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One Richmond Family Rides Out The Pandemic On A Converted School Bus

Meiying Wu
Constance Johnson

In the third month of shelter in place, some people are anxious to go outside and see friends. Others have to think about where they’ll park their home each night and how to get clean water for showers. Constance Johnson and her kids have been riding out the pandemic on a converted school bus in Richmond.

Constance Johnson and her two kids, David and Miracle, moved out of a homeless shelter in Richmond last December, two months before the pandemic hit. Their new home wasn’t a house or apartment—it was a refurbished school bus. Johnson bought it off Craigslist for $7,000 a couple of years ago and built it into a home with the help of UC Berkeley student volunteers.

“My mind was just, this was like it. A bus? I could live on a bus.” 

The bus means the family has privacy for the first time in years. Before moving into the bus, they spent three years bouncing between different homeless shelters in the East Bay and their car. 

“It got more and more nerve-wracking, I wanted to take a shower to clean myself, clean my children. We would go to the gas station, people looked at us strangely and I would drive, and I would drive,” Johnson says.

After moving out of the homeless shelter in December, the family is still adjusting to life on the bus. Figuring out where to dump their compostable toilet and how to get clean water—tasks that were much easier before the virus. The last thing the family needed was a global pandemic.

As soon as the shelter in place order comes down, Johnson starts recording her family’s experience on the bus.In the first week of COVID-19, Johnson doesn’t really believe in the virus yet. It’s still such an unknown. 

“But other people believe in it around me. To me it’s just so pitiful. I just got to say it, it’s just so pitiful. What happened to chicken soup? You know, what happened to knowing how to take care of ourselves.” 

Not being able to work affects Johnson more than the virus itself. Before the pandemic, Johnson was looking for a job as an in-home care provider for elderly people. But since shelter in place, this is another thing she’s had to put on hold. 

“I can't get a job right now because people are not working. People are being told to be shut in…What are we going to do when we run out of the money?”

Because the bus doesn’t have running water, Johnson relies on weekly runs to the store to buy big jugs of water for showers and washing dishes. But since the pandemic hit, those gallons are hard to come by—like toilet paper there was a rush on water. 

“That stresses me out more than the virus. I'm trying to get out of the situation, my water does not work. I have to lug water, I have to buy water but we ran out of water,” she says.

In the first week of shelter in place, Johnsno moves the bus in front of a community garden in Richmond. She calls it the Peace Garden. In exchange for sweeping and watering the plants, the owner tells Johnson she can use the hose to refill her water tank. After she lugs the water from the garden, she boils it for hot showers. 

“People got to stay clean,” she says as she washes Miracle’s hair over the sink.

Finding a job and getting clean water are challenges but in week three of shelter in place, Johnson receives heartbreaking news. Her pastor died. Before shelter in place, the family spent every Sunday praying with him. He even blessed the bus before they moved in. She doesn’t know how he died but assumes COVID-19 had something to do with it. And because churches are closed, she couldn’t say goodbye.

“When my pastor passed away. It shook my faith,” Johnson says. 

As California moves into the 2nd month of quarantine, Johnson is mourning the loss of her pastor and missing church. But she’s feeling grateful that she got the bus to call home just before the shelter in place order. 

“I chose life when I chose to live on the bus. When people right now today say I need to get off this bus and get an apartment, I can get section 8, that’s what someone else created. This is what I created,” Johnson says.It's my sanctuary.”

The family hasn’t had to move their bus every two days during the shelter in place, like they did before the pandemic. They’ve been able to call the garden home spot home—in Richmond, the city where Johnson grew up. 

But In the first week of June, Johnson hears a knock on her door. It’s the police, ordering the family to leave because they’ve been parked in front of the garden for more than 72 hours. A neighbor reported she was dumping her trash on the street. She says she was not dumping.

“I wanted to cry like a sadness You know, because the officer was saying that I had to leave and this area that I live in, it was so safe. I felt so safe here. It was like, no gunshots whizzing by,” Johnson says. “Where do I go? Where can I find peace again?” 

Johnson’s encounter with the police occurs less than a week after the Black Lives Matter uprisings erupted all across the country, protesting the murder of George Floyd and police brutality against Black communities. 

“I'm counted as three fifths of a human being still today. And I want everybody to know, I have served to self determination. And I never was three fifths of a human being.” She says. ”I just want the chance to feel what it feels like to not have folks around you that don’t want you.”

Johnsono moves away from the garden. But she finds a spot a few blocks away — a chicken farm.

“This morning I heard the rooster crow and that just clue to me that I'm in a different place,” she says.

She still goes back to the Peace Garden to take care of the plants and fill up her water tank every week. But she wants something more permanent for her family. She’s tired of being asked to move the bus everytime she finally feels settled in one spot. Even though she was born and raised in Richmond, she’s making plans to leave the city after the shelter in place order is up. 

She envisions finding a piece of land where she can invite other indigenous and Black unhoused people to come and live. Families that have also faced extra challenges and stress before and during COVID-19. 

“It’s a lot, it has a water source. And it’s clean. It’s not contaminated. It has a lot of trees and flowers and rocks and grass land and stuff like that. A place where a person can have an RV park and grow vegetables,” she says. 

She wants a place that’s entirely her own. One she created.

“I want to move away to the home that’s in my mind. To a place where there’s peace.”

Crosscurrents COVID Updates