Bay Area Rapid Transit, better known as BART, runs all over the Bay Area, across city lines, school districts, and even bodies of water, connecting people from all walks of earth. For just a few dollars, some of the wealthiest in the world are linked to some of the poorest. My story starts on BART riding from Downtown Berkeley, home to social activists, students and academics alike, to Hayward, a city ranked highly for its diversity of ethnicities, languages, and people. Riding on BART, it is easy to see the disparity among neighborhoods and from stop to stop. The Bay Area is undeniably at an interesting point in its history. It is home to the tech industry while concurrently seen as home to one of the most prolific human trafficking rings in the United States and plentiful domestic violence cases. It is difficult not to wonder if the two are not connected — especially with regard to the hegemonic, male-centered society that perpetuates inequality and pay gaps.
The housing crisis in California has an epicenter: the Bay Area. Rents have spiked. Jobs have been lost. Startups have replaced family-owned local businesses. The tech industry and all that follow with this prospering but exclusive industry have taken over, leaving thousands of people without homes or financial security. What was once centered in Palo Alto has seeped its way into Oakland, Hayward, and Richmond, and with that come unmeasurable consequences for the previous residents of these cities. It is now nearly impossible for low-wage earners to live in a place they once called home. Currently, as The Mercury News has noted, “it would take four minimum wage jobs to afford an apartment.” Stress of financial insecurity leaks into daily lives and has the ability to create cycles of violence as well as of poverty. The gender and racial pay gaps have sustained a trend of women having to depend on men for financial security. This, along with the notion that women are categorized to perform care work, an industry that is exploitative and unfairly waged, leads to dependent relationships that make independence nearly impossible.
I did not think about this on my BART ride from Berkeley to Hayward. I was thinking about my walk from the station to the women’s and children’s shelter where I volunteered two days a week. I was thinking about how to be discreet as I entered the building, as the shelter’s location was to be kept private. I did not want to compromise the safety of women and children at the shelter or my own. I was told that it was not uncommon for perpetrators to look for the women and children they abused.
Abuse comes in many forms, including physical, emotional, and financial. To go to one of these shelters means you have run out of options. You are unable to be financially independent, and you have to seek shelter and help from a place that will not charge you. However, shelters can only house a certain number of women and families, and thus the turnover is fast and often due to violations of protocol, such as missing curfew or not going to counseling sessions. When this happens, these women lack options. Abuse makes everyday tasks such as keeping a job difficult and holding a job complicated. Therefore, when women and their children have to leave these shelters, they are often forced to return to their abusers.
In the economic climate currently at play in California, and more specifically in the Bay Area, this is amplified. If women want to leave their abusers and take their children with them to start a new life, that takes money. That takes resources. Resources and money are not abundant for these women in the Bay Area.
I remember working with a family during my time there. The mom had three kids, one 17, one 4, and an eight-month-old baby. I grew attached to all three, working with each one on different projects during the three months they were in the shelter. One week, I was helping the 17-year-old look at community college applications and reading stories with the younger two, and the next week, they were all gone. I asked my co-worker if she knew where they had gone, with my fingers crossed — hoping maybe that the mom had found a job and they were going to live somewhere new. Sadly, she told me that their mom had broken one too many rules and that they had been asked to leave. They had returned to the father of the two youngest children, the very man that had forced them to move to the shelter. I was horrified. My colleague told me that survivors return to their perpetrator an average of seven times before fully escaping — if they ever do. I have never been able to verify that statistic, but it travels with me every day. At first I was frustrated with their mother, for taking them back into that toxic environment.
However, over my course of time at the shelter, I began to have a different view. I realized that my frustration came from a privileged point of view, and that privilege had clouded my judgement. These women, more often than not, are women of color, and they are not given the same options as I am and as are so many white women and men are, due not only to systematic racism, but also to the tech industry shifting the job market away from what people are used to and away from their learned skills. This is not to say that the tech industry has not brought about positive change in some respects, but for these women in the Bay Area, this shift has led to financial insecurity and increased vulnerability.
Riding home on BART each afternoon gave me time to think over my experiences at the shelter and what I had seen and heard from the women and children living there. They knew what was happening to the job and housing market, and they knew that the forms of abuse they were experiencing were toxic for themselves and their children, but they also knew they had to survive and they had to protect their children. It is nearly impossible to escape systems of oppression and to fight for justice when you have to think about what you are going to put on the table each night. Despite living in a city where the tech industry is closing down local businesses left and right and bringing in more privileged people to gentrify block after block, I have no doubt in my mind that women will resist, and women will persist in the cities they call home as long as we give them the space to be seen and heard.