Derrick Soo stared into his phone, waiting for the BART train to pass overhead before pushing the “live” button on his Facebook page and launching his face out into the streaming world.
“Hello Facebook, we’re coming at you live,” Soo said, snapping into a smooth broadcast voice. “This is the journey home.”
Soo is no typical broadcaster. His studio isn’t your typical broadcast digs. For the last month he’s been streaming live segments from the East Oakland homeless encampment where he has lived since 2014 — the year the wheels fully came off the cart — completing his precipitous fall from successful business owner to street dweller.
“We’re going to be talking about some issues that really affect the homeless,” Soo told the 89 viewers tuned into his feed.
Soo began his daily broadcasts to detail life in the streets and document his journey to find permanent housing through a myriad of East Bay agencies.
His on-air subjects have included details about a recent robbery attack on his camp, his own struggles with depression and the clearing of a large nearby encampment beneath the shadow of the Oakland Coliseum, displacing dozens.
“Unless you’re living like I’m living right now,” Soo said reclining in a plastic chair, “you’re not going to know how tough it is out here.”
Reminders of regular life thunder overhead every seven to nine minutes as Bart trains pass by — a sound Soo doesn’t even notice anymore. He said three friends have died in the streets since he began living at the end of a gritty industrial street tucked in against train tracks.
“What Derrick is doing,” said Oakland homeless advocate Ken Houston,” is the closest that you can get to living on the streets — it’s the closest by experiencing what he’s doing.”
On a recent day, Soo’s broadcast centered around a small wooden shelter he planned to deliver to a homeless veteran displaced by a recent encampment removal.
“What I’m hoping for is to bring more awareness to this issue,” Soo said in between broadcasts. “And to get the right people noticing what’s happening out on the street.”
Soo’s camp reflects the means and skilled wherewithal of someone who fell from the working world: His tent boasts a full-size refrigerator, a cooking grill and a working television. A pump powers a spigot for his sink and there is a working solar shower. He said years of camping prepared him for life outside.
But in the brutal and soulless East Oakland streets - his camp is just the best of the worst. Before Soo started receiving $895 monthly SSI payments his dwellings were much more lean.
“Before that money became available,” Soo said, “I literally lived on the ground behind a hedge with a little bit of plastic as a roof.”
Yet Soo’s monthly checks still aren’t enough to afford an apartment anywhere in Oakland, let alone pay for anything beyond rent. Instead he uses his money to support his makeshift comforts — while helping others keep their own heads above water.
“It’s all about survival out here man,” said Soo’s roommate Sam “Ham.” “Some people take a little thing for granted like water. Water is like gold out here.”
The meager lifestyle is a bottomless drop from the life Soo once lead: He owned his own construction company, two homes, and a pair of boats. A heart condition forced him to retire and close his business. His marriage went South and then the company holding his investments folded in the recession, taking his entire life savings with it.
He moved-in to his father’s home in Oakland. But when his father had a stroke and later died, the house was sold off to pay the medical expenses. Soo’s last safety net vanished and he cascaded into the streets.
“When I first came out here I had nothing but the shirt on my back and my dogs,” he said.
Soo stood in front of the offices of Operation Dignity — a homeless support group in Oakland — posing in front of his iPhone and sending out a live feed onto Facebook. He detailed his just-ended meeting with the agency, his filing of requested paperwork and the slight glimmers of hope he might be able to eventually secure housing.
A counselor with one agency recently told him the search would take more than a month — probably more than six months — most likely more than a year. Other agencies hadn’t even returned his calls.
He ended his live report and clicked off the phone, the pangs of frustration still intermingling with a persistent sense of hope.
“What I want people to understand is that this isn’t an easy life,” Soo said. “This isn’t a life for anybody — nobody should go through this.”