you got to do it,” she says.

Cockrell grew up in the South Bay. She says she’s from a middle class family. But she started using drugs as a teenager.

“I mean I make stupid decisions, but I learn from them,” she says. “And if I make the same mistake twice, it just means I might not have learned-- I might not have learned as fast as I should have you the first time.”

She had a baby when she was 20. Her boyfriend Leonard’s not the father-- Cockrell says the dad was abusive. Her son is now seven years old. When her parents decided to move to Oregon a few years ago, Cockrell was homeless. So she sent her son to with them.

“I mean I miss my son, but I’m glad that I made the responsible decision to have him go with my mom so that way he wouldn’t be tainted and have to see me struggle and be upset,” she says.

Cockrell and her boyfriend make it to the front of the first line. This is where they get the piece of paper entitling them to their bag of food. But they run into a problem: their zip code.

The man behind the desk tells them the zip code they put down isn’t serviced by this Sacred Heart location.

“Well I don’t really have a zip code. I’m homeless,” Cockrell tells him.

The man tells them they need to write that down instead. When Cockrell tell him they had put down the Jungle as their address, the man says “The Jungle doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Well, we know that,” answers Cockrell, “because we’re on the street.”

After some back and forth, Cockrell gets the piece of paper and walks to the back of the second line. She’s already been here an hour. It looks like it’ll be another thirty minutes at least before she gets to the food. I ask her if she sees a way out of this life.

“I want to go back to school, but it just sucks, you have no stability, it’s hard,” she says. “I want to go get two jobs right now but I don’t have anywhere to live, I don’t have anywhere to shower, anywhere to relax or cook a decent meal or sleep in a warm house to where I don’t get sick, you know what I mean? It’s just those small things that count that make it hard, you know?”

Her boyfriend says he’s going to use the bathroom, and after he leaves Cockrell starts to open up.

“It’s just hard. I just hope and pray that it’s going to get better soon because me and Leonard we’re so stressed out and I feel sometimes like we’re starting to give up, but I look at him and tell him that we’ll be fine and we just keep going, something good will happen, no matter what.”

I ask her what giving up would mean.

“Me and him separating, because my mom and dad won’t allow him in the family,” Cockrell explains.

Leonard has a troubled past-- he’s been on the streets since he was 12 years old. He was homeless when Cockrell met him. But she’s devoted to him, so she decided to stay with him in San Jose, homeless, instead of going with her parents to Oregon.

Cockrell finally gets to the front of the line. The woman behind the counter hands her a brown paper bag. She opens it up right away and starts eating-- a bologna and American cheese sandwich and a pack of chocolate frosted donuts. It’s her first food of the day.

“There’s been times where I haven’t eaten for five days. Barely had water. I’ve lost a lot of my hair,” she says.

Food in hand, they finally head back outside. Cockrell sits down on a ledge next to their bikes and opens up a cream-filled pastry.

Once she’s eaten, Cockrell starts to relax and talks about life in the Jungle. While she says the stability of the encampment was nice, the Jungle had its problems. First of all, it was disgusting-- mud and trash and human waste everywhere. And it was scary.

“You hear girls scream in the middle of the night, you know, you hear dog fights, gunshots. Anything, like anything you could think wouldn't happen to yourself you would hear at night time,” she says. “And you just pray to God it’s not you.”

Cockrell said she felt pretty safe in the Jungle with her boyfriend around. They had even built a little wooden shed where she would lock herself in at night. A lot different from the tent under the bridge where they live now.

But to get into a more stable life --and ultimately, get her son back-- she needs to stay off drugs. She says she’s been clean for a couple of months.

“It’s been really hard because nothing’s getting better for us everyday and it’s so easy emotionally to use drugs and take away all those feelings and just be able to just float through life,” she says.

Another thing Cockrell says is hard? Hygiene. 

“There’s times when I’ve been so desperate as to actually shower myself in a restaurant toilet, or to actually go into a creek or to actually sneak up on someone’s front lawn and use their water hose,” she says. “There’s so many things when you’re desperate, you’d be surprised what you do.”

Then Cockrell says she’s tired, and they still have to go to the welfare office in San Jose to try to get an appointment with a social worker. They get on their bikes and Leonard holds the bag of food with one hand as they ride away.

Cockrell hasn’t answered her phone since this interview.

To hear this story, please click on the audio player above.